Pivoting on His Axes: Peter Buchanan-Smith ‘86

Peter Buchanan-Smith is getting reacquainted with country life. After more than two decades of living in New York City, Peter made the move to Upstate New York in January of 2020 after selling his company Best Made. It was known for beautifully-designed axes that became sought-after pieces of functional art across the United States and even beyond North America. Now, he is back to where he finds inspiration.

Growing up on a farm, just south of Guelph, Peter credits his mother, Virginia Buchanan-Smith, with providing creative inspiration early on in his life. Virginia Buchanan-Smith was also a wonderful leader, serving as Chair of the Board of Governors at SJK from 1992 to 1994, and as Past President of the Parents’ Association from 1986 to 1989. His father, Dr. Jock Buchanan-Smith, also served on the Board of Governors between 1990 and 1994 while engaged in his dynamic career as an internationally recognized authority on beef cattle nutrition and management.

Peter’s memories of SJK are of the beautiful old homes in Elora where St. John’s and St. Margaret's School began, and where he and his sister Rachel ‘91 attended. Teachers like Mr. Shane Curry and Mr. Bob Houston are well-remembered, along with his life-long friend, Alex Swann. Surrounded by nature, Peter recalls the original campus as “a storybook place to go to school.” Classes were held in rooms of the grand old homes, which had been previously used for dining or sleeping. There was an atmosphere of warmth that he says “really did feel like family. It was very magical.”

Creative writing at St. John’s in Elora provided his first foray into self-expression, which evolved into publishing projects once he graduated high school and attended the University of Guelph. Often without a budget, he found the design challenges to be the hardest, but also the most fun. He quickly found himself involved in book publishing when the thesis for his Master’s degree became a book entitled Speck. To this day, publishing has been one of the focal points of his career, as well as further learning, including a course that he is currently enrolled in. 

Soon his work in publishing began to converge with his graphic design talent, which took him to New York and to the School of Visual Arts where he taught graphic design for 7 years. He went on to work at the New York Times Op-Ed page during a presidential election and 9/11 in roles such as the art director for an op-ed piece. He later became the art director for Paper Magazine.

Peter moved on from that hectic pace to start a publishing company where he created a book with the band Wilco. They also asked him to design their album cover for A Ghost is Born, which garnered a Grammy Award for Peter in 2005. 

Peter also started a design studio where he did packaging design, a book, and a magazine for American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. By 2009, it was time to return to his workshop where he drew on his experiences of his time at summer camp in Algonquin Park — something he enjoyed in his youth, every summer — and where using axes and painting them stood out in his memories. 

To Peter, the axe is iconic and truly Canadian. It inspired him to create his own brand of axes and found his company Best Made. It took off, and before he knew it, he was managing a thriving catalogue business and two stores. One was in New York and the other was in Los Angeles. Eventually, a company in Silicon Valley offered to purchase Best Made, and so it was sold and he moved out and became a country-dweller.

His recent project, the Buchanan-Smith, Axe Handbook, was published in April 2021. And now, he’s back to enjoying his workshop and gathering inspiration for his next project.

St. John's Kilmarnock School

©2018 St John’s-Kilmarnock School. All Rights Reserved.