Max Lipsey's studio
For the past ten weeks, I've been talking to a variety of American design entrepreneurs about the realities of running an I.D. business today. The designers I interviewed work on a diverse range of products, from antler lamps to gaming headphones, lawn darts to wine-bottle carriers, stacking chairs to Mushroom Insulation. But their day-to-day work lives have a lot in common. This was especially apparent when I asked them to share some advice for other design entrepreneurs—over and over, certain common lessons (and warnings) cropped up in their answers.
So to cap off this profile series, I wanted to share the following seven key recommendations for aspiring and practicing I.D. entrepreneurs. These tips can't guarantee success (nothing can do that), but they should at least steer you in the right direction.
1. Make a business plan . . . eventually
A surprising number of the entrepreneurs I interviewed admitted to having no traditional business plan at the start. "My studio was totally organic," Jason Miller told me. "It started from nothing and became a small but functioning business." What each person did have, however, was passion for their work and a clear vision for what they wanted to achieve. Eventually, a business plan becomes a necessity—but at least at the outset, don't let your ideas get straightjacketed by a too-rigid focus on business objectives.
2. Let focus be a priority
For hungry young designers bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, one of the biggest challenges is forcing yourself to not pursue every idea. "When you're starting out, you can do any project," says ODLCO's Lisa Smith. "Learning to say no and pick your projects is really important." Max Lipsey expressed a similar sentiment, ticking off all the questions he asks himself before he pursues a new design idea. Jenie Fu of OgoSport would agree: "Whenever we have these new ideas, we compare the concept against our mission and quickly realize which will work and not work." Built NY also uses a mission statement to stay true to its core values. And Just Mobile is a good example of a company that has found success by relentlessly focusing on a specific niche.
Models for Jonathan Olivares's recent OAC chair for Knoll
3. Find another way to make some cash
Most new design businesses do not make much money at first, so you'd do well to figure out some other method of paying the rent—especially if it complements your design enterprise. Jonathan Olivares has financed his design office largely through writing and research projects. Max Lipsey stays afloat by taking on occasional welding jobs. The founders of ODLCO both teach. Laurene Leon Boym teaches and does consulting work for businesses and cultural organizations. Kevin Williams ran a product-design consultancy while launching OgoSport. Having another source of income can also keep you from rushing a product to the market or otherwise moving too fast in your business venture.
Erich Huang (left) and Nils Gustafsson with Just Mobile's Encore iPad stand and Xtand Pro
This is the tenth—and final—profile in our series on design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
If you've purchased a new smartphone or tablet recently, there's a good chance you've been disappointed by the quality of the available accessories—so many third-party cases, docks, touch pens, stands and other add-ons just don't display the same attention to industrial design as the devices themselves.
Just Mobile, a technology design brand founded in 2005 by Nils Gustafsson and Erich Huang, is one company trying to right this imbalance. "There has been an unbelievable boom in the market for the iPhone, the iPad and other mobile devices," Gustafsson says, "and a lot of companies are trying to get a cut of the accessories business. In this fast market, the quality is often missing. Most accessories don't reach the level of quality a company like Apple delivers in its hardware."
Just Mobile's latest releases include the AluPocket (above) and AluCup (below).
Quality design was the thing that first brought Gustafsson and Huang together. They met by chance in a German museum, where they found themselves admiring the same Wilhelm Wagenfeld table lamp. This sparked a conversation about their shared passion for stylish design and quality execution. Just Mobile initially focused on Windows mobile phones, but when Apple released its first iPhone in 2007, the company tabled every other project to focus on the new smartphone. The result was the wildly popular Xtand for iPhone. Today, the company has over 30 product lines for sale in Apple Stores and at the MoMA Design Store, among other outlets, as well as a laundry list of accolades, including several Red Dot awards. You know you're on to something when artists like David Hockney buy your AluPen, a pencil-shaped stylus for touch screens. "That was a great honor," Huang says.
Eben Bayer (left) and Gavin McIntyre founded Ecovative in 2007.
This is the ninth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In June, the Green Island, New York company Ecovative "grew" a house. From mushrooms. This is just the latest radical experiment from the materials-production outfit known for using mycelium—or the roots of mushrooms—to create biomaterials for everyday applications like wall insulation and packaging. For the aforementioned house, the company filled the pine tongue-and-groove walls of a 60-square-foot structure with its fire-resistant, environmentally-friendly Mushroom Insulation. "That house is still alive," says Ecovative's 28-year-old co-founder Eben Bayer. "If you were to cut a hole in the wall to run wiring, for example, the material would be dry. If you spritzed it with water, it would grow back and close in around the wiring."
The idea to grow home-compostable bioplastics from living materials began in 2007 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), when Bayer and fellow student Gavin McIntyre first used mycelium to create a rigid, moldable material. With the encouragement of a professor, Bayer and McIntyre founded Ecovative out of RPI's Business Incubator—which turned out to be a valuable resource for the budding entrepreneurs. "Depending on the one you're in, [business incubators] can provide a lot of services like networking and coaching," Bayer says. "But the thing that RPI did for us that was life-changing was that for the first six months they gave us free office space."
Bayer says that they also benefitted from being left alone. "What we really needed was a wet lab," Bayer says. "Trying to do biology with carpeting is not easy. We put up walls so people wouldn't know what we were doing, and there was steam coming out from under our door. They ignored us."
Eben Bayer with a sheet of Ecovative's Mushroom Insulation
Mushroom Packaging used for wine shipping
This is the eighth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In 2004, when Kevin Williams co-founded OgoSport with a friend from the Pratt Institute, Rick Goodwin, they had a simple philosophy: design toys to get people moving and thinking, toys that wouldn't silence kids with distraction but encourage active play and creativity. (The "Ogo" part of the name stands for Oh, Go Outside.)
Soon, products like the Super SportsDisk—which can be slung like a Frisbee or used to catch and throw balls, among other possibilities—were winning awards and getting airtime from the likes of Regis & Kelly and Stephen Colbert. Today, the company has an extensive portfolio of clever toys that embrace the same spirit of creative play, like the OGOBILD Pod, a lightweight construction set you can kick, spin and throw.
Getting established in the saturated toy market was not an easy road, however. "The toy business has a low barrier to entry," says partner Jenie Fu, who joined OgoSport in 2008. "Anyone can get into it."
As a result, making a name—and a profit—can be challenging. "Some people hope for a get-rich-quick path, which isn't attainable in hard products," Williams says. "Maybe it is in technology, but in this case we know that we will have to grow organically."
Left: Kevin Williams and Jenie Fu. Right: VOLO Darts
In fact, Williams initially continued to run his (now defunct) product design consultancy, Make, while launching the toy company. "That business was paying the bills for the first three or four years after I started OgoSport," he says.
It wasn't always clear that Williams, who grew up in New Orleans and had an early affinity for making things, would go on to launch several industrial design businesses. "As a kid, I always had these projects at home, like Frankenstein-ing bikes together," he says. "Since I could make stuff, I thought that I should make buildings, so I went to school for architecture. In my third year, an ID firm came and presented to us. And I remember going, 'Oh, crap! I'm in the wrong program.'"
Williams later graduated with Goodwin from Pratt's industrial design master's program. They both went on to do other things, but would get together every few months to brainstorm. "After a few years of this, Rick says: 'Lets go make toys together!'" Williams remembers. Goodwin later brought in Fu, who was one of his students at Pratt.
OgoSport now sustains a total of seven employees (including Williams and Fu), plus two consultants—but, Fu says, each year is still an unknown. "Major events have happened every year where we've thought: This could be it," she says. "We didn't freak out and we dealt with it the best we could, and we came through."
This is the seventh profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
In 2007, Dwell magazine described the Brooklyn-based designer Jason Miller as witty, youthful and enjoying a "meteoric rise" in the U.S. design scene. Today, Miller, 41, laughs at the notion of sudden success. "I've been doing this for many years," he says, "so it doesn't feel meteoric."
Still, Miller did cause a splash when he opened Jason Miller Studio in 2001 and released lighting designs like his Antlers series, which captured the animal-head-as-decor trend with a chandelier composed of glazed ceramic replicas of deer antlers.
In 2010, Miller spun off a new company, Roll & Hill, to manufacture high-end contemporary lights by a variety of designers. "We sell relatively expensive things, we make them on demand, and we make them to the customer's specifications," Miller explains. "While we are a manufacturing company, we are not a mass producer; we still make everything to order."
Above and below: Miller's office in his Brooklyn studio
Miller now helms his studio and serves as the creative director and CEO of Roll & Hill. He has 20 employees between the two businesses and is having to deal with fast expansion. This, ahem, meteoric rise in company growth means that staff needs have outpaced the infrastructure of business management. "When you have two or three people working with you, it's easy to stop in the hall and ask questions and have an impromptu meeting," Miller says. "But now that I have 20 employees, it's easy to get lost in that world. It's easy to be in meetings all day. My door, unfortunately, is glass, so people peer in thinking that any minute I'll be free."
Caroline Linder (left) and Lisa Smith in their Chicago studio
This is the sixth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
Chicago may be infused with major architecture, but like many cities in the U.S., the manufacture of small-scale design objects can be a rarity. Which is why, in 2011, Caroline Linder and Lisa Smith formed ODLCO. Their company's tagline is "small batch design brand," which describes their approach of working with independent designers and regional manufacturers to produce small runs of household products. "We wanted to contribute to design in Chicago by actually producing products," Smith says.
Linder, 34, and Smith, 30, have known each other since 2006. Both attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and later they formed the Small Object Design League, a loose affiliation of designers in Chicago who staged exhibitions. Soon, though, Linder and Smith realized that exhibitions weren't enough. "We had designers showcasing prototypes, and in a lot of ways it felt like a dead end," Smith says. "Exhibition work is great for artists but not for designers, because you need people to buy your products in order to see if the they are successful. We are always interested in engaging with the general public, not just with other designers, and production is the ultimate way to do that."
So Smith and Linder transformed the business into ODLCO (short for Object Design League Company), which now has three main components. First, they seek out compelling products from designers and work to match the product with the right kind of manufacturer. Second, they sell these and other products; in June, Smith and Linder opened a physical retail store in the front of the West Loop warehouse where they work. "We also sell things that we haven't made but that are a good fit with our brand," Smith says. "We want to bring new customers in through retail."
Above and below: ODLCO's new retail store in Chicago's West Loop
Jonathan Olivares with models of the new Olivares Aluminum Chair for Knoll. Photo by Yoo Jean Han.
This is the fifth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
Jonathan Olivares wants to let you in on a secret. "Los Angeles is the largest industrial center in the U.S., and you can basically get anything made here fast, cheap and with a smile," he says.
This comes in handy if, like Olivares, you employ a rigorous prototyping process for your furniture designs, as he did when developing the new OAC chair for Knoll. The outdoor stacking chair is made of thin cast aluminum and "we made 50 prototypes," Olivares, 31, says. "We have great aluminum foundries out here."
When Olivares launched his company, Jonathan Olivares Design Research (JODR), in 2006, he knew that he wanted to build relationships with clients in order to design mass-produced objects, in the spirit of designers like Charles and Ray Eames. "I like the idea of serial production," he says, "and of getting something that's the result of advanced technology and getting it at a good price and making lots of them."
The final OAC stacking chair for Knoll
Above and below: OAC models
Olivares started JODR in his mother's garage in Boston less than 18 months out of Pratt Institute's industrial design program. He had just returned from a post-graduate apprenticeship with the Munich-based designer Konstantin Grcic. Olivares says that he went abroad after Pratt because, "if you go back to 2005, and you look at what the American furniture companies were doing, there wasn't as much action as there is now. Back then it was dismal."
Laurene Leon Boym and some of Boym Partners' Salvation ceramics for Moooi
This is the fourth profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
Try everything and go where your interests lead you. That could be the underpinning business philosophy of Laurene Leon Boym, one half of Boym Partners Inc. It was in that spirit that Boym recently found herself living in Doha, Qatar, and writing design challenges for a Pan-Arabian reality TV show called Stars of Science.
"It's like the Project Runway of the Middle East," Boym says. Her 15 years as a teacher at places like Parsons The New School for Design and the School of Visual Arts helped Boym distill complicated design tasks into mini-challenges that the contestants could play out on screen.
Boym was in Doha because her husband and business partner, Constantin Boym, had been asked to direct the first graduate design program for Virginia Commonwealth University's Qatar campus. The couple uprooted and moved their design practice to the Middle East in 2010 and only recently returned to New York City. Boym is now writing a book about being an expat designer in Qatar, where the discipline of design is still in the nascent stages. "It's a very new society over there," she says.
Boym Partners' 2007 Babel Blocks celebrate the diverse mix of races, religions and cultures in New York City.
Writing is just one of the many aspects of Boym's design practice. She is also a product designer for clients like Alessi and Swatch; a consultant to international businesses and cultural organizations; a curator and an exhibiting artist for major museums; and a teacher, lecturer, critic, mentor. And, of course, she is the designer of quirky objects that fall somewhere between products and artworks: The Boyms' series Buildings of Disaster, which included miniature replicas of Chernobyl and the Unabomber's cabin, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Boym also founded the Association of Women Industrial Designers in 1992 because "when I started out, there weren't as many women in the profession," she says.
Built NY's original neoprene wine tote
This is the third profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
Growing up, Aaron Lown's mom had a saying: "Why buy it when you can make it?"
That mantra inspired Lown, now 44, to launch the company Built NY in 2003 with business partner John Roscoe Swartz. Built's first product was the now iconic neoprene wine-bottle carrier. When the totes debuted at the New York International Gift Fair in 2004, the company received $100,000 in orders within 48 hours. A year later, Built logged its millionth sale. "Wine was on the rise at the time, yet the wine accessories market had nothing young and hip and cool," Lown says. "We had a great product and a niche in the market that wasn't being filled."
Aaron Lown (left) and his business partner, John Roscoe Swartz
So how do you grow a good idea and a modest $30,000 investment into a multimillion dollar company with a full line of products and 40 employees? Lown attributes his success, in part, to his upbringing in Bangor, Maine. "My mom played an important role in my ethos," he says. "She taught me how to sew and there was always a crafts project happening."
Meanwhile, Lown's father ran a shoe manufacturing business and Lown remembers the smell of glue on the factory floor and seeing the components of shoe patterns strewn around their house. "The influence of my father gave me the entrepreneurial part of my personality, while my mom gave me the making gene," Lown says. (Not to mention an uncle who invented the defibrillator.)
At 13, while his other friends were shipped off to sports camps, Lown threw pottery at a crafts retreat called Camp Horizons (where he accidentally broke fellow camper Jonathan Adler's ankle in a basketball game.) After that summer, Lown built a woodshop in his parent's basement where he made objects like jewelry boxes that he sold to local crafts stores. In high school, he and a friend became interested in skimboarding, "so we spent the winter coming up with a brand and making skimboards in the garage," Lown says. "The first day out in the spring, we tested the prototype and I fell and broke my wrist. That was my first taste of failure, which is something that you have to let fly off your back."
Astro Studios worked with Nike on the design of the Nike+ Fuelband.
This is the second profile in our series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. Read last week's profile here.
Brett Lovelady has discovered the sweet spot. The company that he founded in 1994, Astro Studios, is now a 28-person consultancy based in San Francisco and known for groundbreaking product design and branding for major clients like Nike and HP. Six blocks away is the headquarters of Astro Gaming, a spin-off business he co-founded in 2006 to design and produce premium gaming products. Skullcandy acquired the business in 2011 and now Lovelady splits his time between helming his original firm and serving as a creative head for Astro Gaming.
But while Lovelady may be balancing two companies with nearly 60 employees between them, he still acts like a creative upstart at a small firm. "At Astro we consider ourselves to be small, even though we are more of a mid-sized firm now," he says. "We're fearless, we'll jump into any project and apply design principles, and we'll have fun. We are nimble enough to work with entrepreneurs starting a business, but we can also rally a team for a major brand roll-out. That has led to big opportunities." Like designing the Xbox 360, or the iPAQ for Compaq.
Lovelady and Astro Gaming's wireless A50 Headset
This is the first profile in a new series on American design entrepreneurs, looking at how they got where they are, what they do all day, and what advice they have for other designers running their own businesses. We'll have a new profile every Monday.
To understand the design philosophy of the Eindhoven-based American designer Max Lipsey, watch the making-of video for his latest project, the Temper Chair. Lipsey begins by welding steel to form a clean-lined seat with a curved back. The welds are barely buffed, allowing the bulbous seams to speak of the production process. The chair is then suspended inside an oven where high temperatures unleash the metal's hidden hues. "Steel has within it these striking colors from straw yellow to red to deep blue, and I thought it made sense to let the color palette come from the material," Lipsey says.
This is typical of Lipsey's intuitive design approach, and it was this respect for raw materials and elemental production techniques that first led him to pursue design in Eindhoven. Born in California and raised in Colorado, the 29-year old received a B.A. from New York University in 2005 before entering the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven. The work of Dutch designers like Maarten Baas drew him to the Netherlands. "[Baas's] Smoke series, where he burned furniture, really blew my mind in terms of how an object could have a sense of wry humor, be a little tongue-in-cheek, but also be poetic and very expressive," Lipsey says.