Meet Four Talented Makers Who Are Shaping Bull City Style

Meet Four Talented Makers Who Are Shaping Bull City Style

From building furniture and making child apparel to redesigning spaces and remodeling homes, these four Durham creatives share their inspirations

Photo by Briana Brough


Furniture designer and builder Elijah Leed is distinctive in both in his design philosophy and his journey. “Some makers are very material driven,” he says. “They see a piece of wood and want to make something specific out of it. I’m more interested in the overall form of what I make and if it will appeal to a variety of people and settings.” Rather than one-off designs, Elijah’s goal is to create pieces that are functional, sustainable and universal. “They are made to last, so the design needs to be timeless.”

Elijah grew up in West Virginia and attended Centre College in Kentucky. After completing his degree in studio art in 2008 with a focus in glass, Elijah moved to Durham and began blowing glass with Leigh Hayes. Shortly after, he started working with metal and wood. “I really got my start with metalworking in Jackie MacLeod’s and Andrew Preiss’ metal studio in the old Liberty Warehouse.” He also became involved in metal casting at Liberty Arts, the nonprofit studio behind “Major,” the bull statue downtown.

He continued working with the group at Liberty Warehouse and in a small workshop across the street (now The Rickhouse), and started making furniture in 2010. When the roof fell in on the warehouse the following year, Elijah joined forces with a group of other artists to create new studio space for Liberty Arts in the Cordoba building at Golden Belt.

In 2014, he opened his own studio on Mangum Street, and today, with the help of two full-time employees, he produces modern furniture and accessories, many of which are custom designs. Elijah enjoys working with other local craftspeople to help fabricate, upholster and make projects come to life, including frequent collaborations with metal worker Ben Sheehy of Bampro LLC.

He has also remained heavily involved with Liberty Arts: Earlier this year, he and Leigh opened the glass studio there, which Elijah manages in addition to teaching classes.

Elijah notes that the mid-century influence on his work is intentional. “The designers of that era were more free to say, ‘this is what we want to do,’” he says. “They knew that in traditional terms it was considered wrong or unexpected, but I think doing something a little different is a good thing.”

Though he doesn’t have a favorite designer, he was influenced by both the graphic lines of Jun Kaneko’s glasswork and the organic shapes of Richard Serra and Martin Puryear’s large-scale, nontraditional wood and metal sculpture.The latter was especially interesting to Elijah; he says Puryear approached his work as a complex craft, but also without regard for the rules of any particular art movement.

Elijah plans to add more upholstered options to his furniture offerings as well as an expanded line of lighting options. “I will also be exploring adding a line of glassware to my collection.” – Morgan Cartier Weston

Elijah’s work can be seen around Durham in both residential and commercial interior design projects, including all three Cocoa Cinnamon shops. He also made 250 glass pumpkins to be sold at the Liberty Arts Open Studio Tour and Sale on Saturday, October 14, noon-4pm at 918 Pearl St. And mark your calendar for another Liberty event: Durham Central Park and Liberty Arts Sculpture Studio & Foundry present “The Iron Furnace,” a free, public iron pour, at the park November 18. At sunset, 1,500 pounds of molten, 2,500-degree iron will be poured into molds, in an exciting fiery display, also with Liberty Arts artists’ work for sale, drumming performances from Batalá, a live DJ, art, raffles, and local food trucks and craft beer.

Alicia and her husband, Roger, who assists her on home rehabilitation projects from time to time, belly up to the bar at Beyù Caffè. Photo by Briana Brough


Alicia Hylton-Daniel has always been delighted by the concept of design. “I especially love the kind of thoughtful processes that go on behind the spaces we use every day.” Born in Jamaica, Alicia moved to the United States when she was 7, and she grew up on Long Island. “My first years in North Carolina were spent in Raleigh in the historic Oakwood area,” she says, where she attended Shaw University.

Alicia loved the relaxed atmosphere of the South, but life in Raleigh “wasn’t quite a fit.” After earning a degree in criminal justice, Alicia moved back to New York City, where she worked as a paralegal and contemplated law school.

When she and husband Roger relocated to Durham in the late ’90s so Roger could complete his second master’s degree at North Carolina Central University, they finally felt like they were home. “I have always been drawn to Durham, so it was interesting that even though I was working with a firm in Raleigh, my first preservation project was here,” she says. The Hill Building, now home to 21c Museum Hotel, was the first of many marks Alicia would leave on downtown.

Alicia’s interior design career formally began in 2008, after a house fire. “I became curious about how buildings are put together, interiors are thought about, spaces are planned,” she says. She became a commercial interior designer that year and has since obtained her general contractors license. She’s also involved in the Durham chapter of the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC).

Most recently Alicia worked for MHAworks, before deciding to forge her own path this year. While she is fond of commercial design work (restaurants are her favorite – she designed Beyù Caffè and The Lakewood) she feels especially energized by the residential jobs she has taken on.

Her most recent residential project in Lyon Park was also her first ground-up build. “The original home was too close to the road and built on a dry stack foundation – it was remarkable that it was even standing,” she says. Alicia met with additional challenges along the way, including city regulations, which were strict about the footprint, so Alicia had to figure out how to build a modern, functional home in the exact same square footage as the existing structure. The result was to completely demolish the home and rebuild 30 feet behind it. “It was a great experience that set the stage for me going out on my own,” Alicia says. The new home is only about 1,200 square feet, but maximizes the space through clever design, warm features and a large outdoor entertaining area.

She is currently working on a late 1940s home for the woman who inherited it, as well as Mattie Beason’s permanent food truck rodeo at the Shoppes at Lakewood. When she’s not at a job site, Alicia is working from her home office or enjoying life in Old North Durham with her family. She lives in a 1930s home on Trinity Avenue with Roger, daughter Chloe, 12, and yellow lab Malcolm. Another daughter, Chelsea, 19, is studying classical piano at University of Texas – Austin; Chloe attends Durham School of the Arts. “There’s just something so comfortable about living here in Durham that I can be completely honest and let my guard down.”

Alicia credits other makers in the area for inspiring her. “I’ve had great support,” she says, “from fabricators at Thompson Joinery … and from the women of NAWIC – we’re always networking and supporting each other.” Being a woman general contractor can have its challenges, too, so Alicia appreciates seeing more females entering the construction industry as project managers and carpenters. “I think in the next 3 to 5 years, we’ll see a big increase,” she says. “This is a great time for women to get into the field – we’re changing perspectives and showing that we can actually be makers.” – MCW

Rachel and Chris with their children Noa (far right), Titus and Emett. In addition to her roles as mother, maker and physical therapist, Rachel also helps plan events at Oak Church, where Chris serves as reverend. Photo by Briana Brough


“Screenprinting was my first foray into being any kind of maker, and to be honest, it has endeared me to this city even more,” Rachel Breslin says. She, with the help of husband Chris, started Bullpin Apparel – responsible for those super cute “Adore-a-bull” and “Small Things With Great Love” onesies and children’s shirts, among other designs – about five years ago, shortly after moving to Durham and just before eldest daughter, Noa, was born.

Originally from New Jersey, Rachel grew up in Florida and met Chris while both were attending the University of Florida. After majoring in exercise physiology and marketing, respectively, the couple relocated to the Triangle, and Rachel earned her physical therapy masters at UNC while Chris attended Duke Divinity School.

Noa, now 5, is in kindergarten at Excelsior Classical Academy. She and her brother, Titus, 3, and sister Emett, 2, are the inspiration behind every design. “When I was pregnant with Noa, I realized the favorite gifts I received for her were always the handmade ones,” Rachel says. The quality and creativity behind those pieces energized her, and she decided to learn how to screenprint.

“Screenprinting became a wonderful creative outlet,” she says, “but … I never planned on it being a business – I just wanted things for Noa that I liked and felt good about.” When people started noticing the designs and asking Rachel where they could buy them, she thought there might be an opportunity to share her creations as a business. She’s grateful for the growing interest in Bullpin Apparel. She and Chris are expecting a fourth child in December, but this time, they will be adopting.

“It has been a challenging, but amazing experience,” she says. “My dad was adopted, so ever since I was a teenager I knew this was something I wanted to do.”The adoption process has taken several months, and the proceeds from Bullpin have helped the couple as they navigated home studies, legal requirements and adoption fees. “We didn’t know when or where it would happen, but we knew we wanted to keep our kids close together in age, so we are grateful and so excited for this baby to join our family.”

Rachel describes life in Durham as an unexpected adventure – especially when she sees kids around town wearing her designs. “I want to say hi to them and tell them, ‘I made that!’” she laughs. “This is such a wonderfully welcoming place to people who are exploring new and creative ideas. It’s been a huge time of growth for me, and I look forward to where the journey takes me next.” – MCW „

You can find Bullpin Apparel at The Mothership, Bulldega, Pine State Flowers, The Women’s Birth & Wellness Center in Chapel Hill, and on Etsy.

Ken and his wife, Ericka, outside Morgan Imports. Ericka was Ken’s first employee at CQC Home, and now his brother and mother-in- law also work for him, making the business a true family enterprise. Photo courtesy CQC Home


The first job Kenneth Combs had in construction was as a senior at Northern High School, picking up trash on job sites. “I just did miscellaneous work for anybody – cleaning up, picking up lumber, hauling stuff,” he says. “Just being a general laborer. I was working in the evenings and weekends, and then also going to school full time.” A few years later, the hard work and humble beginnings would pay off as he began the process of starting his own company, Custom Quality Carpentry, in 2011, which he incorporated as an LLC in 2013. “That was about seven years ago now,” he says. “I decided to go from swinging a hammer to becoming a business.”

His first employee was his wife, Ericka – they now live in north Durham with their children, Kayla, 10, Hunter, 7, and Liam, 5, all of whom attend Voyager Academy. “I have a distinct memory of when she was, six or seven months pregnant with my first daughter, I remember being on a job site, and she was holding the other side of a 2-by-4,” he says. “She’s pretty much always been involved in the business.” After the first couple years, the company started to grow fast. “Three years later I had about 10 employees, and in 2014 we changed the name to CQC Home as we transitioned into a full-service design/build company.”Then they added an office and showroom on Guess Road, “a one-stop shop where customers can pick out their cabinets and counters and all their tile and selections… and then we can handle everything from start to finish.” CQC Home is at 24 employees now, and still hiring – “we’re always looking for remodelers and project managers” – with about 10 projects in construction and 20 in design at any one time, ranging in ticket size from $10,000 to $500,000.

“Our long-term goal is to be the largest remodeler in North Carolina,” Ken says. “Every day, we’re adding more customers and more clients. This year, we’re probably going to do just around $5 million [in sales], and we’re going to try to get to $10 million by 2020. That’s going to probably mean opening up a second division in the Chapel Hill and Chatham County area, which is on the horizon for early next year.”

But before Ken owned a thriving business, before he fell in love with fixing things, the Durham native grew up on Holloway Street at the Agape Corner School with his older brother, Michael. The inner-city boarding school had about 35 kids at any one time, grades kindergarten through 12, giving them a home if their parents weren’t able. Ken’s dad wasn’t in his life, and he would see his mom a few times a year. “I was there till I was 13, and that was back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when Durham still had a lot negative cliches around it.”

He uses that time and knowledge to fuel his passion today. About 90% of the work CQC Home does is in Durham, and Ken admits he’s partial to improving Durham structures specifically. “I just love taking old things in Durham and bringing them back to life, whether it be a historical renovation or just taking things that are dilapidated and making them safe and clean and healthy again,” Ken says. “Every day, we get the opportunity to make Durham a little better than it was yesterday, and we love that. It’s what drives us.” – Amanda MacLaren