John Roscoe Swartz, BUILT Co-Founder
"Designing and making wonderful things for people—that’s how I was going to contribute." This was the decision John Roscoe Swartz made in his early 20's upon entering graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. His two years there, where he studied art and design, and his life altogether has been what he calls "a great big exploration."
An exploration that started far away—geographically and stylistically from the modernist Eliel Saarinen-designed Cranbrook campus—on his family's farm in Chillicothe, a southern Ohio town near the Kentucky border. Apart from chores like mending fences and feeding baby cow Snowball with a giant milk bottle, John roamed his rural surroundings with abandon—the youngest of four children, he had a long leash. But he was home long enough to soak up the entrepreneurial qualities of his father, an oral surgeon and farmer, and the social responsibility and creativity of his mother, an artist and printmaker. Her studio was always open to him, and once he was old enough to hold a crayon, he could be found there, drawing and painting.
But severe wanderlust set in as John enrolled at the College of Wooster. Just a few weeks into matriculating, he realized he could be anywhere in the world. So off he went to Europe for his entire sophomore year: Florence and Milan for the school year, Paris for the summer. "It was the year that changed my life. I discovered that there was another way to live, where beauty and grace are central to everything." Fine art and graphic design were the focus of his formal studies, but it was observing the Italians' attention to quality of life, that stayed with him—that, and learning how to cook a mean spaghetti carbonara.
During his Parisian summer, he took in the café atmosphere and sold bracelets and rings he'd crafted out of silver wire, his foray into entrepreneurship. Back in Ohio that fall, John was full of "evangelical spirit to transform America into a creative paradise." So much so, that right on the Wooster campus he opened the Pine Street Café, bringing cappuccinos and lattes to Ohio (it was 1989 and the coffee craze hadn't exploded yet). He did this and still managed to graduate cum laude. The café still stands today, but John himself was ready for his next step. Much of his future was dictated by his graduate studies, which began after a year spent creating a portfolio for grad school and renovating his parents' farmhouse. After visiting Cranbrook and falling in love with it, and, of course, being accepted into its rigorous program, John enrolled and met not only his future wife, Christa Leonard, but also his future business partner, Aaron Lown. None of them had any idea of this at the time.
John did know he was hell-bent on learning a craft, though. For his thesis he was experimenting with furniture-making and using a variety of materials including leather—a path that nearly had him move to Montana to work with a saddle maker. But instead, love (Christa) and friendship (Aaron) brought him to New York City after Cranbrook. He and Aaron shared a TriBeCa loft and studio space where they could continue the materials and craft exploration they'd begun at Cranbrook. John also began apprenticing with Jim Cooper, a craftsman and furniture-maker for such art stars as Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. John eventually worked with many of the same artists, designing tables, chairs, and dressers, often using wood he milled himself from trees on his parents' Ohio farm.
By now, Christa and John had married and moved to Washington D.C. While John loved mastering the craft of furniture-making, he missed collaborating and working with a group of creative people on projects. He had always wanted to build a brand, and wanted to design products that "make everyday life better." Fortuitously, Aaron was having similar thoughts—their friendship remained strong through the distance. They had also both been collecting interesting material scraps over the years, and one of those was neoprene. It turned out to be exactly the unexpected material they needed to design a new shape for a wine tote that ended up launching a company.
Aaron Lown, BUILT Co-Founder
Product design. It's been a part of Aaron Lown's life from the get-go. Literally. Raised in Bangor, Maine, his grandfather owned the Lown Shoe Co. and Penobscot Shoe Co., which his father eventually took over. "I basically grew up around shoe prototypes and leather swatches. My dad was always bringing home pieces of leather samples saying, 'feel this, smell this.'"
Meanwhile, his mother, a modern dancer, was telling young Aaron, "Don’t buy it if you can make it." Which is what he did every summer at his family's second home in Unity, Maine, which didn't have a TV. Sometimes it was finger weaving, other times making pillows. "I always liked working with my hands." His mom took notice and enrolled Aaron in a summer camp devoted to woodworking and pottery (Jonathan Adler was a fellow camper). Back from camp armed with these new skills, plus his dad's entrepreneurial sensibilities and his mother's resourcefulness, Aaron set up a workshop in his parents' basement and began selling his wood objects to local shops. Another summer was spent in RISD’s architecture program. "I learned that that discipline wasn't for me. I wanted something more tangible, more immediate. Dream it up, make it, have it."
More gratifying was a high-school printmaking class. So much so that Aaron entered Parsons thinking he'd study graphic design. But he chose industrial design instead. During his sophomore year, Villeroy & Boch sponsored a competition for Parsons students to design a tea set; the winners would spend the summer in Germany producing limited editions in the company's factory. Aaron's set won, and that summer was an influential one for him. "I realized then that I wanted to be involved in industrial mass production."
Back at Parsons, he was newly rejuvenated to create. Much like those days in his parents' basement, he made vases and mugs and sold them to New York stores like Dot Zero (its owner, Kevin Brynan, went on to open Mxyplyzyk). After graduating in 1990, Aaron worked for two designers who were Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates. By the next year, he'd begun his graduate studies at Cranbrook himself, meeting future BUILT partner John Roscoe Swartz the first week. All this time, an increasing fascination with materials had taken root. Focusing on industrial design his first year, he did an internship that summer at the renowned design consultancy IDEO, which turned out to be another valuable experience. "I learned a lot that summer, and also discovered that industrial design projects with lead times of a year or two weren't for me."
Back at Cranbrook, he switched to designing furniture, but from a materials-exploration standpoint; his first piece was a stool made from fiberglass, leather, and cast aluminum. Back in New York after graduating, Aaron and John shared a TriBeCa loft and workshop/studio. Aaron's stint at IDEO as well as a college internship at MoMA turned out be significant. A young, new MoMA curator named Paola Antonelli was planning her first show, "Mutant Materials In Contemporary Design," and had called IDEO president Tim Brown looking for young, new designers. He mentioned Aaron, and his fiberglass-leather-and-aluminum stool made it into the exhibit. Aaron was all of 25-years-old.
Soon after, he was hired to start the materials library at the Material ConneXion. Aaron was also designing and building Bergdorf Goodman window displays and teaching at Parsons, the latter sending him to Kanazawa, Japan, for two years to set-up the Product Design department at KIDI Parsons. He took his then girlfriend and now wife Elizabeth, a graphic designer at Burton he met at Cranbrook, and the two immersed themselves in the culture, studying Japanese calligraphy and traditional craftsmanship. When they returned to Manhattan, Aaron began renovating a house he'd inherited in Tuxedo Park, New York. Not too surprisingly, he also began doing work for Calvin Klein designing women’s shoes. "Designing shoes had always been in the back of my mind since I was a kid."
Calvin Klein led to Kate Spade, and shoes led to handbags. Then a neighbor, a wine importer, asked Aaron to design a stylish leather satchel for his salespeople to carry wine in. It was exquisite—Francis Ford Coppola bought several—but at $450, expensive. John, with whom Aaron was designing furniture, came on board to help sell it, but it still wasn't right. However, they did see the need for a wine bag—one that was simple, functional, well designed, and, most importantly, accessibly priced. The "A-ha!" moment arrived when they pulled out a swatch of neoprene from their collective box of scrap materials, and the two have been pushing neoprene beyond wetsuits ever since.
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BUILT ON APARTMENT THERAPY
• New Baby Products by Built NY
• New Oven Mitts and Pot Holder from BUILT NY
• Built NY's New and Improved Laptop Portfolio
• Built NY Cargo Laptop Sleeve
• Built NY Neoprene Beverage Totes
• Placemats by Built NY