Aaron Lown and John Roscoe Swartz of BUILT
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Our most recent Meetup kicked off with Phil Michealson of KartMe (a free website that helps you to organize, share, and make decisions with friends on a variety of projects) and designer Monica Velez shared her "Feel Me II" mattress. Following was the featured event with Aaron Lown and John Roscoe Swartz of BUILT — jump below for the BUILT transcript and all the images integrated from Aaron & John's presentation…
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN:: So let’s think back to a time before there were neoprene wine carriers; when our only choice for carrying wine was those black plastic bags used by almost every wine and liquor merchant in New York. I remember back when Astor Wines had a very standard-looking front counter. And then, all of a sudden, the front counters of wine stores started to get more interesting — we started to see these beautiful, colorful and functional neoprene wine carriers produced by our guests tonight. A little bit about BUILT before we begin — Aaron Lown and John Roscoe Swartz started the company in 2003 as an answer to a problem, not knowing how much it would expand and how quickly it would do so. Friends from Cranbrook, Aaron and John left their previous careers to start BUILT, which as of 2010 has sold over 7,000,000 neoprene totes, sold in over 50 countries. They expanded from wine to a variety of items to help you carry things — such as lunch totes, book totes, even iPad holders.
Thank you for joining us. So I usually start out these discussions asking about how the company or product got started. Tonight, I'd like to ask you a bit about why you both decided to become designers and how you ended up going to Cranbrook.
JOHN ROSCOE SWARTZ: I became a designer because early on in my life I fell in love with great design. I grew up in Ohio, but had the chance to escape to Italy at the age of 18 — a trip that transformed my life. I remember walking into an Alessi store and seeing the La cupola espresso maker by (Aldo) Rossi and thinking what an amazing, well-crafted piece it was. It changed my whole outlook and transformed my feelings about design.
AARON LOWN: I feel the same passion for Rossi. I'm a painter, so craft, pottery, and other hand-made objects — when well-made — make me feel the passion that went into the design of this object. I grew up in Maine, where my family ran a shoe manufacturing company. I grew up around craftspeople, factory workers, and artisans, so I'm pretty attune to a well-made product.
MAXWELL: Okay, so I understand where you're both coming from, but most people don't go to Italy and fall in love with Alessi products, or grow up around crafts and follow a design career. I'm curious to learn a bit more about how you felt design was your calling.
AARON: I had a first-grade assignment where we were asked to write what we'd do if we were President of the United States. I ended up creating my own typeface! Graphic design was always an interest of mine, and I ended up getting my BFA in graphic arts at Parsons. I actually also spent a lot of time in high school on pottery. I went to crafts camp at thirteen and actually threw pots next to Jonathan Adler. He was so good at throwing pots — it was intimidating! So I ended up going over to the woodworking shop instead. I was pretty upset about this at the time — in fact, funny story is that shortly after that I actually broke Adler’s ankle in a basketball game (not on purpose of course).
JOHN: In 1991 we were in the midst of a recession, and I figured it would be a good time to go back to school. Cranbrook has such history, it was an attractive option. It's almost like an art & design "monastery" — graduate study only, and a very free cross-discipline platform. More concentrated studies in graduate school make relationships and close contacts even stronger.
MAXWELL: So when you left, what did you think you'd do next?
JOHN: Cranbrook was a great education intellectually — lots of debate and critique. I ended up getting a degree in Printmaking (my mom is a Printmaker) with a graduate thesis in furniture making. Like I said, cross-discipline study is encouraged at Cranbrook.
AARON: John and I came together because we wanted to keep exploring and learning. We moved to New York together, where we were lucky enough to find a great landlord who supplied us an apartment along with studio space. We both did freelance to earn money (architectural modeling, drawings, etc.).
JOHN: I was hell-bent on learning a craft, so I apprenticed with a furniture maker…
AARON: …who happened to be the woodworker who created Donald Judd's furniture.
MAXWELL: Tell us about the first wine tote.
AARON: We were in our Tribeca studio one night, and this guy knocks on the door. It was a neighbor of ours that we had befriended. Anyway, we start talking and he's telling us about work (he was a wine merchant) and how he's looking for a modern, elegant wine tote. We offered to make one for him — his only requests were that he didn't like burlap, and he didn't like images of grapes. We created an Italian leather wine carrier; it was made here, and very expensive. But he loved it. So while it solved his problem, it didn't solve ours, as it was too expensive to sell to many others.
The amazing alums of Cranbrook — Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen to name a few.
My dad was an oral surgeon, and my mom was a modern dancer and printmaker.
AARON: As I mentioned, my family manufactured shoes. What's amazing about both of our families is that we both have uncles that invented major medical devices (Aaron’s uncle invented the defibrillator, John’s uncle invented the insulin pump). I suppose this type of entrepreneurial attitude also helped shape our interest in design and hand-crafted products.
In a family of entrepreneurs and craftspeople, there is a belief you grow up with that you can change the world, that anything is possible. That obviously played into our ability to see the possibilities in the design world, and probably a large part of what attracted us to it. Some of the influential items seen here speak to our interest in beautiful, hand-crafted objects — Marimekko goods, Jean Prouvé chair, Philippe Starck juicer, Issey Miyake dress, Thickness calibrator (American industrial design)
Collection of products designed by Aaron and John pre-BUILT
This shows all of the different items we've created — everything from custom furniture, to shoes, to bags, all in various materials (wood, metal, glass). We experimented a lot before finding one material (Neoprene) that gave us parameters within which to explore multiple product options.
This is a brilliant product — a simple solution to an everyday problem. We strive to make everyday life better. The inspirational items you saw on Slide 3 are wonderful, but the entrepreneurial aspect of the Chip Clip really speaks to us.
Simplicity in product came about due to various trials and errors. I had a chair (“Hi Ho” stool) in MoMA's Mutant Materials Show (1995) and as I was attending the show with my family, who was gushing about the stool and its place in the show, there was a guy standing next to us who wrote for The New Yorker
. He was in need of some stools so I created four for him. Unfortunately, I then spent the next ten years going over to his place to fix them.
MAXWELL: The Dwell Studio founders said that they created textiles because they found them easy to ship! Simplicity makes sense.
Hyattsville 01h product
Along those lines, we idealized the notion of creating a furniture company that produced modern furniture at good prices. This piece is an example of that — the name representing the location of the studio at the time (Hyattsville, Maryland). But we found this to be complicated, and difficult to ship. It was time to go back to the Chip Clip mentality.
ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) is the first place we showed product — a table. It was a lot of work, and again, a difficult product to ship.
Leather Wine Bag (the first bag created)
I was working freelance for Kate Spade at the time, where I learned a lot about bag making. It was also an incredibly inspiring atmosphere due to the entrepreneurial nature of the business. This bag was complicated — it was made in 29 pieces, with 10 different material sources, and was priced at $450. Yes, it was made in NYC, but everything else about it was complicated and expensive.
So we’re travelling around to wine shows, trying to sell the product, realizing it’s too expensive and complicated to make. We realized we needed a cheaper place to make it, and simpler materials. Our choice of neoprene matched our needs, right down to our desire to have fun colors.
Original Two Bottle Totes
This is the culmination of 10 years of effort. We wanted to manufacture in Asia, as we found that we couldn’t afford to do it in the US. We did a google search for “neoprene factories in Asia” and sent along our plans to 5 different factories. Some read the plans in inches, some in centimeters. Some even created the plan in both, resulting in very narrow, long bags! When we got all the samples in-house it was easy to make a decision on whom to go with. Neoprene allows for a cut-and-sew product that is also very dimensional (given Neoprene's properties). The bags are created from one sheet that is sewn together. It packs flat (24 / box) and originally we simply shipped to a self storage facility in New York. The Neoprene version of our bag was an instant success — the issue was one of quantity. We borrowed $30,000 from friends and family to place a large order for a container-load of finished product. We attended the 2004 New York Gift Show and MoMA buyers came in — they saw the bags and placed a $100,000 order on the spot. We took a gamble with the product and it paid off very quickly.
We did various versions of the wine tote (one bottle, two bottle) allowing us to expand and own the category. From there, we noticed that lunch bags often appeared next to the bottles, so we created a lunch tote, which won an award the first year out. It was very successful.
Many people helped us make our dream a reality. We quickly grew from 2 to 15 people, and learned that we had to be able to pass on our vision in order to allow for expansion of the company. This resulted in the BUILT Manifesto.
We made a 10 point manifesto to help keep our mission at the forefront of everything we do. One of the points in the manifesto is "Make everyday life more enjoyable", which we truly strive for in the creation of our products.
Did you feel you needed a manifesto so you wouldn't get lost in the process?
YES! Once again, it goes back to the Chip Clip.
1,000,000 sold — 2005
We have a great team of people who helped us get to this point.
Two-bottle tote as one pocket
A customer created this to hold his laptop, simply cutting the two-bottle tote down the middle seam. He sent it to us and it inspired our first laptop sleeve.
We'd been talking about creating a laptop sleeve, it just made sense. Eat / Drink / Work — we already supported the first two, we needed to support the third.
We turned the bag sideways and put on a handle, another option for this type of carrier.
At this point it looks like you are moving towards carrying things besides beverages.
Just because you can…doesn’t mean you should.
This corkscrew is an example of knowing your limits. We created this “ratcheting corkscrew” to complement our products. Brookstone bought a ton of them and they couldn't sell them. It just didn't make sense. This was a sign that we had to return to the manifesto — we broke every rule and needed to get back to it!
The Alexander Girard Collection from BUILT
Alexander Girard totes — we have the license to use his prints on our products. Girard actually introduced color and shapes to (Charles and Ray) Eames and (Harry) Bertoia, and we find it an honor to have him in the product line.
Has this been good for sales?
Yes. We had already edged into color, but the first print (laptop sleeve) opened our eyes to pattern.
Window display at Mxyplyzyk using Girard design
1st trade show booth that they didn’t build themselves
This inspired the investigation into doing our own store.
BUILT is sold in 50 countries around the world.
Cargo Camera Bags
Laptop Tote Bag + Soho Messenger Bag
Neoprene Envelope for iPad
Laptop Sling in Summer Bloom (2011)
Office Shot (window display acts like a billboard on Broadway)
Q & A
Q: What are the environmental ramifications of Neoprene?
A: Neoprene lasts for 50 years. It is an inert plastic. We are working on developing products that are not plastic-based. We feel that our product replaces many disposable products of the past (the black plastic wine store bag, for example). Our product is recyclable.
Q: Have you heard of geoprene (limestone-based product)?
A: Yes, it’s cool, but in terms of environmental benefits it doesn’t really make sense yet. Patagonia is making wetsuits out of it. It may develop further but it’s not there yet. We’re always looking at new materials, though.
Q: How do you protect your designs?
A: We have a trademark on the two-bottle tote. It’s a big deal because they are very hard to get. We spent a lot of time and money on it. We have put patents on almost everything we’ve created.
Q:Have you talked to any wetsuit manufacturers about using their scraps?
A: All of our products are wetsuit-grade, but there is actually very little left over during the wetsuit manufacturing process.
AARON: In our design, we are very careful to waste as little as possible. Once we come up with a design, we arrange it on the sheet so that little is wasted. Many of our new designs come from suggestions — people love what we do and enjoy coming up with new ideas for use of our products.
Q: When you started to grow quickly, did you train the staff together or did you hire a business manager, etc.?
A: To be honest, we really don’t know what we’re doing! But seriously, we have amazing people on our team and find that they bring experience where we don't have it, and vice versa — it's a great complement. Once trained, we just try to stay out of their way.
Q: Have you ever thought of working with the likes of Target or Wal-Mart?
A: We started working with Target early on, on projects that are not BUILT.
MAXWELL: Do you enjoy working with Target?
A: We chose to work with a mass market retail, so we know what that entails. Given that, it's still a struggle. The dynamic of reseller to manufacturer gives them great power. It's a challenge, but a good one.
Q: How large is your staff? How do you decide the size?
A: We currently have about 50 employees. We love what we do and we always want to do more, so we hire as needed. We do everything (sales, warehousing, quality control, design) so a large staff is needed.
Q: Do you design in-house or hire out?
A: We have an amazing in-house design team, but of course, we’re always growing and looking for new talent.
MAXWELL: I usually like to finish up by asking one of two questions: Given where you currently are, what would you have done differently? Or, what’s next for BUILT? Your product line is so broad now, it must feel like you've done everything.
While we've expanded to all sorts of categories, we see a common theme in all of our products — that of on-the-go transport. Thus, we are working towards tying that theme directly to a new line of products related to transport and travel. We're also always looking at new materials, so we will continue that exploration. We've got a lot of new things coming next year, so be on the lookout!
Finally, congratulations to the evening’s two winners of BUILT totes!
• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to Knoll for welcoming our Meetup to their showroom!
• Special thanks to our wine sponsor, September Wine & Spirits!
Images: Herma Ryan, John Mazlish, provided by BUILT