Against the Grain

Red Hot Handbags


     Denise DeRose’s exquisite handbags don’t come from a fabric-strewn atelier. They’re born in her Oakland wood shop. DeRose is one of the only artisans in the country turning wood into wearable art.
    Having inherited her father’s lathe in 2002, DeRose joined the mostly male ranks of woodturners, honing her craft on bowls and traditional turned forms. But when she saw a woman at a crafts fair carrying a bandsaw box as a purse, the light went on.
    “Here was something no one had done, a new problem. By exploring the challenges of a functional wooden handbag, the accomplishments would be all mine,” she says.
    With sawdust in her hair and sensible shoes on her feet, DeRose is admittedly out of step with the world of high fashion, but she approaches the design process with the same passion for aesthetics and human parameters of any couturier.
    “A lathe creates a round form. How do you start with a round form and not have them all look the same? The handbag should not be too heavy or too precious. In the case of a clutch, it should be easy to hold. A shoulder bag should not stick out too far from the hip. It should close securely,” she says, ticking off handbag basics.
    A handbag designer would work out all those engineering problems once and send the pattern off to be mass produced. But DeRose is creative in every sense of the word — she plays with novel shapes and combinations of elements (shells, metal, bamboo, wood burning, paint), but she also needs to execute the design with her own hands.
    Creativity, in both the physical and mental sense, is the flip side to DeRose’s day job as an attorney with Intel, a world of logic that only appears physically as black curtains of small print. She describes creating something “real” as a biological imperative, on par with breathing.
    “I don’t feel like I’m really doing anything unless I can see it and hold it in my hand. It’s enormously satisfying to have made something that did not exist before, and that only exists now because I conceived and executed it.”
    The desire to constantly solve new problems, explore new designs and have total control over production is, unfortunately, an inefficient business model. “If I was going to make money at this, I’d need an easily repeatable design, but I’d bore myself,” says DeRose. “After the third production of any one design, it’s a job. So, I’m always working on the first one.”
    Handbags have expanded DeRose’s creative horizons from the confines of wood turning to the world of collectible handbags, with relevant side ventures into wood selection — she often uses cast-offs from luthiers or no-longer-fashionable burled redwood coffee tables — sewing, carving, painting, woodburning and metalwork (she casts her own custom hinges).
    As much as she needs and thrives on the creative process, DeRose wants the product to pass that joy on to others. “The most common initial response to my handbags is, ‘Oh, what fun!’ ” she says. “But I don’t want that to be the last delight. I want to surprise people with a gorgeous interior, a hidden pocket or an unexpected opening. And I want my handbags to be fine, very fine.”
    DeRose’s wooden handbags are available at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles and featured at Circle and Square in San Franciso. They will be shown in May at the Mondavi/Lodi Art League Spring Show. She takes special orders through her website,, and is in high demand as an instructor at woodworking clubs around the country. She’s scheduled to lead a symposium at the Association of Woodturners meeting in June in San Jose.