For our first roundtable discussion, we brought together a trio of entrepreneurs. This time round, we asked three of our makers to chat about product design, material sourcing and everything in between. They are Aaron Poritz (designer of the reclaimed tropical walnut tool box and hardwood step stool), José de la O Campos (the man behind the Anti-Fly Sphere) and Jarrod Beglinger (maker of the salvaged white oak step stool and market boxes). Following introductions, the conversation kicked off at the beginning…
Coming from like-minded backgrounds (Jarrod in engineering, José in conceptual design and Aaron in sustainable architecture), what drew you to a common mission of designing sustainable and practical pieces?
Jarrod: I did study engineering as my undergraduate degree, but it’s a bit of a detour on the way to a design career for me. I don’t know that it has a big impact on what I’m doing now. As far as elevating simpler everyday design pieces, that’s what I’m trying to do all the time with everything I’m making. It’s fundamental to what I do.
How did you come up with the market box and the step stool? Do you look at something you’re using everyday and just want to make it better?
Jarrod: That’s a great question. I’m inspired by comfortable everyday objects. If you take the step stool, it’s not really a glamorous product, but I happened to see one that wasn’t very well designed and I could see a certain beauty in its function, its humbleness. I was really inspired to re-imagine and re-create the stool in a way that was well thought out.
Aaron: For my tool box, I was guided a lot by the material and the medium that I was working with: wood. I grew up in a woodshop surrounded by tool boxes – but they were always made of metal. I thought it would be a really fun project to recreate that tool box and maintain its functionality, while also focusing in on the scale and the specific details that can be appreciated as a beautiful object. It’s about having a real sensitivity to scale at a human level – which touches on my background in architecture – and being aware of the size of an object when you’re using it and touching it. That’s important to me when thinking about a design.
In the case of José’s glass sphere, you don’t necessarily know it has a very practical use – warding off flies – the piece could be purely decorative. What comes first: aesthetics or functionality?
José: That’s a really interesting question. Well, we first need to talk about where the object comes from and how important it is. Here in Mexico City, it’s really common to find plastic bags filled with water hanging in restaurants or at street food vendor stalls as a way to scare off flies. Initially, I did some research on how water in a sphere can define movement, light and color – the secret to scaring away the flies, since their eyes can’t take the light refraction. Piggy backing on what Jarrod said – elevating everyday things by using better materials – I thought it would be nicer to have a piece of glass than a piece of plastic. I attached a leather rope to the sphere for hanging it because that gives a little more narrative to the object. The simple design looks nice and deters flies – but it won’t substitute cleaning your kitchen!
Jarrod: Design can’t do everything… I entirely agree with what José is saying about material and philosophy. A different material can transform and elevate an object, but you still have to design something that’s functional, reproducible and affordable. That balance is extremely important.
How important, then, is sourcing materials yourself?
Aaron: When I was in Nicaragua there was an abundance of really beautiful and high-quality hardwood that I would never support cutting down, because they are 350-400-year-old trees. But the fact that they fell naturally during Hurrican Felix was an amazing opportunity for me to use a resource that wasn’t otherwise available. I also use teak from teak plantations that go in 25-year cycles. It’s a fast-growing tree that’s also sustainable. The origin of the material is very important because people feel better about owning and using products they know more about – where the wood comes from, where the metal comes from. I think this has become a big opportunity, not only from a sales perspective but also on a personal level; I like to support and buy things that I’m truly informed about. A lot of small operations like mine are transitioning into a model where you can be really transparent and tell people more about your product. It’s a more sustainable way of doing business, because you’re less wasteful and you have to be more mindful of the materials you’re using and the people who are making your products.
Jarrod: Whenever possible, I try to use locally sourced wood that is typically salvaged. It’s not reclaimed, but salvaged in the sense that the trees came down in urban areas or on people’s properties and in counties near me in Wisconsin – essentially wood that’s not intended to be milled into lumber. Through the network of craftsmen I’ve developed, I have several places I can go to get that kind of lumber. On a very practical level, the wood doesn’t travel as far and there’s a savings on carbon emission and cost. On a sustainability level, the wood wasn’t intended to be lumber; in the best case it would have gone to a wood chipper and in the worst case it might have gone in a landfill. I’m using it to make something that has real value. That whole other layer – that strong connection between material, maker and place – is quite romantic and much more interesting than me picking up something that’s been harvested from a huge lumber company six states away. The story is more profound for me personally and, I think, for the person who eventually owns the piece.
All three of you work with local craftspeople in a very hands-on way.
José: The initiative I’m developing is basically a platform to bring contemporary designers and artists to work with local craftsmen in Tlacotalpan, Mexico. It’s an idyllic old town, where you have a lot of woodworkers and potters using really old techniques. The main problem there is that many generations are leaving for bigger cities to study at universities. But you can actually make a living by working with your hands, and you can have an amazing lifestyle that you can’t get in bigger urban areas like Mexico City. I started the project to have this connection between designers and craftsmen. It can be a challenge. For example, the people build and sculpt the furniture with red cedar, a local wood from the region. It’s taken from a certified tropical forest so it’s controlled but not treated, making it difficult to export the furniture outside the country. The challenge in working with these local manufacturers is also that they might have a completely different vision than you may have as a designer, so they will have completely different motivations. One time I got an order for four rocking chairs and production was delayed because the maker’s girlfriend dumped him. He didn’t go to the workshop for a week because he was drunk and brokenhearted – and that’s something you cannot control!
Aaron: Nicaragua is similar to Mexico, where you understand the way time works is different. When trying to get an order out on deadline, I tend to just give a three-week cushion. The reality is that people get sick, or a power line falls in the road or just other crazy everyday stuff. There are lots of factors that you can’t control, and that may be apparent when working with anyone anywhere.
Jarrod: I started developing a network when I launched the business, and I really like working with local craftspeople. One of the challenges that José touched on is the potential difference in vision of the craftsman versus the designer, and that’s something you have to deal with when having an object produced. I really like that I can visit the people I’m working with. If I decide to change something or if they’re having an issue, I can fully address that face-to-face and develop a personal rapport that just adds to the relationship – as opposed to doing business over email or just having technical drawings from someone I don’t know. That makes everything a little smoother and allows me to do things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Aaron, you mentioned earlier concentrating on the scale of something and looking at objects from a very human level. How does the idea of sustainability and minimalism – bringing something down to its essence – come into play?
Aaron: That was something I thought about quite a bit when designing my first line of furniture. I really liked the idea of using as little material as possible, while maintaining the structural integrity of each piece. So to touch on the question directly: I used an additive process to designing. I would start a prototype with something that was thinner than what I knew they should be – legs or walls, for example – and then I would create a second prototype with the elements being a little thicker and thicker, until it met the structural requirements I felt were necessary – without any extra material than was needed. I think that type of process is sustainable because it’s a way of maintaining a certain minimalism within each of the pieces. Minimalism is directly related to the material, but I’m also a minimalist in my aesthetic and I like to keep things simple. Working through a process of addition over subtraction is an interesting way for me to use as little material as possible.
José: That’s a really nice and interesting way to see the process. In my case, especially working with craftsmen, it’s important to see the limitations. That’s how I work with Kaufmann: there’s a maximum amount I can deliver in a certain amount of time. In Mexico, sweatshop culture is growing since it’s so expensive to bring things from China. A lot of companies are looking to us to be the China of the West. That’s scary because the whole sweatshop industry operates in mystery, because it wants to be as cheap as possible. Working with these craftsmen, I need to know their limits, so I can be really careful about not changing the way they live. The thing about minimalism is that good design is when you have essential elements that work together for the value of the whole product – nothing more, nothing less. Using as little material as possible, as Aaron mentioned, is a really nice way of putting it. The woodworkers I work with believe furniture should last for decades and you have to give the pieces to your kids and continue to pass them down, so they make really robust, heavy furniture with extra thick joints. The first time I went to Tlacotalpan, I was redesigning their standard rocking chair based off a local design. One of the first things I tried to convince them of was making it thinner. I wanted them to re-think how they were rejoining the pieces together and, in a sense, become smarter on using the material. Basically become more conscious of how to make a better product.
Jarrod: I tend toward minimalism but for me it’s based in philosophy and also aesthetic. I’m not particularly striving to use a minimal amount of material. There can be good things about robustness, weight and heft. Those can communicate good things about an object. With respect to sustainability, it’s more in the day-to-day processes, like being really careful and thoughtful during production, and transforming raw materials and the finished parts to minimize waste. With package design that means reiterating those designs to be as minimal as possible and still have the function that’s necessary. That sort of everyday functionality is where the minimalism of volume and material comes into play for me. Also, the scale of the things we do is not the scale that people are often accustomed to for regular mass market products, which has a real impact in a variety of ways. For example, Aaron was using this wood from a hurricane – that’s a very finite amount of wood – and I’m using local salvage wood. It’s not like going to a regular lumberyard. The extra value that people might see in our products is really the limited scale that we can work at. I think that’s important for people to understand.
Aaron: I think that promoting conversations like this one is important – whether it’s about creating something that’s really heavy or minimalist is kind of irrelevant. It’s more about, as Jarrod said, the processes through which you make your product, and the level of care you have when making things. I appreciate that Kaufmann works with people who think about those things.
Well, thanks to you all for joining in!
Do you have questions for José, Jarrod or Aaron? Want to chime in on the conversation? Let us know in the comments below!
With thanks to Nicole Breeden for additional reporting.