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.