In the early 2000s, in downtown Phoenix – long before it blossomed into what it is today – three women from different backgrounds, pursuing different paths in life and career, happened to meet. They grew to be friends and – along with a strong group of artists, community leaders, and business owners – have helped to shape Phoenix into what it is now and what it is becoming. Lalita Adkins of Loop Architectural Materials, Michelle Nunes of NOONS, and Lara Plecas of Desert Crafted all diverged from the paths they had set on as young adults and established businesses that work to manifest their vision of an elevated desert city.
Nunes’s parents emigrated from Portugal, and Nunes herself moved from her hometown in Pennsylvania to Arizona to study audio engineering at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. After graduating, she wound up in New York, then moved back to Phoenix on a whim, decided to pursue digital arts, and steadied herself into graphic design and marketing.
Plecas grew up just outside of Chicago, moving to Arizona to study exercise science and dance at ASU, under pressure to pursue something more practical than art. She spent time in Costa Rica getting certified as a yoga teacher and then ended up in massage therapy, in which she worked for twenty years. She has also been painting for the same amount of time, having shown in one of the first art galleries on Roosevelt, and remains a prominent, established artist in the Phoenix market.
Adkins hails from an ever-translocating Hare Krishna family who finally arrived and stayed in Arizona in the ’90s. She went to ASU to receive her degree in urban planning and public administration, settling in Phoenix after a brief stint in Boston. She worked with a local flooring showroom, then the glass factory Meltdown (which she currently represents at Loop).
Adkins, Nunes, and Plecas all met in the early 2000s when Roosevelt was gritty and underdeveloped. Their circles of friends eventually crossed: Nunes met Plecas at a wedding and Adkins at Camus Bar (the first bar/restaurant to inhabit the Clarendon Hotel), while Plecas met Adkins through Adkin’s sister. After-work outings and Myspace helped solidify their friendship. They witnessed Phoenix’s coming of age, nurtured by Beatrice Moore, Kimber Lanning, and other community leaders, and grew with the scene before prices skyrocketed. As friends, they all witnessed the beginning of one another’s businesses.
Adkins took the first leap into business ownership, in 2008. She realized urban planning wasn’t for her, and when she turned to interior design, she found out it wasn’t right for her either – so she decided instead to become a curator of both the product and the process. “I’m not a designer,” she explains as she frames her business. “I’m a critic.”
Loop Architectural Materials’ name comes from the closed-loop process in manufacturing, which Adkins is still fond of. After deciding on the sustainable-minded name and finding a location, she opened her showroom with support from her boyfriend, who is now her husband and coworker.
Nunes’s business came about more slowly. While involved in corporate marketing and graphic design work, she started designing textile pieces and selling them online. Once she outgrew the digital store, she sought and found a vacant spot for NOONS, and about a year and a half ago she opened her doors.
Plecas’ jump was tied to wanting to devote more time to being a professional artist. After holding studios on Roosevelt, on Grand Avenue, and at the Ice House, she settled into her detached guesthouse just before her daughter was born. A handful of years later, she attended a business-minded women’s retreat, then took a step back to evaluate the direction she was heading. She came up with the concept for Desert Crafted and began the search for a location. Nunes was helping her with the website when a space adjacent to her opened up. Plecas officially launched the store in the space next to NOONS in November 2018.
NOONS and Desert Crafted both serve as lifestyle boutiques nestled side by side in a vintage brick building near the corner of 7th Avenue and Thomas. Both sell a variety of products, from handmade clothing to botanical perfumes, though there exist significant differences in the physical space and purpose of each store.
NOONS, the larger of the two, was established by Nunes to bring her tastes and point of view into Phoenix, and connect people to a beauty that’s both fun and approachable.
She likes to bring in work primarily from independent and not yet established designers. In her store – which she calls her “project” – you’ll find bright vintage and contemporary styles of furniture, jumpsuits, earrings, ceramics, and more. Clean white pylons hide a set of workspaces that Nunes shares with a jewelry artist and soon a textile artist. She – like the others – thrives on the energy that comes from making new connections and forming relationships between her store and the community.
Desert Crafted, on the other hand, is a smaller and more intimate space that specializes in handmade products from local artists and crafters, as well as from desert cultures around the world, with the intention to promote a more sustainable way of living. Plecas speaks passionately about her wares as she guides customers from Turkish linen robes to mineral sunscreen to creosote perfume.
“I want to shift the paradigm for how we live and shop,” she explains. “I don’t want to have a lot of packaging and tons of bags. Why don’t we shift the way we think?”
Desert Crafted also serves as a hosting space for a variety of workshops, classes, and events that spin off from her original concept, like plant-based dyeing techniques. Its alternative function is apparent when you walk past all the products and towards the register. A large piece of art hangs to the left, just before the threshold in the back. This doorway leads into Plecas’ studio, where she watches the store while heating beeswax for large encaustic paintings and collage works.
Loop Architectural Materials is located two and a half miles away, on the corner of 16th Street and Earll in the historic Cheery Lynn neighborhood. Adkins’s showroom is set up in a remodeled historic house boasting a small semi-atrium that Adkins recently turned into a pop-up gallery, plus a basement hiding a library of samples of her products.
Loop serves as a different type of lifestyle boutique: instead of commodities dressing and defining the individual, Adkins’s business dresses and defines space. However, as you browse the showroom, it becomes clear that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The largest difference between her business and her friends’ is that Nunes’ and Plecas’ clients represent themselves, whereas Adkins’s clients represent other businesses. All three highlight the importance of quality and sustainability in its many forms.
For commercial establishments, Loop showcases a variety of products such as flooring, glass, lighting, ceiling systems, acoustical systems, and more. Her ties to the arts are evident everywhere. A walk through the showroom reveals a shelf of dishware with Kehinde Wiley portraits across from a table holding a neatly organized grid of product catalogs. Adkins is currently excited about a wallcovering company, Area Environments, that works with living artists and pays them for each printing of their mural designs. In her pop-up gallery, Adkins contemplates buying a piece from the most recent show.
A commonality of the three businesses is the personal reason behind their existence. Nunes, Adkins, and Plecas all curate products that reflect themselves. Nunes’s whimsical and thoughtful nature reveals itself in the vibrancy of her goods. Adkins’s calm sensibility with splashes of energy are mirrored in her sleek showroom with translucent green accent walls and shiny fixtures. Plecas’s products, like her art and personality, are intentional, deliberate, and multidimensional.
“I want to have a variety. That’s how it reflects who I am – eclectic,” Adkins says of Loop’s representations. “I feel like almost everything in here is an extension of me. I’m just curating goods that I love that fit the desert lifestyle.” Nunes nods and echoes the sentiment: “It’s a language, right?”
All three iterate the assertion that they are bringing in new products and processes that Phoenix hasn’t yet seen. Their businesses are externalized internalizations, and they want to project and manifest them within the Phoenix community. After experiencing more established cities, they all see pathways to take inspiration from those places as well as to diverge and create a unique voice here.
“The purpose is to make Arizona – really Phoenix – a more iconic design city,” Adkins shares. “More daring, more vibrant, and more unique.”
While all of them are quick to point out their support figures – other female shop owners, a brother, fellow friends, a husband – their endeavors and struggles have been very independent and likewise internalized. Despite the pressure of entrepreneurship, none of them are particularly worried about failure.
They’ve dealt with internal anxieties, doubts from others, even beliefs that their significant others were carrying them through their success. Adkins has had to deal with adversity directly on the job, when contending with the male-dominated field of contractors who didn’t take her seriously at the start of her career – luckily, this has faded with time. All three shimmy off hardships with their entrepreneurial spirit – a realistic optimism for success, assured by years of watching their friends and mentors succeed.
They all exhibit characteristics of full-time artists: resiliency, flexibility, adaptability, and independence. Undeniable, however, is the influence of the network of strong women in business and community leadership that each of them has connected to in her own way.
Plecas continues down her path as a professional artist, aiming her sights beyond local galleries toward museums and national representation. Though her studio hides behind her storefront, gaining success with her encaustic paintings, collage, and other art takes precedence. She also aims to elevate Desert Crafted to support more options for sustainable living, such as refill stations for bulk products. She’s determined to grow so she can give back to her community, but is happy with how far she’s come.
“I feel very lucky to be here and have this space where it’s cohesive like this,” she says. “It’s kind of a dream.”
After almost two years settling into NOONS, Nunes is content in her professional life, with gentle thoughts towards expanding her business’s capacity and audience. She also sees a future in non-profit work, expressing interests in scholarships, mentorships, and beautification projects. She holds a strong attachment to interiors, which are prevalent not only in her business but also in how she responds to the world. She grew up with memories of cleaning her friends’ rooms during play dates, and understands the ability for a healthy interior space to promote a healthy mental space.
“It makes you a better person, when you have an environment that’s thought out and intentional. And sometimes we don’t have that capability or inspiration, because we’re just getting by day to day. If there’s a way to help communities clean up neighborhoods or help an elderly person who doesn’t have the means – that would be an amazing organization to put together.”
Adkins mirrors Nunes, envisioning a future of establishing a non-profit – although focused entirely outdoors, despite the nature of her business. One of her goals is to improve the landscape of underserved neighborhoods, primarily with tree planting and other neighborhood beautification projects. She also wants to branch out more into other forms of service that had interested her before she became a mother and business owner. “I want to be uncomfortable again,” she says.
After witnessing Phoenix in recovery following its gutting a decade ago, all three carry a patient exuberance towards its progress, which they hope to support. “There’s a really good, really creative momentum happening right now, and I want to be a part of that,” Plecas says. “I want to have my voice be a part of building community here.”
“Everybody’s excited,” Nunes agrees. “We just have to keep that shop/restaurant momentum going.”
In her work, Adkins sees the momentum up close. “You know what’s coming – what the design is supposed to look like, so when you actually get to go to those spaces and see them in person, you feel a tinge of pride. Because you were part of it.”
She sums up the outlook shared by her friends: “I want to be part of something beautiful.”
The three represent a generation of women and community leaders who’ve experienced the budding of Phoenix’s current flourish, and are confident for the changes to come. Now, like the women before them, they are poised to lead the transformation