I first encountered Nik Palmer’s work when Googling Vancouver-made luggage. His brand, Palmer & Sons, makes briefcases, backpacks, suitcases, belts, and cuffs from leather, with French-polished wood, brass, and stainless steel. Everything is built to order by hand, using traditional tools, no machines. Unique, yet absolutely familiar, they’re the kind of accessories one gleefully starts telling friends about.
Except the time to buy is running out: Palmer is still making bags, but he’s thinking about moving on. It’s what he’s always done. The style of his bags, and the company name, suggest a lifetime of craft, learned at his father’s knee, but in fact, he has only been working with leather for a decade or so. Born in the north of England, he first trained as a chef and then became a video game developer, working for Rare, a British company that in Palmer’s time, made some iconic games. He moved to Vancouver in the early 2000s to work for Electronic Arts, then set up his own video game company before branching out into leatherwork. Now, he lectures on visual analytics and rapid prototyping at Vancouver Film School and runs workshops on how to make sourdough bread and pasta. What do these seemingly disparate pursuits have in common? A desire to create—sometimes digital, but these days, mostly analogue. “It’s important that we do things with our hands,” he says. “Even if we could have a robot that makes perfect food, you still need the human element—telling stories through the things we make.”
The specific thing that Palmer loves about making bags is the challenge to stay totally in the moment—the pure focus. “For a $1,000 bag, you’re starting with $300 worth of leather,” he says. “Say you didn’t clip your thumbnail before you started working, or there’s a loose screw on your workbench so you scratch the leather—the whole thing’s ruined. It has to be perfect. Not everything in life does, but my bags, they do.” So why is he stopping? “I’m just coming to the end,” he explains. “I’m not bored, but I’ve taken things as far as I can without scaling up and selling out. Otherwise I’d have to sit down and work with people who don’t have the same ideas as me and that’s the worst thing you can do with your life.”
Palmer will be 52 this year, but he won’t be slowing down. “Some people my age are thinking, ‘If I can go another 12 years I get my pension.’ I’ll be working till I cave over, and that’s a fact.” By his reckoning, teaching is his fourth career, and he might have two or three left in him—a bit of this, a bit of that, things that allow him to create, work intensively, and then take long breaks to travel with his partner and daughter. “I have this thing about Japan. It stems from when I was a kid and my mum had a book called Japan Today, which was published by the Consulate. It was the image on the front that got me: just a greyscale picture of Mount Fuji,” he says. “What interests me is the culture and the people. I’ve been seven times in the past two years, just to go there. There’s lots of things I see that I aspire to. The way they’ll still spend three days making something that anyone else would just buy. That’s the thing with my bags too. That Japanese idea that they can be perfect, so why not.”
See Nik’s leatherwork and place an order at Palmerandsons.ca. Construction times are up to four weeks for bags and suitcases, and two weeks for cuffs and belts. The website also has information about his pasta- and bread-making classes, which are held at his Vancouver studio.
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