December 13, 2012
Over the last few years, numerous tools and templates have come along to help individuals create websites, produce indie publications, start ecommerce brands and build social networks. The digital realm can be very amateur-friendly. But it’s much harder to just decide one day to start producing physical objects. Design is specialized, and manufacturing is technical, not to mention inaccessible—at least seemingly so—to the average person. Factories exist in a separate sphere from our daily lives, and increasingly, over oceans. While the notion of supporting American-made goods is certainly not a new one, there’s a new faction getting behind it: independent makers who want to produce small runs of their designs in a domestic facility.
Earlier this year, I visited one such shop, known as ODLCO, based in Chicago. Founded by a pair of young design students who have since graduated, ODLCO makes practical objects—a cooking pot, a butter dish—using materials and manufacturers located as close to home as possible. Their Wabi Nabe cast iron pot, for example, was forged in Wisconsin by a company that primarily turns out boat anchors.
The ODLCO partners had to search high and low to find a foundry that would meet their unusual demand, but this seemingly odd pairing of boutique design studio with specialized manufacturer is becoming less unusual by the week. In fact, enough small-batch makers are in search of this kind of service that a new startup was born around the matchmaking. It’s called Maker’s Row, and it’s all about showcasing American factories online, in a format that enables those often web-fluent makers to find just what they’re looking for, from laser cutting to denim washing to leather binding. Founded by Matthew Burnett, Tanya Menendez and Scott Weiner, Maker’s Row was one of five startups accepted into Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp 2012, where they received seed funding and support to get their idea off the ground.
Before starting Maker’s Row, you had your own experience of seeking a leather goods manufacturer for your accessories line and coming up empty. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about searching? Did you ever find someone or did Maker’s Row come to be before you finished the pursuit of a leather maker?
Matthew: Before Maker’s Row, I started a leather accessory line called Brooklyn Bakery. When seeking out a leather manufacturer I searched Google for weeks, talked to professors at my college (Pratt) and eventually found a manufacturer by word of mouth. Many of my designer friends would purchase trade catalogs, hire consultants, and even drive to other states to visit factories, but I didn’t have time or money to do that.
The factory I eventually found made decent quality products but I would have loved to have had other options as he was only capable of doing very simple leather goods. The factory owner wouldn’t refer me to anyone else as he didn’t want to risk losing me as a client, so I was stuck. I didn’t have the time or money to source factories properly as I was managing the sales, marketing, and fulfillment of the products I had to produce every season.
What is your process now for finding the factories that appear on your site, and what kind of pitch do you give them to help them understand Maker’s Row and want to appear on the site?
Matthew: There are a number of different resources that we have consulted, from factories that were willing to share their contacts with us to local consultants that helped us compile a list of manufacturers and suppliers to reach out to. When we reach out to these factories we just give them a brief overview of the site and guide them through how to best use Maker’s Row. The majority of factories that we speak to understand right away. Sometimes we have to do a bit of hand-holding but we are happy to help any factory set up their profile with us.
It seems to me that appearing on your site could be great for some factories that otherwise have no web presence and minimal ways of expanding their client base. Do you think of yourselves, to some extent, as a little branding or marketing engine to give factories an aura of hipness and currency?
Tanya: A lot of thought went into the Maker’s Row brand and design of the website. We wanted it to be clean and beautiful for designers, yet simple and useful for our factories/suppliers/contractors. Our hope is that the way we have organized the profiles will make it an efficient browsing experience for the user, while portraying the factory (or supplier or contractor) in the best, most accurate way possible.
Matthew: As a marketplace, it is important that we make the site both aesthetically pleasing and informative to our users. This includes clean and easy to use profiles, multiple browsing views for designers and media services for factories to have a polished web presence on our site.
Can you provide a few examples of some of the early maker-factory match-ups that have come through Maker’s Row?
Matthew:It’s now been a month since we launched and we are already getting great feedback. It usually takes more than a month to hear back from a designer/ factory story as the manufacturing process takes time but we held a meet-up with designers at the fashion center in Manhattan and had a waiting list of attendees. One of our listed factories, Baikal Handbags, attended and told us that she is receiving so many client requests, she has a backlog and will be hiring a manager to handle the mounting workload.
Your homepage has a very basic flow chart of the making process, from ideation through production. The way you present the explanation suggests you might be inviting true amateurs—people with a decent concept but no experience or skills in this field—to bring their idea to Maker’s Row. In a way this makes me think of my arena, journalism, and the harsh criticism that rose up around blogging when suddenly untrained writers had access to public platforms and an audience. What are your thoughts on the “rise of the amateur” in manufacturing?
Matthew: I wouldn’t make a direct correlation between the two industries for a couple reasons. One being that Maker’s Row is connecting entrepreneurs (that may have little to no experience) with professionals that can handle the technical aspects of manufacturing. We are not attempting to substitute the craftsmanship of professionals.
Secondly, we are enabling channels of communication between those with product ideas and those with experienced manufacturing skills and equipment to transform those ideas into quality products. Everyone wins in this scenario. We are lowering the barriers of entry for domestic manufacturing is something that will benefit designers, small businesses, manufacturers, and the United States as a whole.
I am truly inspired by how many new (“amateur”) designers are coming up with creative ideas and taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. Giving new designers access to professionals will help them refine the design, construction, and durability of their concepts, making way for a new generation of small businesses that will be able to contribute to their communities and ultimately, to the American economy.
In the same section, you say, “these factories will help refine your idea and think through the different components…”. Is it really the case that the factories you work with will actually start at the beginning with makers? This seems like a real shift in their efficiencies—do they get a stake in the success of the product?
Matthew: We have spoken to hundreds of manufacturers that are more than willing to invest time in a new designer for a number of reasons. One reason is loyalty; if a factory believes that a designer is serious, even if they are new to the industry, they will try to cultivate a relationship and help them grow their business into a major label that will eventually be placing large orders with them.
Another reason some factories are looking for small scale production is because they are able to create multiple revenue streams from small businesses rather than maxing out their labor capacity on one large client. This way the factory is able to maintain a steady workflow that isn’t dependent on one large client.
December 4, 2012
Diana Zlatanovski is meta. As an anthropologist, a museologist, and a curatorial research associate at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she spends her days going through collections of art and artifacts, and with her extra time, she takes photos of those collections and many others she finds outside the museum as part of an ongoing project she calls The Typology.
By assembling and examining a grouping of objects with shared attributes, Zlatanovski aims to reveal patterns and information that wouldn’t be visible if looking at each individual piece in isolation. She has gone hunting for these revelations in photos of tools, vegetables, shells, landscapes, portraits, old coins, and much more. We talked with Zlatanovski about how she came to collect collections, what The Typology says about design, and how one gets into her line of work without becoming a hoarder.
At their most fundamental level, collections are accumulations of objects. But they are distinguished by their intentional grouping—a coin collection is different than a handful of change.
Objects are wrapped in meaning, collections are a way for them to tell their common story. A collection makes links and connections between things evident, giving a greater understanding of the story. Only through studying groupings are we able to see a spectrum of variation—information not apparent in isolation can become visible in context.
Was there a particular collection or a particular moment that inspired you to start doing your typology work?
The first object typology I photographed was a collection of wrenches. I didn’t necessarily have a plan for the wrenches when I was collecting them but found myself compelled to acquire them. The varied shapes and sizes, the range of colors in the metal, the texture of the patina, they all conveyed something to me. I began to realize I also had an emotional connection to the wrenches-my father was a builder and tools are objects of memory for me.
As I looked closely at the wrenches they brought to mind archaeological typologies of prehistoric stone tools with their different forms and sizes of grinding and chipping stones. I saw the comparison as an example of the continuity of human ingenuity over time.
Plenty of people collect rocks or stamps or bottles, but you have amazing access to museum archives where you can see assemblages ancient pottery shards, extinct currencies, and primitive tools. Did you have to get permission to start photographing them for your own project? Do you just go into work every day with your camera and shoot the objects you’re sorting through?
Collection storage areas are an endless source of inspiration for me, and I so wish I could spend all of my days roaming through them with my camera! At any given time only a very small percentage of a museum’s holdings are on display so you can imagine the treasure trove of objects waiting in the wings for their day in the spotlight. I am incredibly grateful to get in depth views of museum holdings, it allows me chances for serendipitous discovery.
Different museums have different collection policies, but I do always need to obtain the appropriate permissions to handle and photograph museum artifacts.
Has your method of assembling things ever given you insight into a historical moment or culture that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen? Have any revelations come out of placing objects together and looking at the pattern or the whole?
Working with the shell collections at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology teaches me something new every time. What I love about working on the shell typologies is how strikingly similar each shell can seem until I compile all of the specimens into one image and realize how many details are vastly different.
One of the many remarkable things about Harvard’s collections is that they were collected for scientific study, so their documentation adds a whole other layer of interest. I can work with a group of shells that were all collected in a singular moment in time at one specific place, sometimes over a hundred years ago in waters I will likely never visit. Those objects existed together at that place in time and they remain together to this day. These are the connections that make this work so fascinating to me. Objects are what remain behind as a link between their time and ours.
Living in small spaces with a slightly minimalist husband definitely helps keeps my collecting in check. So far, I’ve mostly worked with smaller objects, which can be easily stored or displayed, though I fear the day I’m compelled to do a typology of 19th century sofas. And I suppose one of the benefits of working with museum collections could be that they most definitely won’t let me bring those home!
Does The Typology have an ultimate destination or goal? Is there a point at which you’d feel complete with this project, or a particular assemblage of things that you aspire to capture?
I intend to continue growing Typology and am excited to watch it evolve. New ideas are coming to mind constantly and I’m regularly building on my earlier work. Ultimately my goal is for these collections and their biographies to foster a larger appreciation and interest in the preservation of both cultural as well as natural artifacts. And that will always be an ongoing project.
Since this is a design blog, can you comment on how this is a design project, or what connection you see between Typology and design?
Typology uses logic to convey meaning and influence how we interact with things, which is essentially a design process. A typology creates order within a set of objects much like design distills and simplifies. Both tell stories and create intrigue in a visual medium.
My photographs are visual art so the graphic design and aesthetics of each image is a significant factor. Every typology image is a compilation, I photograph every artifact separately and layout the typology from those separate elements. Visually pleasing patterning has to balance with an arrangement that best conveys the story the objects are telling. Good design is all about that balance.
I would love to include part of the Smithsonian’s collections in Typology in the future. I recently visited an exhibition of art from Kazahkstan at the Freer gallery and I was very intrigued with the collection of ancient daggers on display. The Cooper Hewitt also has a beautiful array of match safes that I would love to photograph. And in homage to Julia Child, it would be great to do a typology of her kitchen tools!
In addition to my own typology photography, I also curate photographic and object typologies that I discover out in the world on my blog, The Typologist. One of my favorite posts was a collection of tags worn by the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum’s mascot Owney, the postal dog.
Photography by Diana Zlatanovski. Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology malacology collection.
© 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College
November 13, 2012
This headline is somewhat misleading, since it is actually already true in the present—for a few lucky Japanese people—that you can have a 3D-printed miniature version of yourself. A Tokyo-based company called Omote 3D will soon debut their next-level photo booth at a pop-up shop Harajuku, one of the world’s most fertile seeding grounds for new style trends.
Those lucky enough to book a reservation will be asked to stand still for 15 minutes while a photographer scans their body all the way around. They will then get to select one of three sizes for the tiny, full-color replica. I’m already seeing these on top of wedding cakes a few years down the line. At least the high-budget variety—a 4-inch replica of a couple costs $528 US dollars.
November 12, 2012
Back in January, when Newt Gingrich was still a GOP hopeful, he presented the idea of making the moon into the 51st member of the United States. Fast-forward a few months: Gingrich did not win the nomination, the moon remains uncolonized, but the notion of another state was in fact a very real part of the 2012 election. In Puerto Rico, a clear majority of citizens voted for the island’s statehood.
This doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico will be promptly admitted to the union. A number of factors and decisions still stand between the vote and the final outcome. However, it does beg the question: What would a 51-star flag look like? And, for that matter, what was the design process at other moments in history when the US scaled up its territory?
There’s a great five-minute clip on the archives of the wonderful StoryCorps in which the credited designer of the 50-state flag—a man named Bob Heft—describes the circumstances in which his configuration won official status as the US flag. As a high school student in the late 50s, right before Hawaii and Alaska were admitted to the union, Heft had to come up with a special project for his American History class. He decided to cut up an existing 48-star flag and sew it back together to create a 50-star flag (“I had never sewn in my life,” Heft says, “and since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.”). The stunt earned him a B- from a teacher who believed he didn’t know how many states the country had.
Heft submitted his design to the White House, alongside more than a thousand other ideas for the 50-star flag, and while there were a few others that shared the same concept, Heft’s was credited as being the official one. (His teacher changed his grade to an A.) After his moment of the national stage, Heft spent his life as a teacher and small-town mayor in Michigan, where he died in 2009, allegedly in possession of a copyright for several other flag designs, including a 51-star and 60-star version (presumably that scenario did not include the moon as one of the other nine new states).
The kind of unsolicited crowdsourcing that occurred in 1958 is of course nothing compared to the number of designs likely to be generated in 2012, with Adobe Creative Suite ready to generate perfectly identical stars in precisely symmetrical formations. Reddit users got started right away after Puerto Rico’s vote, and designs are popping up elsewhere across the Internet. The irregularity of the number makes for some interesting solution, probably the best one being a star-spangled Pac-Man eating star-spangled pac-dots. Of course, doing this legitimately requires some math. Back in 2010 when Puerto Rico was still a few years off from the big decision, Slate did their due diligence and asked a mathematician how 51 stars could best be fit into the allotted real estate. They provide a few formulas to follow, should you decide it’s your turn to be the next American flag designer.
November 2, 2012
Last fall, I went on a reporting road trip through the American South. Eating was not the main purpose of the trip, but the need to find food along the road between North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana provided a great secondary mission. As a guide, we relied on Garden & Gun magazine’s list of the 50 Best Southern Foods. I referenced it time and again during the trip, and the image that accompanied each page became like a visual symbol of the journey.
A few months later, that familiar picture reappeared while I was scanning some design blogs, and only then did it occur to me that the image was a hand-painted sign (or hand-chalked, in this case). The artist, Dana Tanamachi, had posted a 2-minute time-lapse video on the making of the piece. Despite having put little thought into the graphic back when I was looking at the content, I realized then that the authentic, folksy (you could say “Southern”) feel of the food guide resulted largely from the presence of the handmade sign. The magazine could have used computer graphics, could even have rendered something digitally to appear hand-drawn, but instead they chose the real thing, and it made the whole production that much more engaging and memorable.
Sign painting as an occupation and industry took a major hit with the advent of illustration software, giant printers, and vinyl cutting, but it’s making a comeback thanks to our cultural reinvestment in the value of manual work. Books like Shop Class as Soulcraft and Handmade Nation shone spotlights on the growing movement of makers taking handiwork back from hobby to livelihood. Now the author of Handmade Nation, Faythe Levine, has a new book (and documentary) that zeroes in on the world of professional sign painters. In collaboration with Sam Macon, Levine visited two dozen people who have made their mark on food trucks, shop windows, billboards, and multi-story buildings across the country. Sign Painters, published by Princeton Architectural Press, features the painters in their own words and incredibly bold images, describing how they came to this profession and how things have changed.
A common thread among the subjects of the book is that while what they are producing is art, most don’t call themselves artists. “The kind of sign painting that I embrace, that I make a living doing,” says Cincinnati-based Justin Green, “is a service. It’s an industry, and I want to keep it that way…when the unions held sway, ‘artist’ was a pejorative term. In all the old sign-painting books the sign painter was referred to as the ‘mechanic.’” Phil Vandervaart (painter of the Dusty’s Bar sign, below) echoes the sentiment: “It’s a sign, not fine art,” he says,”It’s meant to convey information and be attractive.” For Vandervaart, sign painting is a way of “adding to the urban cacophony” and impacting the cityscape. it’s a description that could almost as easily refer to graffiti, and indeed some of the painters came from a street art background, but the role of sign painting as marketing device is not lost on the people who aim to earn a living through this work. Keith Knecht, who was featured in the book at age 71 and passed away before its release, points to sign painters as the original brand identity developers for companies. “In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns,” he says, “Sign painters designed those logos.”
Surprisingly, not all of the painters eschew computers, though they don’t choose to produce their work exclusively on the screen (and some do lament that computers have caused the deterioration of basic artistic skills, and a fervent need for speed and replication). Gary Martin, an Austin, Texas-based sign painter who has been making signs since the ’70s, enjoys the visibility the Internet enables, and finds fresh motivation through the younger generation of sign painters who are connecting and showing their work online. “I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other young people show up to join me,” he says, “Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters.” One of those younger painters is San Francisco-based Jeff Canham (whose letters are featured at the top of the post). Canham has had a hybrid career, straddling the physical and digital, advertising and fine art. “I don’t know where you draw the line between one and the other,” he remarks, “Just about everything I do has some kind of combination of hand painted and digitally rendered…I wasn’t necessarily hell-bent on doing everything by hand. I was bored with the computer.”
Canham is among a handful of painters featured in the book who have passed at one time or another through the workshop of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. Frequent mentions of the place, as well as sign schools in Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere, make clear that sign painting is a trade that values mentorship, apprenticeship and lineage. Like all designers, sign painters look to their predecessors to guide them on technique and tradition, while picking and choosing from the modern tools available now. Sign Painters is a great source of inspiration about this often-overlooked industry, and a good reminder to pay a little extra attention while out in the city, on the highway, or wherever. Beautiful hand-painted signs are everywhere.