What Minnesota-made décor accessory is being sold in a Paris boutique and touted in publications ranging from Vanity Fair to Harper’s Bazaar as a handcrafted object of desire? It’s a canoe paddle.
Wooden paddles painted with colorful, nostalgic designs by Winona-based Sanborn Canoe Co. (sanborncanoe.com) have become a darling among decorators seeking a little Up North authenticity. They’ve become the bestselling product for a company that started out making paddles meant to propel a boat, not be an accent piece for a country home.
Sanborn Canoe was started by 30-something cousins Todd Randall and Zak Fellman, who were inspired by their grandfather’s stories of building wooden canoes. The cousins built their own cedar-strip canoe in 2009 and used the extra wood to make paddles. They liked them so much they began to make more, selling them to local gear companies.
Their first paddles, hand-shaped out of laminated wood, were designed to be used on wilderness trips. But while on a trip to Voyageurs National Park, the cousins saw an image from a painting depicting 19th- century voyageurs using paddles with painted blades. That inspired them to create a line of “artisan painted paddles” in 2012 that proved to be more popular than their performance paddles.
Featuring an old-fashioned shape and simple painted patterns like arrows, crosses, triangles, stripes or a Paul Bunyan-inspired plaid, the $200 paddles have been embraced by outdoor-wannabes and won mentions in House Beautiful, GQ and Teen Vogue magazine. “It does feel a little bit weird to be in Teen Vogue,” Randall says.
Now about two-thirds of the 3,000 paddles that Sanborn Canoe makes each year are decorative, according to Randall. If you’re buying one just to show it off, the company makes wooden and leather brackets to hang your paddle.
“Paddlers like things that look good,” Randall says. “We get out in the outdoors because it looks good.” The painted paddles don’t have the carbon fiber-backed blades or bent shafts of Sanborn’s high-performance models; most of them probably won’t see the great outdoors. But they’re still functional, Randall says. He hopes that some of the people who buy them as decorative pieces will be inspired to actually get into a boat.
“It makes you dream a bit,” he says. “They’re a tool as much as a piece of art.”