Is it October already?! I guess that means it's time for another JOIN Designer Profile interview!
On a quiet dead end off the main strip of Seattle's working-class South Park neighborhood sits the dynamic hub from which Darin Montgomery of Urbancase spins his creative web of multi-faceted design efforts. The Urbancase studio is well organized and compact, smaller than we expected for a predominantly furniture-centric studio. As we learn more about what goes on there we were convinced more and more that we've quite possibly stumbled upon a Utopian design studio.
Here creativity is kept fresh by experimentation with materials, ideas, hands-on prototyping, and occasional contract work, but kept a sustainable business by smart, selective outsourcing to skilled local craftspeople and manufacturers. In a format reminiscent of Italy's post-war designers, Urbancase has managed to use it's local resources to create great products with minimal in-house manufacturing capabilities opting instead to use the services the Northwest has to offer. What was so striking was the ease at which Darin delegates his production work to others while keeping the critical creative functions firmly centered within his company. When asked if trusting others with the critical task of executing his vision was in any way problematic, Darin shrugs it off "I pick people who care about what they do. I try to work with others in a similar position to my own."
He went on to explain his belief that keeping production local and small scale has allowed him to replace a rigorous QC process with a level of trust and confidence in his suppliers. "I was inspecting every box they gave me and realized at a certain point it wasn't necessary. They cared about their work as much as I did." This absolutely shows in the work: curved cabinet edges executed seamlessly, beeswax candles (in the shapes of classic cameras) casted with precise details, finishes carefully applied and rubbed by hand. Can't wait to hear more:
Studio Name: Urbancase
Member(s): Darin Montgomery
Location: Seattle, WA
Started in: 2002
What's the story behind your company/studio? What made you finally realize that you wanted to start your own design company? Take us back to that exact moment when you thought "I'm gonna start my own freakin' design studio!"
I was in Vancouver, BC for a weekend getaway with my girlfriend Rachel. I left a job several months earlier with the intention of starting my own business but was still trying to figure out what direction to go. Rachel finally suggested I should just do what makes me happy. It seemed so obvious. Design makes me happy...so that's what I did.
What's your design philosophy and approach?
My philosophy is pretty basic and I try to apply it to every aspect of my life. Whatever I do...whether it's design, cooking, or interacting with people...it should be simple, functional, thoughtful, and beautiful.
What are some highlights (life changing events) you've experienced that influenced your current work or design?
Growing up, my Father owned an auto body shop and for many years it was the gathering place for my Dad and his buddies. He had a group of extremely talented friends and I spent countless hours working on projects with them. They would engineer everything from suspension systems for hot rods to enclosed motorcycle trailers with fold down seating and eating areas. Material and budget limitations were common and more often than not they would solve problems by committee. It was a great environment to grow up in. The experience of working with them influences every project I approach. The level of craftsmanship and functionality they achieved is something that is with me every day.
What's your favorite place to visit and get inspiration?
We took a trip to Berlin two years ago and it had a huge impact on the way I look at design. Unfortunately, I can't pop over every time I need inspiration. But...I have the photos to which I refer frequently. Any industrial or area in disrepair is a great source of ideas for me as well.
What do you like to do when you need a break from design?
I try to keep a project in the shop that I don't have to think too much about. Something that requires sanding or polishing. If I'm having difficulty resolving an idea or I've been on the computer all day, repetitive motion can be very relaxing.
Every Sunday Rachel and I have a ritual. We make breakfast, have coffee and listen to records then walk through Freeway Park on our way to the library. Even though I'm surrounded by incredible architecture, it's routine and comfortable so I don't even think about design. It's a great way to recharge my batteries.
We recently started learning French. I'm not very good so it takes all my brain power. I don't have the energy to think about anything else. I also play guitar and even though I don't practice often enough, 10-20 minutes a day is a real treat. In the winter I play hockey. When I'm on the ice, design is the FURTHEST thing from my mind.
What do you consider your most successful and or rewarding project?
The projects I rush through or don't resolve completely are the most successful. I learn so much from them and usually have one lying around to remind me of what not to do. Perhaps the most rewarding project was a wine glass rack I made for my parents when I was eight. I built it from scraps found in the garage. It was hideous. My Dad cried when it got knocked off the shelf and shattered.
What are the strengths of design in the Northwest? How do you see it becoming stronger?
I love that design in the Northwest has a feeling of honesty and sincerity. It's not arrogant or pretentious. I believe if the design community in the Northwest continues to communicate, share information, ideas, and resources, it will only get better. JOIN is an awesome organization and the people involved are unbelievable. It's a great feeling when you pick up the phone or e-mail someone in the same discipline that you work and know they will share whatever information they have.
What's your favorite, well-designed food? why?
I would say a seed of any kind. They're perfectly designed for their environment and have a little secret tucked away inside. Salsa is a pretty close second.
What's your favorite object? Why?
A micrometer that belonged to my Grandfather. It's beautiful, functional, and very satisfying to use. It doesn't give you a sense of how much effort it took to design. I love objects that conceal their complexity.
Tell us about your very first experience when you did ICFF. What was it like? How did you prepare yourself? Any tips or words of wisdom to share about ICFF?
It's funny to look back now, but I remember being very anxious at the time. My friend and I shared a booth and it was the first show for both of us. I arrived at the Jacob Javits Center bright and early with a box of postcards, order forms, and comfortable shoes. I was set. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the booth I found a big hole in the side of our crate. I have no idea what happened, but needless to say...I freaked out. I couldn't open it because my buddy had the cordless drill and was nowhere to be found. I ran around frantically trying to find a drill. Workers at the Javits Center won't loan tools and it seemed as though EVERY other exhibitor was wandering aimlessly looking for a cordless drill. It felt like complete mayhem. I called my friend continuously for the next two hours. Eventually...he answered the phone and the first thing he said was..."do you know the bars stay open until 4 AM?" When he finally arrived at the Javits center he'd forgotten to put the drill on the charger. All we could do was laugh. Once we got the crate open all was good. That was my first three hours of ICFF.
I was naive enough to think my product would sell itself and underestimated the importance of booth design. I'm still learning because there's a science to the dynamics of a trade show. The booth layout has a huge impact on how people approach you. It's sort of like being alone on a dance floor waiting for the music to start. All it takes is one person to join you and others will follow.
I would strongly encourage anyone who feels their product(s) are suited for ICFF to figure out a way to make it happen. There are opportunities you won't find anywhere else. And...if you go one year, plan on going the next. It's an incredible experience, lots of energy, inspiration, and seriously cool people.
For anyone thinking of going I would suggest:
1. Hook up with someone who has done the show. They can help with simple things like finding a hardware store, shipping facilities, and ways to cut through the red tape at the Javits Center.
2. Set aside plenty of time to design your booth and presentation materials. Some people want postcards, some want electronic communication. You should have several options.
3. Most of the rumors you've heard about the staff at the Javits Center are true. They're not on your schedule, you're on theirs. It's all good if you roll with it. Fight it and you'll be miserable (it took more than a year for me to figure that out).
4. Try to have two people in the booth. It's exhausting to do it by yourself. And...somehow it makes your booth more approachable.
5. Eat right, brush your teeth, and don't run with scissors.
What other design shows have you done or would like to do in the future?
ICFF is the only show we've done. Milan is on the radar. We're shooting for 2011.