It was the British designer William Morris, leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement, who said: ‘Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.’ It’s a mantra that could sum up The James Brand’s approach to knife design. And though Morris’ intricate motifs are somewhat at odds with The James Brand’s minimalist aesthetic, both would have shared another common belief: in the power of design to improve people’s lives. The James Brand understand that the reason people carry knives is because they are useful – or at least, they should be. You carry a knife to solve problems in the now, from opening a box to slicing an apple.
So, when it comes to deciding on the best knife, it’s quite simple: the best knife is the one you carry, every day. To us, that makes perfect sense – especially living somewhere like the UK, where knife laws are far stricter than in other countries such as the USA. We can’t really see the point in owning a 12-inch Bowie knife, for instance. When would you ever use it? That’s why we feel such an affinity with The James Brand. They don’t make gaudy, showy, over-built knives. They firmly believe that less is more. They are minimalists. However, that doesn’t simply mean that form follows function. After all, your knife says something about you. It is an expression of your character.
That philosophy was ingrained right from the start, when The James Brand was first created in Portland, Oregon back in 2012. Based on the old adage that if you can’t find what you want, you might have to make it yourself, they decided to put pen to paper and design something altogether new: practical, utilitarian pocket-knives made with premium materials, a minimalist design aesthetic, and clear attention to the details.
Portland was a natural place to set up shop. The trailblazing hub of the rugged Pacific Northwest, the city combines outdoors brawn with creative brain. It is home to dozens of craft breweries and outdoor apparel brands. But Portland is also home to a well-established knife-making industry that includes some of the biggest names in blades – including ‘knife-nut’ cult favourites Benchmade, CRKT and Kershaw – as well as major tool brands like Gerber and Leatherman, plus a host of small artisan makers.
In many ways, putting themselves amidst such enviable company was a bold move. And Portland is also a city that has attracted a lazy ‘hipster’ tag. That was another risk, since the people behind The James Brand didn’t have roots in the knife world. They were skaters, snowboarders, fishermen, barbers and photographers. People for whom ‘everyday carry’ meant a myriad of different things. But that was the point. It helped to give the brand a different perspective on what a pocket-knife should look like.
Ryan Coulter, founder of The James Brand, is one such example. He is a man who has owned, carried and used pocket-knives all his life, but he is an industrial designer by trade – with stints at ski brand Burton and global sportswear giant Nike under his belt. When it comes to product design, he takes his craft seriously. He’s also very frank about what he saw as the major problems with the modern knife industry back in 2012: ‘From a design positioning standpoint, most of the knife world just started to break into two chunks. There was the hunt/fish world that generally involved things that were really over-built, over-designed, overly-ergonomic with camo handles and gut hooks and blood grooves, and then there was stuff that was really tactical, which felt like it was a weapon and not a tool’.
Both of those approaches were entirely at odds with the way that Coulter used knives. ‘The way I always grew up with these knives in my life was that they weren’t weapons – I mean, that was maybe a last resort – but they were super handy as everyday tools to do things from slice an apple, to dig a root out of the garden, to open the mail, to clean out your fingernails: they’re just a thing that you have handy all the time.’
The first James designs – like the Chapter, a classic folding frame-lock knife – were largely the product of Coulter’s imagination, reflecting those everyday use cases. As the brand has grown, however, it has started to take a collaborative approach to product development, rather than being led by a single designer’s concepts. That has meant getting input, ideas and feedback from the brand’s staff and partners across the globe.
The result is a modest yet surprisingly diverse product range. The Chapter was soon followed by the slip-joint County, a contemporary take on the gentleman’s folder. In the knife world, moving straight from a frame-lock style to a slip-joint was a daring move. But caution isn’t in James’ DNA. Eight years on from the company’s beginnings, the James knife family now includes nine different blades, each distinctly different, yet united by a common aesthetic. In addition, the brand has looked to ‘own the pocket’ by creating a small, considered range of other essential everyday carry items, from key carabiners like the Hardin, Mehlville and Holcombe to stylish pens like the Benton and the Stillwell. There’s also a very useful little multi-tool based on the timeless silhouette of a bottle opener, which the brand has named the Halifax – presumably after the provincial capital of Nova Scotia, Canada, rather than the town in West Yorkshire.
Still, the company’s output is hardly prolific. That’s a conscious decision, as Coulter explains. ‘Our philosophy has always been to make less stuff and make that stuff better. I think one of the things that was really and is still confusing to us is, if you thumb through the catalogue for one of the big knife competitors, they are often hundreds of pages deep. It’s really hard to figure out what would be the right product for me or anybody based on that’.
With that in mind, we’re interested to see where they’ll go next. The man leading the charge is CEO Mike Hoefer. Hoefer came to the company in 2017 after building his career at Nixon watches and cult outdoor flasks and utensils brand MIZU. He was brought in to bring The James Brand to a different type of user. ‘Whether you’re in the office, at home or on an adventure, it is our goal to design a knife that you can universally carry with you’, he explains. ‘The James Brand is positioned with authenticity in the creative, modern, outdoor and action space. We are looking to cement ourselves by introducing a new category to those who may think of knives only as tactical tools or for hunting and fishing exclusively’.
But the company is also working hard to win over potential customers from the notoriously snobby knife world. It has to be said that some of the early knives off the production line were criticised for their fit and finish, including by one well-known Youtuber, who has a large following among the knife community. Others were sniffy about the premium price points and the use of ‘old-fashioned’ tool steels in TJB blades compared to more modern compounds. The brand has taken all that on board, while defending many of their design decisions. Hoefer says: ‘It’s critical to us that we make products that the classic “knife nut” would love and carry. The community is very tight knit and has very high standards. We’ve been welcomed by the crew and they have helped us along the way to make each product better. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing one of our knives alongside of many of the makers that we respect and admire’.
Oh, and one more thing – the name. Who exactly is this ‘James’ guy then? Hoefer reveals: ‘James is a fictional character – a crossover of James Bond, James Dean and Captain James Cook. These are all people that would definitely need a knife in their pocket every day. People who would want a knife that looked amazing, worked great for a wide variety of EDC tasks and was just as well suited for the pocket of a tuxedo as it was clipped onto a pair of coveralls. These people are not Jim or Jimmy. They are James. They are committing to higher risk, but also higher reward, activities. Living a life that we sort of all aspire to live’. Preach.
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