“I’ll go out right away,” I heard muffled somewhere nearby, then echoed into my phone. A door creaks open and I turn to see Andrew McAteer emerging from the basement stairs to greet me on a quiet suburban street in Astoria, Queens. I follow him up the concrete stairs, paying attention to the low clearance in the studio space. Entering his basement transformed into a studio, we can straighten up, although the clearance is barely enough to accommodate the craftsman himself who stands a few inches above six feet.
The space is an open hallway set with fluorescent lights that shine between metal pipes crawling above like ivy. Illuminated iron sewing machines stand at attention, tucked away beside clickable tables with scraps of leather hidden underneath. The opposite wall is lined with industrial shelves lined with weathered tools and cardboard boxes filled with je ne sais quoi. It looks like a workshop for half a dozen craftsmen. In fact, the space previously housed a family. Now its only occupant is McAteer. It was once segmented into pieces, but over the years as the building superintendent he tore down the walls one by one to reveal what would ultimately be the AE McAteer Studio as we saw it.
“It was an interesting trip, for sure,” McAteer says. “It all happened periodically. Every once in a while it was like, okay, I have to tear down another wall or pour some more concrete and put more lights on.
McAteer is a New Yorker. Not the kind that claims the title after reaching their fifth year here, but the kind whose family has been here for five generations. Her childhood home was built in the mid-1800s. This one, along with the rickety wooden boat her family later acquired, was still being repaired. Between his father’s woodworking and his mother’s gardening, McAteer learned fundamental home improvement skills that he would eventually use with his own brand of leather goods.
He continued to acquire skills, learning from a carpenters union in Virginia specializing in cabinet making and antique restoration. Soon after, McAteer started making his own furniture and was eventually recruited for a country furniture company. This new access to materials such as leather and canvas directly influenced his own creative projects.
“At first I made a weird bag,” he says. “And, the first place I went was the Freeman’s Sporting Club.” This unexpected encounter with the buyer of the popular Lower East Side men’s clothing store resulted in the first order of several from McAteer.
Rightfully so, its most popular product is a leather toolbox. Made of full-grain vegetable-tanned leather, the case is held in place by hand-set brass rivets. It looks good enough to be displayed in full screen, but it will look even better with heavy use, as expected. He also makes all-leather slippers with felted wool insoles and leather bowls with brass handles. They are both more delicate but also related to home improvement. On its website, a leather briefcase stands alongside a bucket bag and a tote carrying logs, each with its own elegance.
But, what first caught my attention were her moccasins. They don’t look like anything else. Angular but rustic with weight and manual work, they look home-made in the best sense of the word. The style was inspired by vintage WWI French boots that had been cut below the ankle by a veteran. It turns out that McAteer is also passionate about vintage.
The recent wave of handcrafted products has created schools of craftspeople, many of which started out as McAteer, making belts and wallets from leather. But what sets McAteer apart from the rest is his relentless need to keep going. Unlike do-it-yourselfers who rarely venture beyond leather card wallets, he makes eye-catching shoes constructed with his own carved wooden shape.
“Everything I’ve done so far has happened in a very organic way,” he says. “It allowed me to grow slowly, to prepare things and to be able to do it without having to outsource. I was able to keep watch on everything.
Currently, McAteer is developing lace-up shoes. And just like he has done with his other products, they will start from scratch. For now, the chunky Ridgeway soles he uses, the same soles used by custom shoemakers like Edward Green, are imported from England. But before you know it, they’ll be from Queens, designed and cast by McAteer.
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