Holiday special: Made by hand

In a Big Box world, gifts created by artisans and craftspeople offer a more personal feeling

The thought of handmade gifts evokes sweet memories of a child's finger-painted masterpiece or a great aunt's knitted sweater. But even for gift-givers who don't paint or knit, seeking out well-crafted, handmade gifts can lend a personal touch in a world of Big Box stores and mass-produced items.

Local shops offer a wide array of handmade items for everyone on your list:

For art lovers, multi-color pumpkins in rich hues ($47-$100) from Avolie Glass of Mountain View and hand-blown vases, paperweights and perfume bottles in contemporary and art deco designs ($212-$380) from Davenport's Lundberg Studios are among the offerings at Shady Lane in downtown Palo Alto.

The store features handmade pieces from Bay Area designers as well as artists from other countries, but co-owners Alice Deutscher and Lesley Obermayer especially enjoy supporting artists who live nearby.

"Local is fun," Deutscher said. "That's what we're all about."

The University Avenue store was founded more than 35 years ago to sell local designers' work. The quality and the diversity of the items in the store reflect the owners' artist roots and creative sensibility.

Shady Lane always stocks a few Tiffany-style lamps ($249-$525) from Santa Cruz artist Jim Forsell, who has pieces in the Smithsonian Institution. The lamps feature brightly colored glass and designs such as flowers and butterflies.

"The lamps add an ambiance in colors that make you happy," Deutscher said.

For those preferring a more natural aesthetic, Joy Imai, potter in residence at Special Handling Pottery in the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park, focuses on earth tones inspired by the garden. Imai's wheel-thrown, soda-fired vases ($50-$95) and mugs ($25-$28) display designs of flowers, leaves and birds.

Imai expects that her ceramic birdhouses (about $58) will be big sellers this season.

"This area has a really big interest in the environment, and there is a big birding population here," Imai said.

Imai's Japanese wish boxes ($35-$38) might make a whimsical gift for children and adults alike.

"I got the idea from a Japanese childfolk tale," Imai said.

The boxes come in rich colors and feature images from nature, such as sky blue, moss green and amber with dragonflies, flowers and gingko leaves. Inside each box is a piece of rice paper for writing a wish.

Special Handling Pottery also sells cards, bookmarks and signs by Inja Ink Calligraphy that could make thoughtful stocking stuffers ($2 and up). Bookmarks painted with watercolors or pastels and inscribed with inspirational quotes like, "With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown," would complement the gift of a book or add a special touch to a holiday card.

Animal lovers might enjoy the variety of quirky, handmade gifts at the Carriage Stop at Roger Reynolds Nursery in Menlo Park, where Sophie, the fluffy, white dog that belongs to store owner Sally Halstead, greets customers. There are felt pillows decorated with Scotty dogs and bones ($33) and dog angel ornaments -- dogs with wings holding hearts and Christmas trees ($12).

The Carriage Stop also sells fanciful ceramics and small, decorative boxes created by Southern California artisan Abby Peterson, who grew up on a farm. Her "Chicken Snowman Box" ($25) and red-and-green checkered box topped with a smiling, sweater-clad bear ($25) could be used for storing trinkets like spare buttons or paperclips.

For those seeking a bit of fun, the University Art Annex in Palo Alto carries playful gifts, such as froufrou-trimmed, fingerless gloves ($25), brightly colored felt hats made by Robin's Hoods, adorned with flowers and jewelry ($50-$150) and "party hats" by Pink Toffee -- metallic headbands topped by items such as 3-D decorated Christmas trees and pink cupcakes with ballerinas.

For an ecologically friendly gift, the Annex carries Attic Journals, mostly blank books with covers and a first few pages from old books that have been recovered from estate sales and libraries. The one-of-a-kind journals have titles like "Better Homes and Garden Afterwork Cookbook" and "The Custom Look," which features interior designs from the '70s.

For the best gal pal on your list, how about a hand-tooled, vibrantly colored leather owl purse ($89) by Sunflower, perhaps matched with an owl, cat or pineapple coin purse ($18)? Both are sold at Therapy on Castro Street in Mountain View.

Therapy also offers small leather goods ($32-$118) handmade by Hobo Bags.

"They come out every season with a unique palette," said sales associate Nika Clelland. "They are such high quality that everyone who works here owns one. Something like a wallet is the perfect gift for a husband to get his wife because every time she takes it out, she will think of him" -- giving new meaning to the phrase: "It's the thought that counts."

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