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.
September 27, 2012
If you live in the Bay Area, you probably know that there are two things that everyone is talking about: artisanal food products and “desktop manufacturing.” Now, a Chicago design startup, ODLCO, is attempting to combine these two ideas through what they call “small-batch manufacturing.” They fly in the face of the idea that making physical products requires mass-production. Lisa Smith and her cofounder, Caroline Linder, don’t use 3D printers; they use traditional manufacturing practices. But their story — triumphs and struggles alike — is a signal from a future in which many more people can make physical things in small batches. They already are where many Foo Camp-attendees think the world is going.
If you follow Randolph Avenue due west for a mile or so from downtown Chicago, you end up in an industrial stretch of brick buildings that has long served as a series of meatpacking and storage outposts for the nearby Fulton Market. When Linder and Smith took over one of these two-story units recently, the first floor was still dominated by a massive meat locker and a fork lift. But neither of those is visible now. Linder and Smith are maximizing the mixed-use potential of this place, turning it into a small-scale manufacturing facility in back, showroom up front, and an apartment above, where Smith is already living.
Linder and Smith’s company, ODLCO, is the second iteration of a collaboration they originally called Object Design League (ODL), through which they produced exhibitions and operated pop-up shops. But, Smith says, they tired of exhibitions. “It’s so unsatisfying when you have your thing on a pedestal, and then no one can really buy it, it’s a one-off, and no one’s really using it,” she explains, “So we thought that instead of doing exhibitions it would be nice to actually produce works…in the design world, helping these things come to life.” So Object Design League became ODLCO, and to date the duo has produced three products: a cast-iron pot, a butter dish, and a forthcoming silicone trivet. In each case, they have done extensive leg work to track down makers who specialize in exactly the kind of production process they need. The pot, for example, was manufactured by a small company they found up in Wisconsin that makes cast-iron boat anchors. “They’ve been doing that since the 40s, it’s their bread and butter,” says Linder. After looking at the ODLCO prototype, the manufacturer determined that they could produce the pot, but it would require the designers’ collaboration to figure out how to get the product they wanted out of the infrastructure that was there. “That is the part of small-batch manufacturing that we’re really interested in, which is where some of our skill sets come in to design for the preexisting methods of making,” says Linder, “They’re not souped-up, they’re not high-tech there, it’s just, ‘This is what we have, if you want to work with it that’s cool.’” What emerged is a heavy, elegant, and still totally utilitarian pot that’s meant to be used under a grill, on a campfire, or in an oven, while still having aesthetic value worthy of being displayed on a table. At $150, it’s about the same price as the popular multi-use Le Creuset cookware.
“In terms of pricing, ‘appropriate’ is not an exciting word,” says Smith, “But I think it’s important for us in that we’re working with people who are doing this in Wisconsin, and are doing this by hand, and they get paid more than someone overseas does.” ODLCO also pays a fair royalty to the designer of each product, and all of that is factored into what the consumer pays. Still, while they strive to be ‘appropriate,’ they manage not to be astronomical–at least not by the standards of their market category. Now their challenge is to figure out how to grow without scaling beyond their optimal size, which means emphasizing their role as a manufacturing partner. “If you try to get an object designed for you, you’re likely a big company like Target, so you go to another big company, like Frog Design,” Smith explains, “But if you’re a small business and you want something designed for you, then where do you go? We hope we can fill that in a little bit, too.”
* * *
Perhaps the best way to think about ODLCO is this: they sell products, but they also sell processes. They show you how the design world works while you buy their product. You can see that in an art exhibition that Linder and Smith put together with three collaborators for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As described by the Italian art magazine, Domus, the group “operated a balloon factory at the MCA to produce a small run of latex balloons from scratch.” Think about that phrasing. They didn’t make balloons for display. The factory was also part of the art piece.
“Balloons are objects that no one really knows how they are made industrially, unlike furniture,” Smith says. As with their other products, Linder and Smith had to learn exactly how they were made, too, in order to replicate the process.
“There are a bunch of different kinds of latex,” Linder explains. “Early on, we figured out that a lot of them were too thick.” Ultimately the found the best type of latex was the kind Hollywood special effects designers use to make the bladders that hold blood for fight scenes.
With the material selected, the next step was optimizing production. ”[The balloon factory] was, in a way, the first manufacturing project we did,” Smith says. “We figured out how to make the balloon, but there were other things to figure out. Like, we wanted to pump out the maximum amount per day. There were five of us. How do we figure out the operational logistics, so there were this many racks with this many drying. And that’s where we got into the actual factory part. We were pumping out 80 a day. That’s when we got into small-batch manufacturing.”
The underlying assumption in all this work is that if you can figure out how things really get made, you can find either A) new ways of making things or B) ways of making new things. They explicitly do not want to scale up because, as co-founder Lisa Smith put it, “There are certain things you can do in low-volume that you can’t do at high-volume.” If there’s a non-delicious lesson to learn from the rise of the microbrewery and nanodistillery or the handcrafted chicharron guy, it’s precisely this. Small isn’t necessarily better in all things, but small can be different and disruptive.
April 6, 2012
Every afternoon, a young man runs barefoot down the middle of our street. He’s one of those paleo-fitness people—the ones who believe we should go shoeless like the cavemen when we exercise. I’m not necessarily a detractor—as a runner myself, I think about things like long-term impact on my joints, heel strike and arch support, all of which are purported to be better when barefoot—but given that our environs are now covered in asphalt, broken glass, and worse, I’m also not eager to take up this practice.
The barefoot approach is just one among a variety within a movement known as minimalist running. Going shoeless is both the most extreme and the most low-tech of the options for “reducing your shoes.” For those who prefer an intermediary between their skin and the street, there is barefoot-inspired footwear, like the ever more prevalent Vibram 5 Fingers (I’ll reserve my opinion on the aesthetic consequences of this trend). Recently, Nike announced a new shoe for the lightweight category that responds to many of the desires of minimalist runners, and then‚ since Nike likes to push the innovation envelope, goes further, tackling some of the bigger challenges inherent to mass-manufacturing shoes.
The Nike Flyknit takes its cues not so much from bare feet as from socks. The company had heard from runners that the ideal fit for a shoe would be the snug feeling of knit material. “But all the features that make a sock desirable,” Nike says, “have proven to make them a bad choice for a running upper [the part of the shoe that is not the sole or the tongue]. An inherently dynamic material like yarn generally has no structure or durability.”
The company engaged in four years of R&D to come up with software and technology that could turn a factory-scale sock-making machine into a producer of sneaker uppers. Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Matt Townsend wrote a great article on the process: ”Spools of colored polyester yarn are fed into the 15-foot-long machine, which weaves together the top of the shoe and creates a ‘second skin’ with tiny synthetic cables knitted into the weave around the midfoot for support.”
Besides the visible minimalism of the Flyknit’s structure, the design enables a huge reduction in material use and production time. As we learned last week, most shoes are composed of dozens of materials and require at least as many productive steps. According to Townsend, “the Flyknit has 35 fewer pieces to assemble than the popular Air Pegasus+ 28″ and reduces material waste by 66 percent. The implication is that labor requirements shrink, which could make domestic manufacturing financially viable, which in turn diminishes transportation and its associated ecological burden.
The computer-reliant design also means Nike could rapidly and inexpensively deploy different yarn types or change the density of the weave. There’s also the potential for more consumer-friendly applications, such as the ability to scan a customer’s foot in a retail store and order shoes custom-woven to the exact specifications of that individual—yarn color included. It’s not quite 3D printing, but it’s not that far off.
From a sustainability perspective, the Flyknit is an interesting example of how to address environmental issues at the design phase, creating systemic change before the product reaches the consumer and the likelihood of a shift plummets. Nike itself has experimented with sustainability initiatives at the consumer end, asking shoe owners to bring back old pairs for recycling. Patagonia does it too. But relying on individuals to close your loop is a much riskier bet than baking more efficient methods into your factory.
The Flyknit isn’t out yet, so all the talk of an industry-wide butterfly effect triggered by a sock-like shoe is mere speculation. But based on the picture I can at least say one thing: I’d be a lot more willing to wear this sneaker in public than certain other shoes in the lightweight running category.
March 30, 2012
It used to be that most people liked to think of creativity as a flash in the dark—some sudden, mysterious, epiphanic bolt that set in motion the creation of a painting or poem or innovative business. But there’s a growing interest in dissecting and analyzing the creative process.
With the release of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, the science of creative acts has been on the media’s mind recently. Lehrer did a great interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air last week about his book, which focuses specifically on creativity in the workplace.
By exploring the cognitive and behavioral minutia of, say, the product development team that came up with the Swiffer, Lehrer gets at the notion that creativity is not, in fact, the exclusive turf of geniuses. A whole chain of events and scads of people are often involved in inching an idea along until it becomes a great one.
Buzz about Lehrer’s book began just about the time I was reading up on the same topic in a much more remote domain. In a way, Imagine gives some pop culture validation to people like Naomi Braithwaite, a scholar at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, whose doctoral dissertation looks at the role of creativity in shoe design in the British fashion industry. Her research “responds to contemporary culture’s proclamation of the shoe designer as ‘creative genius,’ where the [explanation] of what this creativity entails remains notably absent. Symptomatic of design discourse is that creativity is often equated to…the inspired imagination of the individual designer. In this context, though, creativity appears as an immaterial process that poses the question: How do ideas become shoes?”
Like Lehrer, Braithwaite contends that a creative product—in this case a shoe—doesn’t emerge from one individual’s flash of inspiration, but from “a network involving many persons, processes and materials; it is both relational and transformative. A ladies’ high heel shoe, for example, is composed of at least 12 different materials and will have moved through over 50 different productive operations.”
Braithwaite undertook an immersive ethnographic study in which she not only observed and interviewed shoe designers, she also trained to become one herself at the London College of Fashion. What she found over the course of her research was that there was a strong connection between the sensory elements of shoemaking—the smell of leather, the feel of snakeskin, the sound of hammering, the physical motions of pedaling a sewing machine or stretching a toe—and the final form of the shoe. Any one of these sense-based experiences can evoke memories or images that influence the style, shape, color, texture, and spirit of the design. “Materials themselves are a massive trigger through bodily engagement, “ she says, “It is sense experience that seizes and acts upon the body of the individual designer, stimulating creative thought.”
Braithwaite’s approach follows the “paradigm of emplacement,” a theory presented by Canadian anthropologist David Howes in his book Empire of the Senses, which suggests that there’s something beyond the mind-body connection in acquiring knowledge or acting creatively, there’s a “sensuous interrelationship of mind-body-environment.” In other words, your shoes might have a satin lining because the designer wore a satin tie to a particularly memorable theater performance when he was 5.
But that’s not terribly surprising. Most of us take for granted that our life experience informs our creative output. What I found interesting from Braithwaite’s thesis was that industrialization and mass production of shoes (or other products) doesn’t necessarily diminish the role of sensory experience in creativity. The context changes—shoemakers occupy factory floors, operate giant heat presses and laser cutters and sergers—but our bodies and senses are still entirely engaged with the process. “Although manufacture is technology driven, all machines and processes are initiated by bodily gestures,” she points out, “The [shaping] is done in a machine, but a person puts the shoe there, wraps the material, and the machine is being guided, whether by the foot or by hand. It’s a skill, you have to learn how the machine works, how the motion goes. You have to learn to control it. Craft is still a very evident skill in the modern shoemaking industry.”
Because mass-production creates such consistent products, it’s rare for consumers to detect the subtle human elements embedded in their shoes. But the designer always sees it, says Braithwaite. “What struck me most when I worked with shoe designers was that they never wore their own shoes except at a commercial event where it was required for promotion. They couldn’t bear to see their shoes on their own feet because all they could see was how it wasn’t as perfect as they imagined.”
And this observation reveals what in my opinion is the most surprising and fascinating piece of Braithwaite’s research (though really it’s the subject of an entirely different book, and if nobody’s written it, I hope they do). The phenomenon she describes, of designers being consistently dissatisfied by their creation when viewed on their own feet, was only experienced by female designers. Male designers, on the other hand (at least the very vast majority), wouldn’t put a woman’s pump on their own foot to evaluate its aesthetic worth, and therefore wouldn’t experience a connection between personal self-criticism and the critique of their work. In fact, Braithwaite says, the men she interviewed reported more often feeling disappointment with a shoe upon first seeing it emerge from the factory, and that it didn’t look “right” until they saw it on a woman’s foot. It strikes me that this finding has some significant implications for the experience of male versus female designers in any industry in which products are gendered. If anyone has research, resources, or general thoughts on the subject, I’m eager to hear.
March 28, 2012
Plastics and resins usually seem like the anti-sustainability. They are often made from petroleum, they rarely biodegrade, and without industrial facilities and resource extraction, they wouldn’t exist. But as technology and manufacturing advance, moldable materials are converging with sustainable design practices.
In the footwear industry, as in many others, plastics are being put forward as an environmental solution, when paired with production methods that reduce waste and enable recycling of surplus materials. Take Melissas, the Brazilian footwear company that produces injection-molded plastic shoes for women. Nothing about these glossy, candy-colored kicks suggests they’re a fashion choice for the green set, but indeed they’ve become exactly that.
Made with a proprietary plastic known as Melflex, the shoes lean toward a cradle-to-cradle model (at least in this one respect), in which the material input can be drawn from the outflow. The shoes are composed of a single, smooth unit, much like the plastic chairs that first emerged in the mid-20th century from modernist designers like Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Melissas are optimal for mass production, and they’re an obvious candidate for design experimentation, since they can be conceived as pixels in a 3D rendering, rather than as a hand-forged prototype.
Because of this, Melissas have become a way for designers of large-scale objects to play around in a microcosm. Architect Zaha Hadid applied her futuristic aesthetic to a series of limited edition shoes that exhibited her signature asymmetrical forms and unique use of empty space. The Brazilian design duo Campana Brothers brought the haphazardly woven appearance of their PVC furniture down to the scale of footwear for several collaborations with the popular brand.
When producing molded plastic goods from 3D-rendered models, some unique possibilities arise—among them, the ability to impregnate the raw material with fragrances that, the theory goes, create a subconscious emotional connection between consumers and their shoes. Instead of the neurotoxic chemical smell of PVC, Melissas smell like bubblegum—a scent that sends most people to happy memories of childhood.
As materials science advances, injection molding may give way to 3D printing—a strategy that’s widely used in design studios for pushing formal boundaries, but as yet not ubiquitous on the footwear market. Most polymers used in 3D printers are too hard and inflexible to make a comfortable shoe, although fashion students and designers have not been deterred from producing them, if only for one lap down a runway. The existing concepts invariably look rather sci-fi, with web-like lines that wrap the foot.
Swedish designer Naim Josefi envisions a consumer environment in which a shopper’s foot would be scanned in-store, and a shoe printed on demand that perfectly fit the wearer’s anatomy. Brazilian designer Andreia Chaves’s Invisible Shoe pairs a common leather pump with a 3D-printed cage-like bootie, while Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen’s Morphogenesis shoe more closely resembles a platform wedge. And at the London College of Fashion, student Hoon Chung created a line of 3D printed shoes for a final project, which look perhaps the closest to contemporary styles, though the molded shapes betray a high-tech production method.
Potential future applications for 3D printed footwear aren’t merely fashion-oriented. One could imagine using this kind of rapid production of athletic attachments for prostheses or extreme weather gear. And of course at some point, it will probably be possible to customize the smell of your shoes so they transport you to your own happy place—a bacon-scented stiletto can’t be far down the pike.