Have you ever gotten yourself in a bit of a design pickle, where you realize you're designing something for too niche of an audience, developing a product you later realize is too expensive to be manufactured, or creating products for a market where trends change so quickly you can barely keep up? Years ago, Portland-based design studio Grovemade found themselves in the latter predicament, as they were initially specialized in creating accessories for a highly erratic market: iPhones. Nowadays, Grovemade is geared toward an entirely new focus—creating objects for your everyday life that are designed to be minimal, functional and long-lasting. Their series of desk products in particular work together as cohesive collections and incorporate rich materials like maple and walnut, elevating your personal workspace from a cold, conventional desk setup to something inviting and beautiful; a desk you actually want to work at each day.
Sean Kelly (left) and Kevin Do (right), designers at Grovemade
Lead Product Designer Sean Kelly and his Product Designer colleague Kevin Do, two of our 1-Hour Design Challenge judges, recently spoke with us about the company's design philosophy as a whole, their careful consideration of materials, and the powerful shift that comes as designers think about how to make objects that could benefit people (and not just Apple fanatics) for years to come.
Core 77: Grovemade's line of products are diverse but all seem to share a commonality of fulfilling a basic functional need. How did Grovemade begin and what brought you to focusing on personal and professional accessories?
Sean Kelly: We began as a bamboo iPhone case company with our main focus being customer supplied custom engraved art and a curated artist series that we engraved onto the backs of our cases. In our early years we were focused almost entirely on learning how to run a small manufacturing business. It wasn't until years later that we shifted our company's focus by rebranding and launching our desk collection.
We were tired of riding the iPhone launch wave which made our business very unstable. By designing products that did not rely solely on Apple we hoped we could stabilize our sales, reduce the stress on our team and enter into new exciting markets.
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The initial inspiration for our desk collection happened during a visit to Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco where we saw monitor after monitor held high by almost anything and everything other than a monitor stand, shoe boxes, pizza boxes, books, printer paper, you name it. When we had the inspiration to make a wood monitor stand we were not thinking about designing an entire collection around the desk but through seemingly random experiences and inspirations that followed the monitor stand was joined by other desk accessories and a collection was created.
How does the company go about conducting research to learn about what your customers want or need? What have you discovered about your customer after doing research?
Kevin Do: We spend a lot of time looking at what already exists in the market, who the leading influencers are, who is established and who is making good work. It helps us understand where we are able to penetrate the market and better position ourselves for developing new products.
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SK: Generally we will also ask our customers directly what they want. We do this by sending out surveys or speaking directly with them. Or we release a product, get feedback and adjust. Through our surveys we have found that what our customers care about most is unique products that are thoughtfully designed and made a direct connection to the people and the process.
What are some of the biggest challenges Grovemade is trying to solve with its collection of products?
KD: When we are designing a collection we're always looking for the sweet spot between innovation and allowing something to be simple. What we try to achieve with each collection is a glimpse into all the little moments and experiences we've had as designers. We try to capture and transmit those moments into the product—whether it's a sensation, emotion or something nostalgic.
How do you choose the materials you use for products?
SK: Our material choices are driven by manufacturing. For example, when we started we made iPhone cases out of bamboo but every new phone Apple released was different from the one before so in the end we were not able to use bamboo because it would not structurally work for the new designs we were creating. That is when we switched to using Maple and Walnut. We always use materials for their strengths but at the same time we try to push the boundaries of what that material can do.
KD: A lot of our decisions about materials are influenced by several things. Is this the best material for this particular application? Are we using the material for its inherent qualities and characteristics? We also like to use materials that are beautiful and add value to our products. Leather, walnut and felt are strong players in our material palette.
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KD: Manufacturing and production are also big components in painting the picture of how feasible it is to make and sell the product. We take into consideration the abilities of what we are able to do in house, as well as the capabilities of our vendors. We also think about the flow of which the product will be made in house. Will our crew be able to consistently and repeatedly make our products at a high level?
How do you think a well curated system of objects can help people maintain a successful and productive routine/professional life?
SK: Surrounding ourselves with things that we love helps elevate our experience breaking down the points of tension in our lives allowing us to focus on what truly matters to us.
Grovemade's Desk Collection
KD: A well curated system of products brings a sense of comfort and order within your workflow. It helps you prioritize the essentials, increasing focus and reducing the time looking for things scattered on your desk. Not to mention, when your work space is beautiful you are much more inclined to work, be inspired and comfortable.
What elements of design and life inspire the passion behind your work?
KD: As a company we believe in leaving the work at work. Not to say that we don't work from home on occasion but work life tends to be something that stops when the clock strikes 4:00pm. Sean and I are both passionate designers as well as people within our communities. We gain a lot of inspiration and energy from being in the world, traveling, eating food, talking to people, going to design stores, reviewing college students work. [Grovemade founder] Ken has allowed me to leave for several weeks at a time during the year to work with his former boss Gerard at Bamboo DNA. I recently did my second gig with Bamboo DNA building a bamboo bridge at a Lightning in a Bottle Festival. On these festival builds you work with a crew of people from all over the world with different backgrounds and passions.
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SK: Three things that drive the passion behind our work are learning, collaboration and teaching.
We approach every new product as an opportunity to challenge ourselves to learn something new. We are in no way experts at anything we attempt, but through learning we are able to gain knowledge that helps guide us through a design challenge and coupling that with a fresh perspective we usually end up someplace awesome and unexpected.
Collaboration helps us get out of our own heads. Whether it is with each other or with someone new there is nothing better than having someone come into a design process midway and turn everything on its head. Those are the most exciting and creative moments.
Both Sean and Kevin of Grovemade will be judging your 1-Hour Design Challenge: Furniture for Freelancers submission! You have two days until Thursday, June 23rd to submit your sketches and be in the running for some amazing Grovemade desk gear—so get to sketching!