Designer Crush: Native Trails


In 1996, Naomi Neilson combined her passion for artisan tradition, sustainability, and fair trade practices to bring Native Trails to life. Combining age-old traditions with contemporary design and sustainable materials, Neilson introduced the Native Trails iconic copper sinks and today the company’s impressive offerings include concrete sinks, vanities made of reclaimed wood, and a range of home decor products. Learn more in our Q+A below.

How did you get your start in design?

Really, I saw a need and jumped in. ‘Learn by doing’ is the philosophy at Cal Poly, where I studied, and that’s what I did. My parents restored historic homes, so I’ve always been around architecture and design. Once I began working with these incredible artisans in Mexico years ago, I started envisioning contemporary designs that could bring their talent and skill to a very different market from their home region. 

What is the origin story of Native Trails?

I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a child on family trips, and I always was fascinated by the indigenous villages and their marketplaces. Over time, I began to imagine how the artisans lives would change if they were introduced to a larger market where their creations might be more appreciated. 

How has San Luis Obispo — and more broadly, California — influenced your work?

I began my company right here as a student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and knew that I wanted to find a way to stay in the area. In addition to artisans around the world, we work with craftspeople here locally who are essential to our work in sustainable product design. We salvage local wine making materials as well as old fencing and barnwood and work with local furniture makers who build bath furniture and mirrors of the highest heirloom quality – they are simply amazing. Also, it is convenient to be based right in the center of our biggest market – California.

Travel is a big part of your creative process — what have been some of your favorite destinations and how have they impacted your work?

The Caribbean, Mexico, Vietnam, Italy, Spain…those are some of my favorite places to visit, and they all have their own very unique style. I get inspiration everywhere I go – it’s all about keeping an open mind and open eyes!

What are some of the ways you celebrate and advocate for indigenous peoples and fair practices?

Promoting artisan traditions and traditional lifestyles has been the primary focus of Native Trails from day one. That is why many of our artisans are part of the indigenous populations in their regions. We often provide low or zero interest loans to our artisans so that they can grow their infrastructure. We pay them fairly for their work and we work with them to ensure safe and healthy working conditions. We work closely together to ensure business continuity for them, even when market conditions are volatile.  We’ve been told multiple times by artisans that they would have had to find another way to create an income during difficult times – basically, shut down their workshop – if they didn’t count on our loyalty and consistent business and support. Providing design guidance and access to a broad market is a highly effective way to advocate for indigenous people and lifestyles based on traditional crafts.

Who are some of your biggest personal and professional role models and why?

Patagonia is a company that I highly admire. Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, was and is a visionary who took risks in order to create positive change in the world. He and his team have cultivated an intensely loyal customer/fan base due, in no small part, to their unusually high sense of integrity and adherence to their mission and values.

Describe your ideal Sunday from a.m. to p.m.

I’d leisurely arise around 8 a.m. after my eleven-year-old son brings me breakfast in bed. Yes, this really happens! Then I’d head out to explore a new trail with my kids for a few hours. Later on, maybe a little gardening and reading, then a glass of wine and appetizers with friends at sunset before heading in for the night. 

Lightning round:

Favorite quote?

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney

First celebrity crush?

Adam Ant.

Go-to breakfast?

Over easy egg with spinach and turkey bacon…otherwise, just coffee.

Favorite musical artist?

Currently, Brett Dennen.

More news: