April 28, 2017

The History of Portable Culture


From 1990 until 1999, my business was my retail store/workshop in downtown Santa Cruz, California. For not quite ten years, I walked or rode my bike to work everyday (I only drove once!), along with my dog Faux Pas. Initially, I built every bag myself right there in my shop, though I eventually found a contract manufacturer in Minnesota (Battle Lake Outdoors) to do some of the heavy lifting. Those were some great days -- did you ever hear the story about the margaritas and the cops? I digress...

At some point in the middle of all that, the artist Rachel Strickland approached me about her Portable Effects project. Her idea was to document what it was we all carried around with us everyday -- what folks now call their EDC, or Every Day Carry. She was interviewing a wide variety of participants, as well as building an installation in the Exploratorium* in San Francisco. As someone who made bags, would I be willing offer my perspective on what people carried? Sure I said, though at the time thinking “Hey, I just make bags -- what do I know?”

A decade later, at TOM BIHN headquarters, we were kicking around ideas for a new tagline for the labels that we sew onto our bags. I was reflecting upon Rachel’s project, thinking about what is it that we carry with us, and realizing that our stuff, our EDC, is arguably an embodiment of our personal culture. Then, Darcy came up with “Portable Culture” as our way of reflecting that the stuff we carry everyday, including the bag in which we carry it, can be a small window as to who we are.

A few years ago we let the tagline slip quietly off the label, but some folks said they missed it, and we realized we did too. So here it is again: “Portable Culture” is back on the label, and back in our hearts too.

We're working with Rachel to see if we can recover footage of my Portable Effects interview. In the meantime, you can watch the other Portable Effects videos here (Rachel's newer work is also on her Vimeo channel).

*The funny thing is, in the years since Rachel’s Exploratorium installation, I have become somewhat of a wonk about what people carry in their bags. I suppose back in the 90s I thought of myself as more of a bag artiste. But I’ve grown up a little bit, and now I see the broader importance of what I do. And part of what I do now is listening to what people ask for in their bags, and even more importantly observing how folks interact with their bags. So it’s evolved: I’m still a bag artiste, but also now a bag engineer and bag anthropologist. More curious still to me is a personal tangent: I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Frank Oppenheimer and his ideas about science, technological literacy and democracy. Just a couple of years ago, while reading American Prometheus, my father reminded me that Robert’s brother Frank was the one who started the Exploratorium. It’s almost as if it’s all related... ;)


Al - November 19, 2019

Wow, as a college freshman starting in 1996 at UCSC, I probably walked by the Locust St. store many times and never realized the awesomeness I was walking past. Walking through downtown Santa Cruz now is completely different compared to how it was in the 1990s.

Alan - November 19, 2019

Interesting you mention Battle Lake Outdoors. By coincidence I have a couple of their bags and they are extremely well made, no wonder they could make products to your standards. As much of a bag fan as I am, Battle Lake seems to have a very low profile. I stumbled upon their stuff somewhat accidentally and later discovered they have a booth at the state fair each year. I’ve never seen them mentioned anywhere else.

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We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.