25 Years of Native Trails
Veering off the beaten path has always served Native Trails well. It’s been 25 years since Naomi Neilson, then an intrepid college student, started the company in 1996.
As a young girl, Naomi often traveled with her family to small rural villages in central Mexico. She was enchanted by the skill and creativity of many of the artisans there. She was also struck by their often poor living conditions. “There was a ton of skill and talent, but that wasn’t always appreciated locally, and I saw how hard it was to make a living as an artist or traditional craftsperson,” she says.
She started to dream about how the artisans’ lives might change if they had consistent access to a broader market, where people would really value their work and traditions.
While still a college student at Cal Poly, Naomi began driving her van deep into Mexico, planning her route around centers of pottery, copper, beadwork, silver, and other traditional crafts. “There are dozens of different towns, each focused around a particular type of craft,” she says. “I was determined to explore as many as I could, and meet the artisans. Sometimes I would drive on potholed, dirt roads for 10 or 15 hours to get to a renowned artisan village, only to find that there was nothing to see, because they were used to trekking their wares down the mountain to market. No one else was crazy enough to go all the way to them!”
Before making the drive back to California, Naomi filled her van to the brim with her discoveries, sometimes arriving home just before class. Initially, she would sell her wares by setting up booths at festivals and craft fairs, then she entered the wholesale market as she started to reach out to retailers.
Naomi began to work with the artisans more closely, designing more functional items from the traditional craft techniques, and soon her focus turned to home décor based on fun and funky folkart. Her customer base included museum shops such as the Smithsonian and Field Museum, cruiseline gift shops, and home décor and gift shops throughout the U.S.
Naomi then got inspired with the idea of taking a sink to the next level, and successfully commissioned a few copper sinks from artisans who had been working with the metal for generations. In 2002, Native Trails’ next phase officially began, as it moved toward specializing in artisan crafted kitchen and bath products.
When Native Trails launched its first line of copper sinks at the National Kitchen & Bath Show in 2003, it was a smashing success: “People had never seen anything like it. Our booth was so crowded that there was no room in the aisles, it was crazy and exhilarating!”
Sink sales rose exponentially after that. The company hired a number of sales representatives to expand its reach in kitchen and bath showrooms throughout the U.S. and Canada. Brushed nickel sinks soon followed , as did copper tubs, all of which continue as part of the brand’s core products today. Through the manufacturing of its hammered copper products, Native Trails enables generations of coppersmiths in Mexico to stay in their homes and find stability, rather than seeking it elsewhere. Children are learning the craft of their parents and grandparents and continuing the artisan legacy.
As Native Trails continued to grow, Naomi and her team started looking for other materials that might have an undiscovered second life to live. The brand partnered with local craftspeople on California’s central coast to turn old fences and structures of the past into beautifully textured bath furniture. Due to the widespread appeal of these pieces, the skilled woodworkers and furniture makers are able to make a good living out of their craft, taking on apprentices, spreading their knowledge, and growing their impact.
In the years since, Native Trails has expanded its offerings to include several collections of hand crafted bath furniture, sinks and bathtubs in a wide range of sustainable and often recycled materials, reflective of artisan traditions in countries across the globe. “What really drives me is creating beautiful products using age-old techniques, products that are design driven and relevant,” says Naomi.
“We’re always looking for products that have a story behind them,” she says. “An authentic story that we feel good about, that draws us to it. Everything we do, ultimately, is about creating positive impact, so the who, where, how and why about a product’s origins is what we’re looking at when working on something new.”
In search of another sustainable material with a story behind it, Naomi and Native Trails President Tim Blair spent weeks in Vietnam, hiking to remote villages, exploring cities both ancient and modern, and researching factories and workshops. In 2014, Native Trails launched its groundbreaking eco-friendly NativeStone concrete sinks and freestanding tubs. With its smooth, cool texture and naturally industrial appeal, the NativeStone collection embodies strong handicraft tradition and deep-rooted artisan culture.
Today, Native Trails is a sustainable kitchen and bath manufacturer with hundreds of highly skilled artisan collaborators in places such as Mexico, California, Vietnam, and Italy. It ships its award-winning products to more than 1,300 showrooms across the U.S. and Canada and delivers products for hospitality projects around the globe.
The company earned its B Corporation certification in 2019 and takes extensive measures to ensure it runs its business both ethically and sustainably. Each day Native Trails continues to make it possible for artisans to continue their artistic traditions while creating pieces that bridge cultures. Through its Community Trails program, the company and its employees make an impact in their community through volunteerism, donations, and other companywide “giving back” initiatives.
In 2020, as quarantine prompted people everywhere to invest in their homes, Native Trails’ continued sales provided stability not only for its staff during the pandemic but also for hundreds of artisan families in communities and homes around the world.
Around that time, Native Trails also brought yet another storied material into its portfolio with the release of its Murano Collection. The glass sinks are crafted on the island of Murano, just off the coast of Venice, Italy, which has been celebrated as the center for glassmaking in the modern world since the 13th century. The colors and patterns of the collection are created in the molding and spinning process, and each glass vessel sink is expertly hand-formed, giving each piece its own personality as an irreplaceable work of functional art.
In celebration of Native Trails’ 25th anniversary, the brand launched the new Italian-made Precious Metals Collection in April 2021. Arguably its most luxurious collection to date, Precious Metals includes two kitchen sinks, one bar sink, and two bath sinks, all crafted by Italian artisans of fireclay and finished with genuine precious metal glazes. These pieces are available in 24k gold, platinum, and of course, silver, in honor of the company’s silver anniversary.
For the past quarter of a century, through all the growth, one thing at Native Trails has remained consistent—using business as a force for good in communities and homes around the world.