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November 22-29, 2006

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Dunderdale's gift emporium

Photographs by Carlie Statsky
Made in Santa Cruz: Dunderdale's gift emporium started life as a catalog back in the early '90s.

Cruz Control

Wharf shop proprietor Dohna Lee Dunderdale sees her Made in Santa Cruz emporium as Santa Cruz's goodwill gift ambassador

By Paul Wagner

Umbrellas. Lurid umbrellas with giant graphics, Elvises and Betty Boops and Golden Gate Bridges. Umbrellas with chocolates, roses and sunsets, swaying upside down from a thousand square feet of ceiling, ready to repel the winter rain. Umbrellas made of see-through woven fabric, so that gazing upward to gauge the rainfall still involves seeing roses and sunsets. Yep, umbrellas.

At least that's the first thing I noticed when, looking around for locally flavored gifts, I made my way out to the retail outlet Made in Santa Cruz.

Maybe it was the sensory foreplay induced by cruising out to the shop, past the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf's last rightward bend, and disembarking into the stringent salt air, the endless cavernous honking of sea lions, the imperious strutting of seagulls along the railings, and the presence of endless steel contraptions whose purposes only a seasoned wharf rat would know.

Regardless, upon entering the gray-walled and red-awning-decorated ship, sandwiched between Stagnaro's and Marinis, it was the giant 4-foot overhanging umbrellas (priced around $30) that first stood out. Next was the sheer volume of goods that Made in Santa Cruz has stuffed into its 1,000 square feet. Every bit of ceiling, wall and shelf oozes goods, and racks occupy all the space they can while still allowing winding aisles.

Two entire walls disappear behind replicated vintage tin signs, from the Skyview Drive-In to a Gay (Double-Edged) Blade shaving-goods advertising sign. Row after row of handmade 5-by-5-inch tiles, depicting area Boardwalk carousel horses, Northern California missions and sea-life scenes, run around the upper walls. And between the rows stand out glossily painted metal sculptures by Jim Krueger and Larry Langley, with parrots, lilies and arching dolphins, as some of the color-saturated three-dimensional designs. And between those there still is, somehow, room on the walls for Larry Woods' framed photographs of Santa Cruz and Capitola, featuring lightning, fireworks, dawn, sunset and the brilliant light of each.

Punctuating the art-covered walls are shelves with bags, purses and tote bags. Some feature actual original vinyl 12-inch albums riveted to one side with high-exposure photos of artists--Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Madonna, to name just a few--on the other. Elvis, Betty Boop and Lucy gaze out from others. These (along with the umbrellas and the tin signs) are made by Salamander Designs, which manufactures its products worldwide, but draws all its designs from its artistic Watsonville team.

Seeking a bit of relief from the hundreds of bold graphics, I wandered into the back room--or roomlet, I guess one could call it--a space about as big as your first apartment's lesser bedroom.

But no relief was to be had, as the back roomlet is ... the Tie-Dye Room!

Let's be clear: this is not your polite somber blue and gray tea-with-Maya-Angelou batik. This is tie-dye at its most glorious early-'50s fluorescent Technicolor best: the Day the World Turned Day-Glo. Maximum-visibility, anti-camouflage, put the extra filter on the video lens stuff. There are spiral designs, crackle designs, crackled spirals, spiraled crackles, and variations too numerous to list.

Tie-dye for

Tie-dye for: Definitely not your polite somber blue and gray tea-with-Maya-Angelou batik.

It is impossible to describe, and possibly to even calculate, the number of tie-dye goods in this room. T-shirts, tank tops, short-sleeve crew shirts, long-sleeve shirts, camisoles, women's and children's snap-up jackets, smock skirts, leggings, pants and sarongs are all represented, and in every size from the smallest toddlers' to 5X. Hair scrunchies, baby beanies, children's socks, adult socks and scarf/bandanas round out the cornucopia. If there really are riots of color, this is an insurrection.

It was at about that time that the store's owner, Dohna Lee Dunderdale, became free, and we hoofed it outside to talk a bit about how this all happened.

"Actually, Made in Santa Cruz started as a catalog," she recalls, "around 13 years ago." Fascinated by the variety of unique local art, Dunderdale contacted every Santa Cruz County artist she knew, cobbled together a printed catalog of as many of their works as possible and mailed them out to every art lover she could find.

The response was good, but suddenly, six months later, a space on the Santa Cruz Wharf opened--and Dohna Lee knew that if visitors got to see the paintings, sculptures and crafts in person, it would be even more impressive. So, with a mere 500 bucks to spare, she opened. By 1995, the store had a website, and by 1996, was selling goods online, as well. And the steady expansion into thousands of items began.

How has the business changed since its inception? "Well, so many artists have moved away, and so many have retired; some have passed away," says Dunderdale. So she's found new artists, as well as new products that could be described more as crafts. And a new higher-tech set of products, from Santa Cruz electronics manufacturers, will soon grace the store shelves, as will several flavors of Martinelli juices. "At this point we've had to expand our definition to 'made or designed in Santa Cruz,' because so many things designed here are manufactured all over the world."

So we went back inside to look at some of those things. The O-ball, designed by Rhino Toys of West Side Santa Cruz, a set of hollow woven plastic balls, the materials so soft and light that they can't cause injuries to toddlers no matter how hard they're thrown. Sproingy stainless steel ringing devices that sing like tuning forks, made by a Santa Cruz-based traveling artist. Hundreds of CDs released by local musicians, from traditional country power-singer Ginny Mitchell to sophisticated guitarist/composer Philippo Franchini. Books by every prominent local writer, including Santa Cruz Is in the Heart" by well-loved local Geoffrey Dunn. And hundreds--perhaps a thousand or more -historical photographs, from pastorals to studies of swimmers in motion, collected from every possible source including flea markets by avid local history fan Roger Lau Rae.

And then, topping it all, are the traditional homespun Santa Cruz products: lotions and cosmetics from Bonny Doon Farm. Blankets and towels featuring classic beach woodies in all their four-wheeled glory. "Teapots With an Attitude," by Michael Lambert, which are fired porcelain in some of the most convincing Deco styles imaginable, simultaneously pert and elegant. Astonishing art glass, including the most bluish cobalt blue cups and vases ever, from Lundberg Studios and Strini Art Glass. An astonishing copper five-level whirl-within-whirlwind sculpture called the "Stratasphere," complete with base, by metal sculptor Roger Heitzman.

And, of course, the famous Red Dot and Blue Dot "Santa Cruz" designs, with zaggy letters on bright dots, virtually cooing the name of the town to anyone within visual distance.

What seems to brighten the eyes of owner Dohna Lee Dunderdale most of all, though, are her own light-touch but spiritual designs. We've barely mentioned the thousand or so T-shirts available at Made in Santa Cruz, but they're there, and prominent among them, along with the dozens of variations on the Santa Cruz and surf themes, are her own "Karma Is as Karma Does" shirts, along with those featuring a recognizable historical photo of lined-up midcentury surfers, all featuring green peace signs on their chests; on another variation, each sports a giant red heart. "Santa Cruz Peace Corps" T-shirts, with the slogan fronting a camouflage background--another Dohna Lee design--are due in soon.

And to round it off is her design for a unique product--a portable heating and relaxation pad. Named the Za* Zen, it's filled with California-grown rice and Bonny Doon Farms lavender, and sewn together in a thick, sturdy 100 percent cotton case. The thick but foldable throw goes into a microwave for two to four minutes, heats up, and when placed over the shoulders, or chest, or feet slowly releases heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Dohna Lee's daughter Rita assembles and super-stitches the pads, so it's a Santa Cruz family design from start to finish. They sell, she says, like hotcakes.

So does the store carry every possible local product? Not quite, says Dunderdale. She's turned down designs and products with less than family tone--depictions of wounded animals, or nasty people.

"I'm so honored to have the name 'Made in Santa Cruz'--I want the shop to be honorable, to reflect an honorable place." And it does.

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