In 2014 Natalija Walbridge took a giant leap of faith to leave corporate fashion design to pursue her passion of creating ultra-premium accessories which fuse high art and elegant function. By converting her home along Duluth, Minnesota's picturesque Park Point to a silkscreen printing and sewing studio, Natalija created Dock5, an innovative, entrepreneurial business which combines Natalija's talents for creative pattern making and sewing engineering with original, handmade prints.
Dock 5's launch collection was inspired by Duluth's famous Aerial Lift Bridge, which perfectly exemplifies the intersection of art and function. This same fusion of art and function informs every Dock 5 creation. Each bag is hand-crafted to exacting standards, using materials that will age gracefully and perform for a lifetime.
See Natalija's work at the upcoming American Craft Show at the St. Paul RiverCentre April 20-22! Put on by American Craft Council, this event consists of more than 230 top contemporary jewelry, clothing, furniture, and home décor artists from across the country. More details about the show here!
What drew you to working with textiles? What sets it apart as a craft?
I have always been drawn to sculptural media. In my early college years at St Could State University, I explored ceramics, glass blowing and lost wax metal casting. In 1985, I moved to San Francisco to complete my studies and landed a job as an assistant to a local knitwear designer. This was the first time I realized that my lifelong passion for sewing and fashion could be elevated to an art form. I continued working for small design studios, as I completed a degree at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
I am passionate about fashion as an art form because it is a way for people to bring art and self-expression into their everyday lives. Working with textiles provides the opportunity to fuse two-dimensional surface design with the three dimensional design of the finished form.
What was the transition from corporate fashion design to what you're doing now like?
Corporate design teams can be an incredible opportunity to combine talents, but too often the creative process can be bogged down by challenges in the larger organization. Now I enjoy the more nimble process of building a small business where I can manage many different roles on my own. Since starting a business requires a tight budget, everything is DIY—including design, production, marketing, sales, customer service, accounting, photography, website design, booth display, and social media content. I think of it as “firing on all cylinders.” It’s invigorating to use all of my talents and to continually learn new skills, as my business evolves and grows.
Have you always been creative? What forms or channels have you explored in your creative journey?
I’ve been drawn to creative projects my whole life and was lucky to have had many unique learning experiences. My grandmother, who was from Latvia, taught me traditional motifs in needlepoint and card weaving. My mother was also talented with needlework. She organized a monthly club with friends in order to exchange ideas and teach one another new techniques. One of our neighbors taught me how to sew doll clothes, and another neighbor gave me lessons for creating a sampler of all the embroidery different stitches. In my early teen years, I attended the Duluth Open School, where art classes included building our own darkroom for photography and Raku kilns for ceramics.
All of these experiences, and many more, became the foundation that set me on the path to become an artist; together, they instilled in me a passion for life long learning. Since I’m grateful to have had these experiences, it’s my time to help the next generation by supporting arts education. I’ve been a guest artist at Minnehaha Elementary School, and have donated Dock 5 bags to art auction fundraisers for the Duluth Art Institute, Art for Ed’s Sake, Many Rivers Montessori School and Marshall High School. Currently, Dock 5 is involved in a Brand Development group study project sponsored by the UMD Student to Business Initiative Program. Most importantly, I hope to be a role model to show that it is possible to work as a full time artist.
You talk about the fusion of art and function in your work. Can you speak to that?
My work celebrates the integration of art and function. The incorporation of functional art into our daily lives allows us to interact with art directly and personally. That integration is more than just having beautiful things around you, it's also about seeing the innate beauty in function itself.
Oscar Wilde famously stated, “All art is useless,” meaning that the value of art is independent of function. While I agree that art need not have function to have value, I do think that each enhances the beauty of the other. Art enhances function but function also enhances the art. What’s more, the fusion of art and function encourages us to see the simple beauty in our own daily tasks and movements.
Often my inspiration starts by meeting people who visit my Dock 5 booth at art fairs. It’s always interesting to hear about their visions of the ideal bag, and I’m able to see the types of bags people use and what they need to carry.
I keep these conversations and observations in mind as I develop patterns and prototypes. For example, the standard messenger bag is sized to hold an iPad or other tablet device. The laptop bag is the most complicated design, as it includes an interior divider, light weight aluminum buckles and ballistic weave nylon side gussets and bottom. Durability is a critical consideration for choice of materials and for sewing construction. Even the print is durable, using a discharge ink that is heat-set to bleach the design into the fabric surface.
The combination of a printing and sewing studio is what makes Dock 5 unique. I create illustrations that are sized to just the right scale for each bag size - which for screen printing requires a balance of line width, screen mesh size and ink viscosity. The art inspiration is found in my own backyard, ranging from fiddlehead ferns and chickadees to the Aerial Lift Bridge that is my access to greater Duluth. The art creates an emotional connection for many customers who enjoy exploring Minnesota nature and our iconic historic architecture. Dock 5 bags are often a conversation piece, giving people a chance to share their Minnesota stories. And who doesn’t love a good story?
What is your connection to Minnesota? Why is local important?
I grew up in Duluth and moved away after high school to find better job opportunities. After 23 years in San Francisco, I made the decision to move back to Duluth, with the idea that a lower cost of living could help make it possible to start a business. It took several more years to gather my courage, but in time I realized that life is too short not to follow my dream of building an artisan business. So in 2014, I took the leap of faith to launch Dock 5 by converting my small home into a full time studio.
Over the past four years, as Dock 5 has grown, I have been truly amazed by the cooperative spirit in Duluth. There is a renaissance happening here, with so many new businesses launching, and an ever-expanding art scene. The sense of community spirit has created an atmosphere where making connections and collaboration is more accessible here than it is in many larger cities. As a hometown gal, I’m truly honored to be a part of creating this vibrant future!
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
In this age of disposable, fast fashion, many people are seeking alternatives that are both more sustainable for the environment and support their local economies. While the quality of a Dock 5 bag is noticeable at first glance, it’s the unique art, inspired by the natural beauty of northern Minnesota, that makes people fall in love. Many people enjoy outdoor adventures and want to carry those memories back to their busy lives. Dock 5 is a functional memento of these experiences and a conversation piece that keeps nature as part of our dialog.