“THE REAL WORK of my life is making community,” says Fanny Singer, a writer, editor, and cofounder of the California-based design company Permanent Collection. “I’m only realizing it now,” she says, but “this is actually a huge priority for me.” Singer grew up in and around Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s pioneering slow-food restaurant, opened by her mother, Alice Waters, in 1971. By her own account, she remains most comfortable in the boisterous, epicurean company of cooks, writers, and artists. Permanent Collection, launched in 2016 with friend and collaborator Mariah Nielson, produces heirloom-worthy housewares in collaboration with designers and artisans, and is in large part a way to celebrate this heritage.
Community, however, doesn’t mean staying in one place. Singer defines it expansively. When I catch up with her over FaceTime, she’s in the bright London apartment she currently shares with her partner, Matt Hannam, a film editor who is working on post-production for Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” It’s 5 p.m., but Hannam won’t be home for a few hours, and Singer’s workday is in full swing. “This is around the time things start to pick up on the West Coast,” she says, “so it’s a sprint for me until he gets home.” For Hannam’s work, the pair also spent time in Cleveland this year, and Singer enjoyed the city, especially its museum. “The people who follow me on Instagram were like, What the hell, why are you in Ohio?” she laughs. But then they realized, “Oh, Ohio looks pretty good.”
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For over a decade, Singer called London home. She got her doctorate in art history at the University of Cambridge, writing a dissertation on the late work of British pop artist Richard Hamilton, whom she visited frequently in Oxfordshire toward the end of his life. The pandemic kept her from visiting London for the past three years. When I ask what it’s like to be back, Singer smiles. “It’s kind of like a home away from home,” she says. “I have godchildren here and friends, and there’s nothing like the English countryside.” Some of her friends have departed since Brexit, she says. Still, two weeks prior, she and 12 friends rented a Regency-style house in the country to cook and relax together.
Since she wasn’t planning on becoming a career academic, Singer says she had “the most indulgent possible graduate studies.” Instead of professionalizing, those years offered a chance to read and “become a better writer and thinker,” gifts she now puts to use writing art criticism, running a company, and capturing her family’s dynamic legacy — her acclaimed 2020 memoir is titled “Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories.”
The year it came out, she spent 10 months living with her mother in Berkeley as a result of the pandemic. “It ended up being kind of the best situation,” Singer recalls, because Waters was able to join in virtual book events and conversations. Mother and daughter are close, and “having access to her house and kitchen was wonderful,” both for launching the book and navigating the larger uncertainty of the moment. Though it was “easy to be in the same space” for close to a year, Singer decided to move down to Los Angeles following that period, before “we could become like ‘Grey Gardens.’”
Moving south, “which, you know, is heresy for a Northern Californian,” Singer says, felt correct. She loves being in a big city where there is also an abundance of nature and food. “There is immense diversity,” she continues. “It’s funky, and it’s dirty and imperfect, and it has so much beauty and so many artists.”
Singer now runs her company largely from LA, though members of her small team remain in the Bay Area. (Nielson is no longer with the company — she left to manage the estate of her father, sculptor JB Blunk, but retains equity and is still close with Singer.)
At the outset, Permanent Collection carried clothing and accessories reflecting Singer and Nielson’s refined, shared aesthetic drawn from their backgrounds in art and design. For a time, they even published a Permanent Collection journal, “Works on Paper,” for which they solicited work by writers and members of the culturati. Over time, the company has introduced more functional items for the home and kitchen, like a now-famous hand-forged copper egg spoon designed in collaboration with Alice Waters and made by blacksmith Shawn Lovell in Alameda, California.
‘Everything we make is made sustainably, small batch, in the U.S. or Europe.’ If there’s one thing Singer wants people to know about Permanent Collection, it’s this.
“We’ve really changed the scope of what we offer over the course of these five-plus years,” says Singer. The move toward kitchenware happened naturally during the pandemic, and felt like it made perfect sense. “Cooking is absolutely the fabric of my life, the thing with which most of my friends identify me, and the thing that gives me so much joy.”
Still, Singer plans to continue to commission functional, durable, beautiful home objects, not just from artisans but also from contemporary artists who aren’t accustomed to product design. It’s one way she keeps the work fresh and stays engaged in the contemporary art world. It’s also a way to live her politics: “We are not a curated shop of goods from other brands,” she says. “We make everything ourselves, from conception to execution. Everything we make is made sustainably, small batch, in the U.S. or Europe.” If there’s one thing Singer wants people to know about the company, it’s this — not only because it distinguishes Permanent Collection from many small retailers (who sell beautiful but often mass-produced objects), but because, in Singer’s words, “this communicates the ethics of manufacture, that there isn’t an abundance of these things.”
In the case of the brand’s semicircle cutting boards, for example, the design is modeled on an antique key maker’s board that Singer saw in a flea market in France. She found a great woodworker, Jake Pschigoda, in Baroda, Michigan, and sourced sustainable materials — in this case, salvaged local walnut wood. The process — intentional and ethical at every step — makes for a product that people can keep for a long time and feel good about, maintains Singer.
Upcoming pieces in the company’s lineup include a ceramic bread cloche by British potter and ceramicist Isatu Hyde, a wooden knife block by Berkeley furniture studio The Long Confidence, and salt-and-pepper shakers by Ryan Preciado, an LA-based designer of Chumash Native American and Mexican heritage, who makes built-to-last pieces that remind him of growing up with his Native American grandmother.
All of Singer’s work orbits the idea of home. When I ask what kind of home she imagines for herself in the future, the answer is not geographically rooted. Despite her strong relationship to California and its aesthetics, she says, “The tools I feel I acquired over a childhood living with my mom and my father, who’s also an artist, and through education and sensitizing myself to art and design, have meant that I’m pretty comfortable figuring out how to make myself feel comfortable elsewhere.”
This is among Singer’s cherished inheritances: maintaining a vibrant space, wherever she is, and a curiosity about people that enables her to keep old friendships and kindle new ones. “It was the same for my parents,” she says, “bringing people around the table, asking the people you’re interested in over to dinner, and keeping the ecology really alive and healthy.”
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Justin Chung Photographer
Justin Chung is a photographer and director based in Los Angeles. His approach to capturing subjects crosses the faculties of both storytelling and commerce — always keeping people at the center of his work.