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On the Job

No-frills product, unexpected new markets

Paul Lordan (left) and his brother, John, at Steele Canvas Basket Corp. in Chelsea. A mention in Martha Stewart magazine revived their business.
Paul Lordan (left) and his brother, John, at Steele Canvas Basket Corp. in Chelsea. A mention in Martha Stewart magazine revived their business.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Thank heaven for Martha Stewart, says Paul Lordan, co-owner of Steele Canvas Basket Corp. in Chelsea. He credits her for the turnaround for his company, which makes laundry baskets, tote bags, and sling chairs. In September 2009, Steele Canvas Basket was mentioned in Martha Stewart magazine, and people from all over the country started ordering baskets. A whole new market — home goods — opened up, and Lordan scrambled to rebuild the website to handle online orders. Lordan spoke about the family-run business that has operated since 1921.

“First, a fun fact: Look closely at old movies with laundry room jail breaks, and you will be able to see the ‘Steele’ stamp on the hamper. The busy production floor is where these baskets come together — we still make them by hand. The fabric is cut and stitched here and the steel frame is welded. We move 100 to 130 baskets out the door every day.

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“Steele baskets are used for store displays of flip-flops [and] to hold fish on docks, dollars for Brinks security guards, and balloons for the Macy’s parade. If you are driving by any construction site in Boston, you’ll see guys throwing sheet rock into our 12- or 14-bushel basket.

“The last recession really woke us up, and we started hauling to build new business. Now we rarely say ‘no’ to a project. One of the trickiest was making a ‘playground on wheels’ basket to hold foam blocks that had to be certified as child-safe. When my father hears about what different customers are using the baskets for, he’ll sometimes protest, ‘That’s not what we make them for!’

“I keep a copy of every basket we make, just for the record, so my office is filled with baskets. Some people ask, ‘Why do you continue to hand-stamp your products with the Steele name?’ I know there’s probably a more efficient way to do it, but it’s just what we do.”

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Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.