Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Category - Design & Creative

Ignoring the Status Quo and Doing What Matters: The Grovemade Story

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At a shop in SE Portland, Ken Tomita and the Grovemade team conceptualize, design, build and produce an wide array of products, from laptop stands to knives.

They have built up a company that doing what matters in life. A company that rode the wave of early online sales of iPhone cases into building a strong consumer products company that many times ignored the status quo in order to build the company they envisioned from the start.


Early origins

As with many entrepreneurial journeys, the Grovemade one was hatched between friends who saw an opportunity to work together. Ken was furniture maker and Joe Mansfield had a laser engraving business. They were both self employed and talked often about the latest happenings, or to bounce ideas off one another.

“We’d toss a football in the street talking about ideas when we really should have been working.  Joe had an idea to make a bamboo iPhone case and put laser engraved art on it.  No one had done it.  He asked around and no one was willing to make this for him…. and I thought why not give it a try.”

And just like that, a product company was hatched.

But going from a conversation between football passes to actually designing and producing the cases proved to be challenging, but also an open road to opportunities. In order to make that road a bit more manageable, Ken and Joe reached out to a number of experts in related fields to get advice and feedback on the Grovemade concept.

One of the key people they talked to was Bill Dieter of Terrazign. Bill supplied Ken and Joe with some great feedback, but just as importantly, introduced them to his machinist friend, Chris Rizzo.

“ Meeting with Rizzo was very encouraging because he had so much expertise in CNC machining and he was eager to take on a challenge.  We hired Rizzo, bought a CNC mill, and got to work.  For 9 months or so it was myself and Rizzo huddled over the machine, trying to develop our first product, the iPhone 3 case.“

But buying that machine was no easy decision. Everyone they talked to steered them towards doing the opposite. A CNC machine is prohibitively expensive, and there is also a steep learning curve. But with Rizzo on board, the decision to purchase the machine was ultimately one that made both short and long term sense to Ken. The machines are are usually in industrial spaces – not creative studios.Environment_Grove_MchningV2_408_edit (1)

“ I chose to take the path and buy my own machine because I felt very strongly that the integration of the making process and the design process is the key to great work.  I had worked for years designing and making furniture and I couldn’t let go of that mindset even with the advice from people to not buy our own equipment. We were hoping that magic would happen if people like us had access to these machines. “

With the machine ready to roll, the team got to work. Ken had the knowledge and experience in woodworking, and a sense that the concept of problem solving to get something made is universal. Rizzo had the know how when it came to the CNC machine, but working at a such a small scale made the process feel new to everyone involved.

The team managed to dial in the design and production process for the iPhone 3 cases, and that early product started them on an unexpecting growth trajectory, which opened up new challenges.

“ It was very difficult to develop our first product in a technical sense but the greatest difficulty was in scaling up the company.  Going from 3-4 people to 20+ very quickly introduced a host of growing pains, as I lacked the experience of managing a larger team.  For me personally, going from actually doing the work to leading the work took a few years to grow into. “

Initial product growth and evolving the line

Grovemade’s iPhone cases created a splash when they were introduced, and the initial sales strategy was 100% online. Ken’s brother created the first website and they were up and running. The team looked to leverage digital PR via outreach to bloggers, and in 2010, there were a lot fewer to focus that outreach on, and the popular ones tended to drive a lot of traffic back to the website.

The company continued to focus on iPhone cases until around 2013-2014, when they anticipated a decline in the iPhone accessory market.

“ We made a big business decision to pivot our company from being about laser engraved art on cases to a product company.  We made this pivot because we took a good look at what our strengths and passions were.  Our unique ability is to create great products (not curating art) so we put everything into that.”

Pivoting away from what was the core product line towards a new vision, while a big move, was one that Grovemade was uniquely able to handle given the structure and processes put in place that allowed them to handle the entire chain, from concepting to production and fulfillment.

“ We have the luxury of pushing the limits of both design and manufacturing because we do it ourselves.  We can attempt and do difficult things that in a traditional setup with a separate designer and manufacturer would be very impractical.  In turn, this leads to us creating unique products.“


And unique and solid products are what they have created.

Their line of desk products effortlessly blends art and craft into a line that ranges from laptop stands and iPhone docks to planters and mouse pads. The Minimalist Wallet came out of the need to create a better product than what is out there, but also one that exemplifies the company’s core focus on the details. And while a pocket knife might seem like a random brand extension at first glance, a deeper look at how it’s designed and made reveals how keeping the entire process under one roof enables Grovemade to stretch the limits on not only design, but also advanced wood manufacturing.

The stretching of the limits can also be seen in the recent collaboration with speaker designer, Joey Roth. The collaboration married Roth’s incredible speaker insights with Grovemade’s unique advanced wood manufacturing process, with the result being an intricate, gorgeous, and one of a kind desktop wood speaker. It’s a process that took over a year to dial-in the perfect shape and sound, and one that is documented in this blog post

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But beyond being just unique and creative, the products are also a representation of the passion behind the company, and a core belief they are instilling into the company as they move forwards – a belief in who they are and what they make, but also about who they are building products for.

“ Find What Matters is our new slogan this year as we go from being about product to being about the spirit behind the product.  We believe that to do great work you have to love your work and believe that is our true difference maker,” adding “ Our next step is to really engage with our customers and have them help us determine where to go next.  We have always been centered around ourselves, just making stuff we want.  While that is great in some ways the next level is to provide solutions to our customers while also making sure the products are things we would really want.”

Culture and community

As Grovemade continues to grow and expand, there has been a constant and concerted effort to build a strong culture, but as any founder knows, that is many times easier said than done.

The team focused on hiring the right people – especially ones that can navigate the complexities of a company that has design to production under one roof. They hired Jim Hassert to oversee the operational aspects, which took the day to day responsibilities off of Ken and his team. But even moves like this didn’t make it easier.


“ With our organization running more smoothly we could build up the culture.  There were definitely a few years where it was very painful as we started to zero in on what our culture was and many of us no longer fit in.”

But even with the road bumps, the way Grovemade has been built up and evolved makes it unique in the product design space. There are many challenges with integrating design and manufacturing into manufacturing companies similar to Grovemade, but the team wouldn’t have it any other way.“ It’s absolutely key for our creativity.  We feel the freedom to create and also that we are only limited by our abilities.  Basically we have the feeling that our successes and failures are in our hands.  It’s a great feeling.”

There is also a sense that companies like Grovemade can bring back manufacturing jobs to both Oregon and America. And while that is true, the mission of Grovemade is not American job creation, but rather to create inspiring lives. It’s a topic Ken explains via this honest blog post – “Is Made in the USA a Marketing Gimmick?”

The sense of culture also extends outside of the Grovemade walls and into the consumer product community within Oregon. A community that is collaborative and supportive of one another.

“ Our network has been absolutely critical from the early days when it was just us getting started to present day.  We are only as good as the network around us and we strongly believe in learning from others as part of the Grovemade way.”

And what pieces of knowledge would Ken impart on his former self if he could go back in time to the day they started down this road to building Grovemade?

“ I have no regrets!!!  I wouldn’t give him any tips.  Life is a labyrinth, enjoy it!”

For more information, visit www.grovemade.com, like them on facebook, and follow Grovemade on twitter and instagram20150303_GroveMade_1948



Tech, foodies and makers converge into a Perfect Oregon cupcake


Can technology merge successfully with the foodie and maker movements to create a transformative consumer product that changes the way we work in our kitchens?  The Perfect Company is working to do just that.

We recently visited the test kitchen of Perfect Company to bake some gluten-free and vegan cupcakes using their Perfect Bake product, featuring many Oregon-based ingredients, with head of recipe development Matthew Barbee, and COO and co-founder Miriam Kim.

IMG_4602Perfect’s business is to design and develop smart products for the smart home. Through their cool products–such as the Perfect Bake and Perfect Drink, their aim is to bring  “perfection to your kitchen as well as your lifestyle”.  The products merge a simple and elegant scale with a smartphone or iPad app, and walks you through every step of the baking or drink-making process, measuring each ingredient by weight and (literally) telling you when to stop as you put them into the bowl or glass.

It’s also a product and company that’s caught the attention of Oregon angel investors – in November of 2015, the Oregon Angel Fund led a $4 Million investment round which will help the company expand its marketing reach and create new products, including the Perfect Blend, launching later this year.

perfect coverWhile making the peanut butter frosting for our cupcakes, we also chatted with Miriam Kim about the Perfect Company story, their innovative food & beverage products and technologies, and how they were able to go from idea to production of their first Perfect product in just 10 months (you don’t want to miss that part).

And oh yes, the cupcakes were delicious.

You can find Perfect on their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter

Here’s the interview:

And, here’s a list of the Oregon-based products we used in the cupcakes:


Bob’s Red Mill Flours

Holy Kakow Cacao Powder

Jacobsen Salt

So Delicious Almond and Coconut Milk

Ristretto Roasters Coffee

Aunt Patty’s Coconut Oil

Singing Dog Vanilla

Oregon Olive Mill Olive Oil

Phoenix Egg Farm

Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters

(full disclosure: Terry is an investor in the 2015 Oregon Angel Fund, which has invested in the Perfect Company)



The ripples of design: The Soul River Runs Deep story


Chad Brown’s journey has been a winding one.

It’s a journey that has taken him from Texas to Iraq, Somalia to New York City, and Asia to Portland. But more than the journey itself, the company he’s founded along that journey, Soul River Runs Deep, is the embodiment of a belief and mission.

“Soul River is about the embodiment of our rivers and our personal relationship in and with nature. Your ‘soul river’ is defined by your interest, passion, and love for anything in Mother Nature that is precious and healing to you.”

The brand is about bridging the gap between two different worlds – urban and nature – and syncing the two worlds as a fusion of humanity, a stand for social justice, equality, artistic expression, and nature.

It’s a brand whose origins have to be traced back along the meandering journey of a creative mind.6-860x514

The evolution of a designer

Chad’s creative tendencies started at a young age, and through a simple gesture by his mom.  She would give him a poster board from the grocery store and he would draw characters from his picture books in ink.

Simple? Yes.

But that gesture allowed Chad to evolve into an expressive and artistic person.

“As a youth, I was immersed in various extracurricular art programs within the community, public school system, and even the Art Institute of Dallas to study commercial art. Like many young, starving student artists, I needed to pay for my books, the classes, my supplies, and just school in general. That’s when I dropped out to go into the Navy.”

Chad’s time in the Navy included serving in the Operation Desert Storm Campaign in Kuwait and the Operation Restore Hope Campaign in Somalia. But even during those campaigns, he’d find opportunities to design through projects like a “how-to” manual for the command, which served as an aid for Navy and Army on-load and off-load transportation.

Once Chad left the Navy, he returned to school and completed his BFA in Communication Design at The Intercontinental University in Atlanta, Georgia. He stayed in Atlanta for a year freelancing and working as a young designer for Upscale Magazine.

“I knew that I had potential to go further but, like many artists, my strong suit was not sitting down and American-Lemon-Tie-Reversedfilling out paper applications for days. I remember sending my application into the Pratt Institute along with a cover letter that was written on a torn up fast food bag. I figured If these people know how to see beyond words on a paper, they will accept me.”

To Chad’s surprise, the administrators at Pratt believed in his potential and looked past his fast food bag cover letter and accepted him into the program. The Institute is based in Brooklyn, and while the New York City pace can sometimes swallow up people, Chad relished it.

“Living and studying in NYC inspired edginess, raw talent, and authentic perspective for me. At the time, I had never felt more expressive and true to myself. I graduated with a Masters of Science in Communication Design and the world was my oyster.”

But as he opened up that oyster, Chad quickly realized that the being a designer in NYC is not for the faint of heart. It was tough, hard and highly competitive. He worked for various agencies and design firms doing typography design, packaging design, identity development, fashion, and photography. But the agency world was not one he’d linger in too long and a moment that changed many people’s lives forever, played a role in his.

“After the Twin Towers came under attack on September 11, 2001, the economy went ballistic and, like many others, I lost my job. Actually, it was on that exact day when I was let go. I needed to survive in New York City and freelance was my only option. I came to realize, however, that I much preferred living and thriving as opposed to surviving. Surviving was symbolic to the struggle. I knew I could do better than struggle!

“Stepping out independently was, is and always has been in my DNA. I’m not one to follow the masses nor really work for the man. I’ve always been able to adapt to those environments but being so much of a creative, I tend to conceptualize and design really well independently.”

And working independently was something Chad relished at. He started as primarily a freelancer and evolved into more of a consultant, working with a broad mix of clients, including working and collaborating with Russell Simmons and his business Phat Farm. Chad was brought on to develop and design their running shoe launch.

Eventually, Chad’s freelance career took him overseas to do do design consulting and branding development in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, as well as throughout the US, including Los Angeles. During this time he wore many creative hats; from art directing, to working with photographers in front of the camera, to being the photographer shooting fashion ads, as well as working on high concept campaigns bringing “big ideas” to life.

“I helped launch the TIVO campaign in Los Angeles through Campbell Ewald West. Opportunities like these gave me more confidence in knowing I could take on the world of freelance. I was eventually hired to rebrand for Epic, a leading international garment fashion house in Hong Kong. As Asia’s industry leaders and one of the world’s leading garment manufacturers in the fashion industry, Epic boasts clients with internationally recognized names such as GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch, Costco, Levi’s, Hollister, Sears, and H&M, to name a few.

“My role was not just to rebrand, but to recreate the image of the company with a fresh appeal to European, North American and Australian clients with executive buying powers. I hired a team and conceptualized the branding, photography, and video. We shot film and photography in three different countries and ultimately delivered a successful outcome”

Life was going good for Chad. But life is not always a straight path with a defined ending. 12115596_1061797197194325_4396068783544269536_n

The soul of a brand

Chad moved to Portland and continued to focus in on his creative work, but there was something that kept pulling him in a different, and sometimes dark direction – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

His once focused journey became more uncharted and riddled with uncertainty, and where he found solace was fly fishing on the beautiful rivers of the Northwest. He was introduced to the sport and he began to learn and love more than just the sport itself. The river became the place where he found the embodiment of hope combined with solace.

The place where a brand vision was hatched.

“One day, I waded out into the river and began casting with my hand half-submerged in the cool water. I felt the current pushing a strong and consistent force against my legs and the sun was beaming warmth overhead and, for a moment, I felt a surge of strength run through me as if my inner-being was re-awakened.  My mind felt clear and my soul inspired. I knew my talents and abilities could be merged with my newfound source of survival to provide exceptional, one-of-a-kind apparel and accessories for clients and customers and a medicine for my soul. Little did I know that it would spread to be much more than that! This was the ultimate conception of Soul River Runs Deep.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.02.32 AMThe brand of Soul River helped Chad merge his passion for design and expression of creativity; it was the celebration of humanity and the desire to want to create a product line that speaks of nature and displays an artistic approach.

And that expression started with the design of the Naiad – a Greek goddess.

The Naiad is the nymph of the rivers – the protector, She lives only in healthy waters and clean environments and represents mother nature as her ambassador of aquatic and natural life amongst the rivers. Many anglers see this symbol as their good luck on the water. This initial design also led to an overall brand direction.

“My artistic process is walking between the natural world and the urban world merged with inspiration from Greek mythology and fantasy and striving to give a different perspective of beauty, nature, and eclectic modernism. Using weighted-line style design and incorporating shapes, space – both positive and negative – intricately to play into an organic and playful art that we know and can identify as well as position a unique breath of fresh air. “

As Chad evolved the brand and the products around it, he experimented in more than just soft goods and attempted to design his own Soul River fly fishing reel, an attempt he emphasizes will never happen again. He sold some of the reels, but realized this was not his best pursuit and use of talent and now the focus is squarely on soft goods. A line that is inspired by, and a merging of,  military style and outdoor urbanism. A combination that defines the brand, and the various brand extensions Chad is working on.

“Design is intrinsic in everything that I do, even if it’s not seen or being worn. In my own space or in the outdoors with youth and vets, it is all connected to the artwork which is expressionistic, building the brand into the deployments of my non-profit, giving experiences that create a lifetime opportunity for veterans and youth.”Image-1

Evolving the brand in Kenton

The growth of Soul River Runs Deep, and a desire to make it more meaningful and approachable, led Chad to open up a small retail location in the vibrant Kenton neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that is eclectic, but also has a growing local business community that Chad saw an opportunity to be a part of.

The neighborhood is also a less hectic than other areas in Portland, which Chad admits is a positive to him.

“Kenton is a little low key which is actually an advantage for me because 95% of the time I am running the shop solo and have meetings or appointments with clients elsewhere that I have no option to miss. Saturday mornings and holidays bring out shoppers who are strolling by and wanting to engage with shop owners.  The buildings are still original and have character and charm. It’s easy to let your imagination tell stories of Kenton’s history. In addition, the food scene is bustling and tends to have its own heartbeat.”

The Kenton neighborhood also stuck out to Chad because it still holds history, as the gentrification isn’t as rampant as in other neighborhoods and that demographic base is very important to the bridge Chad is hoping to build – an accessible location to the diverse demographic which the brand of Soul River serves.

“The local demographic was important to me for a variety of reasons. I was aiming to be in an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood, one that was accessible, and one that was familiar for inner-city youth and families to visit. I appreciated that I was twenty feet from the bus and MAX line, making it more accessible for today’s urban youth. If you peek around Kenton, you won’t see any other business like Soul River Runs Deep. If you look at other fly shops, they tend to be close to rivers or on outskirts of towns…not typically in the center of the urban world. Soul River Runs Deep is so much more than a fly shop – we are a haven for new anglers of color and recently returned veterans, a boutique space that anyone can find something uniquely designed and created from Portland, and a unique shopping experience that boasts raw creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Inside the retail location you’ll find more than just Soul River branded products. Chad offers a few fine local goods for customers, and that gives the shop a different and eclectic dynamic for the customer. Soul River is an anthropology mashup between art, design, nature, and fly fishing.

But forging a new retail brand while supporting a growing nonprofit poses many challenges, challenges that many entrepreneurs can relate to.

“At this very moment, the biggest hurdle is the balancing act of running a retail shop, being a creative and doing freelance design work, and directing a grass-roots, new non-profit. It’s incredibly taxing and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for ‘me,’ but I believe that the entrepreneurial path is the right one for me. With that, there are oftentimes no ‘days off.’ I have to be aware of my limits and take care of myself, but at the same time I am always creating concepts, brainstorming, and networking.”

However, in addition to the challenges, there are many opportunities on the horizon for the Soul River brand. The work Chad has done around his nonprofit, Soul River Runs Wild, is well documented. He has bridged a gap between urban teens, the environment, and veterans to being mentors for these inner city youth while teaching them the art of fly fishing.

Chad sees the opportunity to bridge the design world to inner city youth and veterans.

“This is something that I have definitely considered. Right now, I integrate design and photography in secondary and tertiary ways – designing a fly on the vice, providing opportunities for expedition participants to help the videographer. Someday, I do plan to integrate this in a richer way, but not this year.”

Trying to not do everything at once is something Chad is working on doing, and evident in the advice he’d give his former self.

“Focus on one company at a time.”

For now though, Soul River Runs Deep and Soul River Runs Wild continues to build bridges that connect design to the outdoors and inner city youth to veterans, and where success is not solely focused on the bottom line, but on the impact you have on others.

For more information, visit www.soulriverrunsdeep.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo.


With PENSOLE, D’Wayne Edwards Erases Barriers to Training Aspiring Footwear Designers



D’Wayne Edwards is a footwear designer in Portland. He holds 30 patents and has produced more than 500 designs, mostly sneakers, including those created for star athletes like Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter. He is one of a handful of people ever to design an Air Jordan. His cumulative sales total, spanning a 26 year career, adds up to $1 billion.

In 2011 and at the peak of his career, Edwards left his position as design director at Nike’s Jordan Brand, and began training aspiring designers through his PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy in Old Town Portland. It was his personal quest to break down the socioeconomic barriers that have kept many talented artists out of the design business.

The motivations for his mid-stream career change and the launch of PENSOLE come from his own personal experience as a poor black kid from South Los Angeles.

“All young people have to see who they want to become.”

                                                                                                     D’Wayne Edwards


Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

The roots of an artist

Edwards was the youngest of six children, raised by a single mother in Inglewood, California during the 1980’s. He began drawing sports figures when very young but by age 12, he focused on the shoes because, “they were the most challenging thing to draw.” He had support at home—his mother and brothers were artistic too. But no one believed there was a future for a him in the design industry.

Throughout high school, Edwards continued to draw—always shoes. He had a job at McDonalds and was told he could one day become a store manager and earn a good living–$40K a year. His school guidance counselor suggested he join the military.

Noticing a small ad in the LA Times, Edwards entered a design competition sponsored by Reebok. He submitted a drawing and won. Reebok withheld the prize–a job with the company–because Edwards was only 17. They suggested he come back after he finished college.

Even if he’d had the money to attend, there were no design schools at the time with specific curriculum for footwear design.

After high school Edwards attended Santa Monica Community College, studying business management and advertising. Working at a temp agency, he was assigned to LA Gear as a file clerk. Noticing suggestion boxes placed around the office, Edwards put a hand-drawn sketch of a different sneaker in the box every day, suggesting they hire him. It took six months, but the owner of the company finally called Edwards in and decided to give him a shot.

When Edwards was hired as a designer at LA Gear in 1989, he was 19 years old and one of two African American athletic footwear designers in the US.

Edwards eventually left LA Gear and went on to Nike, and by 2008 Edwards was designing for Jordan. He began reflecting on the industry and his role within it, recalling, “At this time kids are getting killed for shoes that I’ve designed and/or worked on…It was difficult for me…I was making the product–even though I wasn’t the owner of the company–but I was associated with the idea.”

 Photo Credit: Marcus  Yam

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Changing the conversation and industry

Sensing a need to find a better path, in 2010 while still at Nike, Edwards taught the first PENSOLE class in partnership with University of Oregon. He asked friends with sneaker websites to post bulletins, getting applicants to submit drawings. Edwards funded the first session, paying for 40 students to attend. In the end, “That just felt better to me than creating new products and new shoes for people. Even though I loved what I did, I found more satisfaction in helping people.” In 2011 Edwards resigned from Nike to devote himself to the academy.

PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy is a lofted, creative-classroom space. It’s modern, bright, and suited to collaboration. The large, high-ceilinged room is defined by a few low walls to allow clusters of students to work. In the foyer, small-scale shoe boxes line the wall, representing students that have been placed with a brand after graduating. On the opposite wall is a suggestion box.

Beside that are photos of students who have arrived late to class and suffered the consequences–10 push-ups for every minute of tardiness. An over-sized, clear vase sits on a shelf nearby, full of pencil shavings accumulated during each month-long, intensive course—mounting evidence of the energy expended during the 14 hour days that students typically work.

The only way to attend PENSOLE is to earn a place in the academy by submitting one drawing of a sneaker, sketched by hand in pencil. Edwards receives an average of 500 drawings during each application period from which he will select 18 -25 students, based solely on their drawing. He makes sure that no two students in any class come from the same place. Selected applicants must be 18 and pay their own way to Portland. But the competitive, merit-based program covers the cost of tuition, housing, and supplies, removing socioeconomic barriers. So far, students from 35 different countries have attended the academy.

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

PENSOLE Academy is a mix of old-school rigor and innovative classroom experience. Edwards insists students use their hands and draw with pencil, a process that helps them tap into their creativity and connect to themselves as individuals. Computers, in his view, are limiting.

Stenciled on the walls and tables are memorable quotes from authors that range from Shakespeare to Bruce Lee. He starts each morning with a quote, a website, and discussion of a historical figure, all aimed at helping students develop their potential. He also assigns daily readings from the classroom library with content ranging from business to motivational topics

“I don’t have a set curriculum,” says Edwards, who doesn’t tolerate laziness. “You can’t skip one day…Part of it is getting [students] to be present so they can understand when they come here they need to be ready to work. The more you can prepare for the unexpected, the better off you’re going to be when it’s time to adapt in the professional environment…We’re training you the way you’re going to work.”

A community of more than 70 adjunct footwear designers, along with Edwards, comprise the faculty. PENSOLE’s materials lab offers the same selections available to major footwear brands. All facets of the business are taught, including consumer profiling, storytelling, terminologies, palette development, strategic thinking, and marketing plans, while at the same time cultivating leadership skills.

Edwards sets a very high standard for students to meet. “I treat them the way they want to become, which is a professional. So if you want to become a professional one day, this is what it’s going to take to get there.”

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

PENSOLE has attracted the attention of top design schools, including The Art Center in Pasadena, California and Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. Edwards established partnerships with these institutions and others, traveling to teach the PENSOLE curriculum at their campuses. These institutions realize that the classic business and dress shoes are designed and manufactured much as they have been for decades,  but the radical innovation in the industry comes from athletic footwear. (Edwards discusses the impact of the sneaker on Science Friday).

The Academy is supported by a network private donations, school scholarships, and corporate sponsors, including adidas, Nike, Foot Locker, ASICS and many others. In exchange, brand partners that sponsor classes may own the student design product, which they can choose to manufacture and sell, compensating the student for their work. (This PENSOLE graduate writes about his days at the academy)

PENSOLE itself is not an accredited institution. Its validation is grounded in results.

To date, 145 PENSOLE graduates have been placed in the footwear design industry, many of them here in Oregon. The list continues to grow, currently including Nike/Jordan, adidas, AND1, North Face, New Balance, Wolverine, Timberland, Keen, Converse, Cole Haan, Under Armour, and Stride Rite.

Still, notwithstanding this early success, many of the barriers Edwards faced as a kid nearly 30 years ago are still deeply entrenched.  Today, fewer than 100 individuals, less than 5% of footwear designers in the US, are people of color. Many of those have been mentored or taught by Edwards. Looking at gender balance within the industry, the figures are similarly alarming. So few females attempt to become footwear designers that Edwards is planning to offer a PENSOLE class just for women.

 Photo Credit: Marcus  Yam

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Edwards remains undaunted by the task of changing an industry from within. “PENSOLE was created to service the entire footwear industry, and everything about how we operate is about community.”

In fact, the calendar for 2016 demonstrates how his vision for PENSOLE continues to expand. In addition to teaching 8 class sessions throughout the year, a new partnership was recently announced giving students an opportunity to design footwear for Levi’s. For the first time, PENSOLE will launch its own branded product.

Fans of the immensely popular World Sneaker Championship, founded by Edwards, are already participating in the current 2016 competition that was launched in February. And in responding to requests from teachers and students across the nation, a program for high school students is currently in development, to be partly funded by a community-ownership campaign called SOLEHOLDER.

D’wayne Edwards and PENSOLE will keep knocking down these walls, one by one, driven by the words of Bruce Lee on the school wall:

“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”

Bruce Lee


 Thanks to Davia Larson for her contributions to this story.                                                                                                                                             


 Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam


Working in the intersection between identity and place: A Q&A with Design+Culture Lab

Diversity Plaza__DSC9077

Joy Alise Davis had recently graduated from Parsons The New School of Design when an observation led her to form Design+Culture Lab, a research-based social lab dedicated to the transformation of neighborhoods through collaborative design strategies, while addressing complex spatial issues of cultural, racial and ethnic inequality. Joy will be a speaker at the Portland State University Elevating Impact event this week, and Built Oregon sat down with her to learn a bit more about the roots of Design+Culture Lab.

How would you describe Design+Culture Lab?

We are a collaborative design firm, but we operate in the public involvement realm.

 Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

What do you do?

Using a comprehensive and collaborative method that draws on strong relationships with local communities and a deep understanding of their issues, Design+Culture Lab provides a unique consulting service that serves as the glue between disadvantaged community members and urban practitioners within the construction of their environment. By addressing the complex spatial issues associated with cultural, racial, and ethnic inequality, Design+Culture Lab is one of the few that work in the intersection between identity and place.

Our services include collaborative design strategy, engagement management, community data reporting, communication design and interactive engagement tools.

What was the genesis for starting Design+Culture Lab?

Honestly, I was studying at Parsons The New School of Design and focusing on urban design strategy when I noticed that the one of the top design schools in the world didn’t really use race, ethnicity and culture as a lens when designing place. It was very frustrating.  As an African American woman, my identity as a cis woman and as a descendant of slavery influenced how I operated in public space and the built environment.

I also noticed a lack of research efforts from urban designers to collaborate directly with the people who would be affected most by the designs. I would work with (and learn from) architects and urban designers (both domestically and internally), and they had no idea how to involve the public in the decision making process.  Before I studied urban design, I was a very active activist. I made my living by serving the community, civic engagement and by working with underserved communities of color. You can imagine how frustrating it was for a activist like me! Urban Design experts tend to design in a vacuum. I never bought into that idea. I believe that people have the right to actively shape their city.

When did you make the leap to start your own agency?

After graduate school, I took a chance and started my own social enterprise. It was kind of crazy! Instead of waiting for the world to catch up with the reality that America is changing and moving towards a more diverse (a more brown) country, I decided to begin prototyping solutions for positive collaboration along racial lines.This was a very scary leap but it was perfect timing. I had just graduated from one of the top design schools in the world with tons of debt, I was moving across the country (I was drawn to Portland for its strong history of planning/ architecture and strong history of racial exclusion), and I just felt like I was in a point in my life when I was ready to learn from outside of my comfort zone.

There is a great quote by Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Lorde has become a distant mentor to me as I formed this company. This quote in particular helped me take this leap. I had a vision for a better America, filled with true cultural/racial cohabitation, not just coexistence between the different groups. I knew that if I wanted to make this vision into a reality, I needed to be 100%. So I stepped out on faith. I have a great support system, which really helped. But I was scared –  I was nervous of failing.

 Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.


What were some of the initial projects you worked on and how did your initial idea change through those engagements?

In 2015 Design+Culture Lab started work on the PAALF People’s Plan, The Division Design Guidelines and the Powell Division Transit Plan. We learned so much while working on those projects. We had the opportunity to strengthen our methods, but also learn business skills that we just couldn’t learn from the classroom, or from a book.

I am a big fan of this TED talk: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. The “Why” for Design+Culture Lab is this concept that America is becoming more diverse:


The world is also becoming more urban:


The “Why” of our business has not changed. We still believe that equity should be the biggest goal for our country’s urban practitioners over the next 50 years.

The “How”  is also simple. We do this by using creativity and design thinking. We are a laboratory because we are dedicated to prototyping solutions. The “How” of our company has not changed. We still believe that innovation within the urban planning and urban design world must be creative, leveraging design thinking and empathy.

The “What will most certainly evolve. We might find out that operating in the public involvement world is not as impactful as we want it to be. Maybe we will decide to move away from consulting, and solely create interactive engagement products. Maybe we want to only focus on research and producing podcasts and articles. The sky’s the limit! But we will always bring our work back to center, to the “Why”. I am excited to see what evolves over the next year.

We believe that if our efforts are not effective, we will go back to the drawing board. I decided to make this company a laboratory for a reason. I wanted to prototype new solutions and I wanted to experiment through design thinking. We don’t believe we have all the answers but we are dedicated to investing and being flexible while we try to solve issues of racial inequity.

For more information, visit www.designculturelab.com or follow them on twitter and like them on facebook.

When chemistry meets creativity: Bullseye Glass’ quest to balance business with a higher purpose

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Dan Schwoerer moved to Portland from his native Wisconsin in 1969 to make glass art, and with a partner he rented an old tire warehouse on the southwest side for $25 a month.

He had recently been in a graduate art program at the University of Wisconsin working with renowned glass artist and educator Harvey Littleton, who was driven to take the manufacturing of glass out of its industrial setting and put it within the reach of the studio artist.

As Schwoerer recalls, “We lived upstairs, my partner and I, and built a glass blowing studio underneath. We went to art fairs all around the west coast and the Midwest.

“That’s how we ran into people who were trying to make leaded stained glass and they couldn’t get the glass. There were only three manufacturers of colored glass at the time, and they were all over 100 years old, and they weren’t about to gear up for a bunch of hippies.

“So we said hey, here’s an opportunity to start a business where we could actually make some money and that can support our glass blowing habit.

And he says with a smile, “I’m still waiting to make that money”.

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Its been a 46 year quest for Schwoerer and the company he eventually co-founded in 1974 to make that colored glass, Bullseye Glass Company, to achieve a delicate balance of art, education and commerce.

While he and his partner for the last 31 years Lani McGregor say they’re still looking for that equilibrium, the company’s longevity and resilience speaks for itself, a testament to their passion for glass, chemistry and creativity.

Learning, teaching, nurturing, and innovating

The company has always taught and nurtured the artists who shared their love of glass, informally at first, and then more formally in 1990, when it created a department of research and education, led by McGregor.

Since then they have opened galleries (most notably in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, now named Bullseye Projects), research centers in Santa Fe, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a research and education center adjacent to their glass factory in SE Portland.

Says Schwoerer, “We always had an educational element, because the 3 of us (Schwoerer and his original partners, who both exited early on), came from a graduate art program – so we ran it that way. It was about that whole concept, learning and dispensing that knowledge to friends and cohorts as quick as you could.

“You would literally be learning things on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and teaching them on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There was such a lack of knowledge, especially in glass. It was industrialized, and it wasn’t a craft media. Glass was always a mystery – its forming, its making – the Venetians kept it a secret.

“Glass compositions haven’t changed in hundreds of years, but when it comes to colored glass, then it gets very complicated and very sophisticated.”

All that learning led to Bullseye’s major technical innovation in the early 80s – the first company in the world to develop a glass specifically designed for the process called kiln forming.

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

McGregor notes “That’s not putting glasses together with lead as is done with stained glass, but actually fusing disparate pieces of colored glass together, so that they fuse together.”

And, adds Schwoerer, “What we were able to do was to come up with a very simple method to test whether the glass was compatible or not. Because initially you had to send stuff to a laboratory, which would take 2 or 3 weeks before you’d get the results.”

From these innovations came the first line of “tested compatible” glasses ever developed by any factory in the world. It turned out to be quite a mixed blessing for the company.

Giving it all away…for a higher purpose

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

“In one way it put Bullseye on the map, but in another way, it almost bankrupted it.” McGregor recalls. “It was something that came very, very close to bringing this company down, but it also was the thing that made everything in this gallery possible, everything in our educational programs, and it is now the thing that is sustaining our entire industry, because we’ve been followed by companies that can’t make a living making glass or stained glass any more, so we’re chased by other manufacturers.”

It was a chase for a relatively small market, since the users of this glass were mostly artisans – Schwoerer estimates the whole industry size is “maybe” $10 Million.

And then there was Schwoerer’s impulse, impassioned by this idea and his educational bent, to share the innovation.

Remarks McGregor, “Now if you had gone to business school you would have taken this and created a product and put it out there and not told anybody how you were making this magic product, but if you were art school graduates, you would write a book telling everyone exactly how it was done.”

That’s exactly what Schwoerer the art school graduate did, in co-authoring and publishing “Glass Fusing Book One”, still considered an essential reference book on the subject. They also went around the country and around the world, personally teaching the process. In effect, they gave it all away, for the good of the craft.

Because they really never wanted to be a business in the first place.

As McGregor succinctly points out, “It ain’t the money” that drives them forward. Schwoerer notes, “We’re totally impassioned. Our goal really is to make sure glass stays up at a very high plateau, so it doesn’t just become a hobby craft.”

McGregor quickly adds “There’s nothing wrong with the hobby craft market, it just that it’s that kind of activity that killed stained glass, frankly – that it went at some point to a hobby craft level. Everything was being chased at the entry level. All the creativity and exploration was taken out of it.

“Our biggest concern is that this doesn’t happen to this (kiln forming) method, that we’re very tied to, and hence, our involvement with the Portland Art Museum, other museums (for example, their recent participation in a Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibit in Portland this summer), and going to international caliber art fairs, to show this work at this level.

“So we’re in this odd conundrum of trying to support the upper end, where there is no money, but at the same time to not lose the income from the marketplace where the money is, and it’s a very delicate balancing point.”

The quest for balance

Has Bullseye achieved this balance, more than 30 years after the innovation that set them apart?

Says Schwoerer, “We’re still searching for it. We have spurts and fits and starts of it, things where we get a project or two that is high end”.

A great example of this higher end work is the beautiful 9 by 15 foot kiln glass panel behind the registration desk at the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland, designed by Portland artist Ellen George.

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

Nevertheless, according to McGregor, “The major part of our income comes from selling to distributors, dealers, and resellers who sell to people doing this at a hobby level”.

It’s the art studio level that Schwoerer and McGregor are still working to develop, especially locally. Specifically, McGregor notes “Studios that are creating both their individual art work and craft work, and also working as fabrication studios for others not in glass. We’ve worked with and helped to grow a few studios along those lines, here in Portland- there are more here because of our presence and the presence of another glass manufacturer.”

A great example of where glass art and commerce can mesh in the studio world would be for architectural elements, like backsplash tiles in a kitchen, for example.

Schwoerer notes “Every city should have a half dozen of those studios, working with the Ann Sacks level of tile outlets and others where they can make something unique. Glass is a perfect material for it because it cleans easily – it’s a material that belongs in architecture, in homes.

“And with us as the primary manufacturer of the feed stock, the raw material, you can buy a kiln for $1,000 and start producing tile in your basement, in your garage, or even in your kitchen. Every day you can be making some tile.”

Photo Aug 26, 10 30 16 AMAdds McGregor, “We all think that customization is what is really increasingly in demand. People want something that is personal – they don’t want to buy the latest thing out of West Elm or Crate & Barrel where you’re going to walk in and see your neighbors.

“What small craft studios can do is to supplement – they may not get the entire job, but they can do the accent pieces.”

Cultivating, selling to, and continuing to educate the maker community directly will be the key to not only growing Bullseye’s revenues to keep the business sustainable for another 46 years, but to keep this beautiful and hand crafted colored glass at the same artistic level as other mediums found in high end galleries and museums.

Because for Schwoerer and McGregor, it’s still about the love of the craft, the educators need to teach, and the chemistry of glass. That’s what has sustained them, through all the ups and downs, for all these years, and will keep driving them forward, to whatever future the business may deliver in their quest.

You can find out more about Bullseye Glass Company at their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook

Tender Loving Empire takes a walk on the artist’s side

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Sometimes, fixing a business problem is as simple as taking a walk – and having some great friends.

It was 2010, and Brianne and Jared Mees, co-founders of the Portland hybrid handmade retail marketplace and record label Tender Loving Empire, were in the middle of what they called a “do or die moment”.

They had launched Tender Loving Empire 2 ½ years earlier, in a 700 square foot space at ActivSpace in NW Portland, and despite early successes at the record label and retail store, and great community support, the recession and high expenses had them treading water and in danger of sinking.

Something had to change, and change fast. Thankfully, they decided to take a stroll in the West End neighborhood of downtown Portland. There, on 10th Avenue, they happened on an empty storefront next to the local boutique Radish Underground.

Brianne remembers that moment well. “We were just walking down 10th and Stark, just on a walk, and saw that this place was available for rent, and we realized that this is what we should do and we needed to jump off the cliff again, just like when we quit our jobs (in 2007) and lived off our savings for 2 ½ years”.

They were also fortunate that they also happened to be good friends with the Radish Underground owners, Gina Morris & Celeste Sipes.

“Our landlord in the West End didn’t ask for one bit of financial information, they went off of Gina & Celeste’s recommendation –they got us that space”, noted Brianne. “We just really got lucky”.

But it wasn’t really luck that got these two entrepreneurs that (now) prime downtown retail location that eventually led to an ongoing business renaissance that is continuing with the launch of a 3rd retail location on NW 23rd – I’d call it something else.

It was their joint passion and determination to build a financially thriving artist & craft community network, in a town that could really support one.

The journey to Portland and the start of a business


Brianne and Jared Mees

Their journey to Portland started in England, when Brianne and Jared met while studying abroad in Oxford. They both happened to live in the Los Angeles area so when they got back from the semester in England they became a couple, and eked out a living doing service jobs, while at the same time scratching their artistic itches.

Jared was doing visual art and paintings, participated in poetry groups, and was editor of two different poetry publications. Brianne made purses. They also started a rock band called “July” (which was the name of their future daughter).

Eventually, frustration set in. “Living in the suburbs of LA, we didn’t feel like we could get any traction”, noted Brianne, and Jared added he didn’t want to “spend most of my time doing something I didn’t want to do (to make ends meet)”.

At that point, instead of doing what most couples do in that situation, that is, move to more fertile artistic ground, they decided to live in a jungle in Panama for 4 months, on a little house on stilts with no running water and no electricity. They slept in a tent inside the house.

“Looking back”, remembers Brianne, “it really taught us that you could do anything with your life – you could be creative, you could think creatively, you needn’t go through the motions. You could make things happen that seemed difficult, or out of the ordinary.”

Added Jared “We had no money, we had no security – we basically had nothing.” But, it proved to him that “You don’t have to live inside the expectations you (and others) set up for yourself”.

Having survived the Panama experience, and with $40 in their pockets, they returned to the US, going to Colorado to be near family, and then back to Los Angeles for six months. During this time they knew they needed to finally find a better long-term home, and discovered Portland during a western road trip.

“It was like going to Disneyland – it was the most perfect trip. Portland was easy to love”, noted Jared.

Finally, with enough money saved up to afford the move, in 2006 they set out for their new home in the Rose City, and began a slow evolution towards Tender Loving Empire.

As Jared explains, “We (soon) met a bunch of artists, visual artists and musicians; a critical mass of creative people all within a close proximity to each other.

“It was a lot easier to navigate and communicate. We had (in Portland) a community of people that were doing things we loved, and we started stacking things on top of each other. We met a comic artist that we loved, and we decided we would publish one of his comics. My friend had just written a bunch of short stories and we said, ‘we’ll publish your short stories’. And my friend’s band finished their record, and we put that record out.”

“It was very organic – we never set out to make a business, we never set out to make anything happen. We gave it a name Tender Loving Empire because we knew it needed some kind of secondary name in order for it to have a life of its own. For some reason giving it a name legitimizes it in a weird kind of way, I don’t know why.”

“It’s meant to be a very ironic statement – of something that is tender and loving and warm, and also something that is traditionally oppressive and greedy like “empire”.

What was driving the creation of the business at this early stage was the couple’s frustration with the limited options new and talented artists had at the time.

Said Brianne, “(There is) so much talent and all these talented people. Our concept at the beginning was ‘get it out from under your bed, get it out of your closet, do something with it, because you’re an amazingly talented person and nobody is going to ever see it’. We wanted people to be able to see it and experience each other’s inspiration.”

“It was railing against the fact that you would just disappear – your work could just disappear and no one would ever see it”, Jared added.

Jared’s foray into comics and music eventually needed some structure, so Brianne jumped onboard to do the books, and she still does them. “The only reason we have survived is because she did the books – and that way she could sound the alarm when we really needed to think about things”, he noted.

“We never thought of it as a business in the beginning – we thought of it as something that was necessary for artists, and we had all these high-minded ideas on what we were doing, but we realize now that what we were doing was starting a business”.

A strange brew merges into an empire

In 2007 they completed the full transformation into today’s Tender Loving Empire by quitting their side jobs, opening their tiny retail space in NW Portland, and forging full speed ahead.

The retail space was Brianne’s brainchild. As she explains, “My background was making purses and doing craft shows – always into the handmade thing while Jared was doing music. So when I got frustrated just doing the books, I thought, let’s combine our dreams and do everything we love for a living – lets open a store also called Tender Loving Empire, that sells all the stuff I’m into, and all the music from the label.”

It may seem like a strange brew, mixing a record label with a retail store selling handmade art and crafts, as Brianne acknowledges. “Sometimes our record label audience is very different from our handmade gift shop audience business, and it’s been hard to marry the two, and explain our brand. But the root of it, what we get back to, is that it’s all people making art that we wanted to provide a platform and some structure for – it all makes sense together.”

Adds Jared, “People walk in, and they’re not confused when they walk in, so it’s more just explaining there’s multiple facets to it – everybody gets it very quickly in the context of a store. I think we’re explaining it better than we ever have, it’s just that it’s artists of all types, together – and that’s all we ever wanted.”

The little ActivSpace location in NW wasn’t ideal, but it was a great training ground. Jaried notes, “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for them –we were month-to-month, we got our feet wet, we were practicing – we never had any experience in retail when we started.”

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Tender Loving Empire’s West End Store, next to Radish Underground on SW 10th Ave.

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years, but then the great recession really kicked in, and the “do or die moment arrived” in 2010. But fortunately, they took that walk downtown, and caught the front end of the West End retail expansion that is still ongoing today, drawing crowds of tourists from near and far.

It enabled Brianne and Jared to finally be able to hire employees and get out from behind the counter, but that new location still didn’t push things over the hump. It took a baby and an employee “intervention” to do that.

In 2011, Brianne became pregnant with their first child (daughter July, born in 2012), and things slowed down. She noted, “Because of the situation, we coasted for a good year – it was OK, but we weren’t making any more forward progress, and the employees that were still with us at the time, they came to us and said “we need you to inspire us – we need you to show us that the company is going somewhere, in order for us to want to stick around and have it be our future”.

“That was my ultimate motivation – we realized that if we were going to stick around we needed to do something, we needed to get to the point where we originally envisioned it back in the day, and actually being something that could help artists, and not just this tiny thing”

That revelation led to what they called a “cleaning up the business’ and opening up the 2nd store in SE Portland, on 35th and Hawthorne.

Noted Jared, “What we didn’t realize was that we were steadily growing our business, and that the only reason it was beginning to feel that the wheels were coming off was because we had gotten bigger, and we were still feeling like it was tiny, and so we had to really embrace what we had, and we needed to get some tools in our tool belt to actually deal with this and the size it is.”

“We started doing some accelerated programs, we started reading some business books, we started actually thinking about the business side of it as an element that was interesting – (we got) a street MBA, in a lot of ways. We were talking to a lot of people, and zeroed in on a lot of people to help us.”

Pulling the artist community together in the big ‘petri dish’

Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro

That homework, and the support of a business community happy to help, has paid off. Jared attributes it to the Oregon spirit of collaboration.

“The same reason I wanted to come up here for music – the community – is the same thing on the business side, that same acceptance and camaraderie, even if you are competing against someone. It’s not as cutthroat and crazy as it could be in other places. Everybody has a lot of civility to them, and they’re generally rooting for other people to succeed, and that’s what has gotten us through this recent renaissance that is happening.”

This renaissance has created the community they were looking to build back in 2006 when they started Tender Loving Empire. They have 8-10 active record label artists, and are about to release their 60th record album this fall. Many more music artists participate in their compilation recordings.

And, in the retail locations, Tender Loving Empire supports over 300 artists, most of them local.

It’s getting to the point where Brianne and Jared can say with great pride that they are financially supporting many of these artists from Tender Loving Empire sales alone. “It’s so meaningful”, says Brianne, “that we can help them so much financially – the effect on the economy is real, and really touching, and the fact that all three of our stores will be in highly touristed areas – I love it, because the tourists are leaving their dollars in our community”.

As for the future, Jared notes “Because of ActivSpace, our friends, the community, the support, it (Portland) was the “petri dish” in which this experiment has thrived. We feel confident we can take this to many cities nationwide and make it viable, but it happened here and it was one of the few places it could have happened”.

“It’s an exciting time, and its nice to feel positive, because there’s been a lot of ups and downs, and we know that this is a good time, since we had a lot of wake up calls.”

“The people that work for us are amazing, and we’re only as good as the people we have working for us, and they’re top notch, and they believe in it (our vision) as much, and some days more, than us”

Adds Brianne, “We see lots of different paths…in the last 1 ½ years we’ve grown from 5 to 15 employees, we tripled our business, I think for the next year (at least) we’re going to let the dust settle. There are a lot of things to figure out and clean up.”

But in the meantime, she notes, “We are exciting about continuing – we’re having fun. We’re back to the fun”.

They also keep taking those walks. They found their latest location on 525 NW 23rd on another casual stroll. These two certainly subscribe to the old Latin phrase “Solvitur ambulando”.

Translated, “It is solved by walking”. Indeed it is.

You can find Tender Loving Empire on their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Their grand opening party for the 23rd Ave location is on September 17th

Grayling Jewelry designs a sparkling merger of business and community

Grayling Built Oregon Grayling copyright Nicholas Peter Wilson

There’s a rather cryptic looking building in Portland on the corner of NE Sandy and 31st Street with a banner at the top that says simply, “The Bindery.” Inside this shared space is a beautiful mix of wood, glass and high ceilings that together create an airy, open vibe. This eclectic setting is home to Grayling Jewelry—both its corporate office and showroom. Katy Kippen, its creative force, designer and owner, has been passionate about jewelry making since she was a young girl.

“I grew up around rocks in Montana where my grandfather was an avid collector and stonecutter. He made pendants and rings for friends and family as a hobby. I loved it and started making jewelry too.”

That love of jewelry design has been a constant in Kippen’s life no matter what else she was doing—and this hard-working woman has done a lot. After graduating from business school she began work as a buyer’s assistant for high-end boutiques in Montana. Over the next seven years Kippen went from assistant to lead buyer and eventually operated as a partner in tandem with the owner.

“I didn’t know it at the time but everything I did as buyer, every trade show I attended, and all the jewelry lines I reviewed were market research for what would eventually become Grayling Jewelry. I got an amazing education on the wholesale and retail side of the fashion industry as a buyer. I’m really lucky to have that foundation. There are so many valuable insights you pick up just by doing the job every day.”

Big scary leap

By 2009, several things happened that made it clear it was time for a change. After seven years with the same company Kippen was burnt out. She’d been living and breathing the business and intuitively knew it was time for a change. The recession had also hit and the vision for the business was moving in a direction she wasn’t interested in following. Kippen stepped down, with a big question mark about what would come next.

“I knew that I could design and sell jewelry. It was something I had done all my life off and on. I also knew all the jewelry lines out there from my years as a buyer. Even though I’d been working independently and really operating as if I was the sole owner, I wasn’t. The idea of now starting my own business all by myself was very scary.”

Despite that anxiety, Kippen knew in her gut that designing jewelry was the right next step for her. She shared her concerns with good friend John Rink, a gold and platinumsmith.

“I told John how much I wanted to go back to making jewelry and he offered me a bench in his studio, plus access to all of his equipment, for just $200 a month. That was an amazingly generous offer, and just seeing all the tools he was making available to me was inspirational.”

Jewelry Stores Portland GraylingThat was the very beginning of what would become the thriving wholesale and retail business that is Grayling Jewelry today. Kippen is quick to point out that she did not make this journey alone. She had help, especially from her husband, mentors and customers, all of whom supported and contributed to the early days of the business.

Kippen believes the unique consumers here in Portland, who support high quality, handmade products, helped shape the direction she took.

“When I first sat down at that bench in John’s studio I had no idea what kind of jewelry line I wanted to produce. In the end, I decided to design for myself, and people like me, who are sensitive to metals, can’t necessarily afford fine jewelry, but really value locally made quality pieces. I knew I wanted jewelry that was fun, expressive, versatile and timeless.”

“Oregon is a unique place with an educated consumer base and a lot of support for entrepreneurs. I’m not sure that Grayling would be as successful as it is today if it was based anyplace else in the country. I’d like to think I could have done this anywhere but really I think the collaborative thinking that happens here has been a key to our success.”

But it wasn’t until Kippen took her collections out in the world and started to get feedback that she was able to really hone in on what would ultimately become her signature collection.

“Don’t be afraid to listen to customers and ask a lot of questions,” advises Kippen. “I’m a huge fan of asking questions because to me there’s a synergy in those conversations with buyers that helps you understand what does and doesn’t resonate with customers. We tried a lot of different things and kept refining our vision based on customer feedback until we got to the point we’re at today. Finding people who are willing to share their opinions is golden. Some of our most popular pieces came to be based on those conversations.”

Portland helps make (and grow) the maker

For Kippen, collaboration comes in many forms, including organizations like the Oregon Small Business Development Center (OSBDC). “I’ve had brilliant experiences and met some of the most inspirational people through that organization. I wish I had known about them much sooner. I’d encourage business owners to check out the classes there. I’ve found them tremendously helpful.”

The OSBDC is just one of the ways that Kippen believes that Portland uniquely supports entrepreneurs in becoming successful.

Katy Kippen

Katy Kippen (photo by Jeremy Kirby)

“One of the most incredibly special things about living in Portland, and I can’t speak to the rest of Oregon because I’ve only lived here, is the great network of people who have deliberately chosen to live here and come to the table with amazing experiences and are willing to share them. There is an unspoken ethos here that if you were helped by someone, if someone gave you that kernel of knowledge that helped you grow your company or made your life better, it’s only right that you do the same and help the next person along their journey. I truly think that idea of community and collaboration is very unique to Portland.”

So with a thriving business poised for continued growth how does this entrepreneur define success now that she has six years of experience under her belt and a national customer base?

“I don’t really believe in the traditional definition of success anymore,” says Kippen. “I even stopped subscribing to business magazines because the theme always seemed to be that there’s more to do, grow larger and faster, think big. The message is meant to be inspiring but it supports this perpetual idea that we’re not doing enough. I remind myself that I’ve blown out of the water the dream I had as a 16 year old to own a jewelry business, and that I’ve surpassed what I dreamed of achieving. Business success to me means surrounding myself with people who embrace an ever changing vision of Grayling and help me execute on it, so that we can all have lives filled with family, friends and adventures.”

And just in case you were wondering, the name Grayling comes from a gray freshwater fish, similar to a rainbow trout, only its “rainbow” is on its dorsal fin—a fish with an accessory. According to Kippen, “Their colors are absolutely brilliant, so full of shimmer and shine, just like I want all of my designs to be.”

You can find out more about Katy Kippen and Grayling Jewelry on her website, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and on Twitter.

Reed LaPlant Studio grows from the root up


For a man who makes his living from wood, it’s no coincidence his business vision comes from his roots. Raised in Wisconsin with a deep love of nature and a respect for American-made products, custom furniture maker and designer Reed LaPlant routinely carries those early lessons and experiences into his business.

Even the business itself, Reed LaPlant Studio, emerged like a new shoot from LaPlant’s early work as an architect – his first foray into a business that combined both design and build. But before it was ever a plan for business, LaPlant’s values of sustainability and artistic interests served a practical purpose.

“As a very poor college kid, I rarely had the money to purchase materials for any projects for the neglected, roach-infested house I rented,” he says. “I made a bookcase from scrap lumber and some old windows I found in an abandoned movie theater in town. The windows had been brought as trash by someone not wanting to go all the way to the town dump.”

He didn’t know then that someday he’d make his living making furniture that, while decidedly more upscale, uses the concepts of sustainability of his youth. LaPlant, 46, says Reed LaPlant Studio uses only U.S.-grown and made materials and minimizes consumption and waste.

“This is not a marketing effort. It’s simply what we’ve been doing since the inception of our business,” LaPlant says. “I think my rural, blue collar, Wisconsin roots have always informed my choices. We also always used what was either found, dismantled, or cultivated on our property. My cousin and I built an A-frame fort cobbled from stashed plywood scraps, firewood, and used nails.”

LaPlant was a manufacturing “locavore” before such a term existed.

“I do feel very strongly about it, and this is my small, quiet way of trying to do something about it,” he says.

Both sides of design and build

Reed LaPlant Studio in Northeast Portland makes custom furniture in a unique way. Much like an architect’s process of designing a custom house for a client, LaPlant emphasizes his consultations with the client to develop furniture that expresses their tastes and best fills their space.image5
“Having been in architecture for so long, I really like to design for the space, and with a clear picture of the client’s aesthetic sense and lifestyle.”

LaPlant has seamlessly merged both his talents and interest in design and building throughout his diverse career.

“I made my first piece of furniture when I was about 15, under the guidance of the same industrial arts instructor that told me, ‘Kid, you need to be an architect.’ So I’ve probably always strongly associated the two.”

While starting out as an architect, LaPlant built his first pieces of furniture. Now, with a growing business largely focused on manufacturing, he still takes on the occasional architectural job, he says. The two remain intertwined just as they were when he started out.

“And, as many know, architects generally make very little money,” he says. “So I made my first piece of ‘sellable’ furniture out of construction site cast-off’s I accumulated during my design/build years.”

The evolution of a craftsman

Reed LaPlant Studio first opened in Atlanta as a spin-off from LaPlant’s first company, Blue Shoe, which he co-owned with a partner. Blue Shoe combined LaPlant’s design skills with furniture making. The furniture emerged as the strongest plank of the diverse business, he says. Eventually, he set out on his own and opened the studio.

As the Great Recession smothered the country’s economy, LaPlant had already set in motion a move to Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children. It turned out to be fortuitous timing.

“We relocated to Portland right when the economy tanked, so I had to rebuild my local identity anyway,” he says. “I can’t say I necessarily felt it, because I would have experienced it anyway. When you relocate across the country like that it is to be expected. It wasn’t too bad.”
The business grew through its normal fits and starts, with commissions widely fluctuating.

“I’d have four orders one month and 22 the next,” he says.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 8.43.10 PMThe ups and downs of commission-based work remains a mystery, he says, though overall the business continues to grow. Seasonal factors come into play, people don’t spend much around tax time, and dining room tables sell better in the fall. But by and large he is content to ride the ebb and flow.

His best month came just as the grip of the recession eased, bringing in “a record-crushing 52 orders” that February.

“It’s like people had been holding on to their money for so long, they just finally let go and it came on like a tidal wave,” he says.

Until recently, LaPlant operated the business himself and would hire craftsman as needed. But as the company grew, he decided to focus his energies where he is best suited: making furniture. He hired an operations manager and a marketing manager so he can be making products “about 90 percent of the time”.

A piece can be made in as few as 15 hours,  but most require between 25 and 45 hours.

“I have spent as many as 200 or more hours on a single piece, but that’s pretty rare,” he says.

Like all artists, he has his favorites, a Pullman credenza and a Boochever bench.

“Each of these designs arrived in one of those rare moments when calm collides with notion, and pencil and paper happen to be in hand”.

Customer process

LaPlant noted his first step with a customer is to “invite myself over,” just as he has long done with architectural clients to get to know their tastes, the spaces they want to fill, and how his work can be compliment their lifestyle and style.

“I try to glean a sense of the potential client’s likes and dislikes, and of their personality,” he says.

With business increasingly coming via the website from non-local customers, LaPlant continues this personal touch through electronic connections.

“That’s a bit of a bummer for me, but the rest of the process is the same.”image10

Because of his growing portfolio, customers will often pick a piece directly from the website, which will still be made by hand and personalized as needed. The process typically takes between eight and 12 weeks. He is surprised that many customers prefer to choose a piece that’s already been made rather than have something personally designed, but believes it affirms the quality of the work.

“Although I love designing new pieces,” he says, “I have come to a point where I appreciate and find great pleasure in work of diminished brain strain and stress levels — work that comes with making pieces with which I am deeply familiar.”

And the greatest satisfaction? When the furniture fills the home of a satisfied customer.

“A client in New York sent an e-mail in which she quoted her husband’s immediate response to their new table,” he says. “He took the lord’s name in vain and dropped the f-bomb in the midst of dubbing the table ‘art.’ My joy and laughter hovered for a long time with that one. I still laugh and smile when I think about it.”

The rise of craft and maker movement

LaPlant is well aware that his long, hard business evolution has brought him into the middle of a dramatic business change. With the rise of the DIY (do-it-yourself) projects and increased demand for artisan craftsmanship, both competition and attention have grown dramatically in just the past couple of years.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.12.56 PM

The Maker Movement, as it is called, has attracted any number of new budding entrepreneurial craftsmen.

“With so many people able to freely share ideas and spread inspiration across the web, makers are forming communities of their own, and more people around the world are becoming influenced to be makers,” wrote Brit Moran, founder of Brit+Co.

“I firmly believe there is this incredible creative energy that comes with this ‘maker movement,’ he says, “and there are a lot of makers interested in collaboration. And it’s great.”

The online craft selling company Etsy now has more than one million artisan sellers that generate nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue. The potential market for the maker movement and the expansive level of competition are evident.

For LaPlant, it’s emblematic of the pros and cons of any business.

“People are much more broadly aware, if not of the direct economic impact, of the presence and viability of purchasing or commissioning locally. And that’s great,” he says, “However, from the perspective of a father of two and an owner of a business in a notoriously difficult field, the new-coming competition is a little unnerving…that’s the struggle of every business.”

In the end, LaPlant knows he will stay true to his roots, his unique blend of both design and build, and a lifelong commitment to sustainability and to continued artistic work that affords him both a business and an expression of his talent. If LaPlant is anything, it’s rooted.

“I am a devout believer in the notion that everyone deserves, in every way, a crack at earning a living doing what they love,” he says. “I do it, and I wish this experience upon everyone who wants it.”

 For more information, visit Reed LaPlant Studio, follow then on twitter and instagram, or like them on facebookScreen Shot 2015-05-25 at 8.44.10 PM

Craftsmanship meets impact


The old Quonset hut situated near the I-5 freeway has been a fixture for decades in this southern Oregon town, but the energy level and innovation taking place inside is entirely new.

The Quonset also represents a calculated gamble that not only can manufacturing re-energize this rural Oregon community with good jobs and high return on investment, but that the business within – Roguewood Furniture Company– can compete with venture capital dollars that are most often associated with 21st century technology rather than old-school product making.

Harmony in discord

But don’t tell Elizabeth Bauer this gamble isn’t prudent. Her whole business is built on taking discordant ideas like this one: scaleable investment in rural manufacturing, or like this one: sustainable forest products, and making them not only meaningful, but profitable and of high community value.

20141021_Roguewood_0162Bauer, 37, is the president and founder of Gilded Rogue, an Ashland, Ore. investment company that launched last year. It has since purchased three southern Oregon businesses, including Roguewood and its retro Quonset hut.

“This is a good company that just needed a little bit of love,” she says of Roguewood.

Bauer came out of the grocery industry where she worked as a CFO for massive company with 2,700 employees and annual sales of nearly half a billion dollars. She said her time in corporate finance taught her that many businesses are lacking the language to compete for investment dollars.

“I’d hear all the time,” she says. “There is nothing to invest in. I know it isn’t true but I realized they are speaking different languages.”

Which lead to those seemingly discordant terms being merged together in an old-school business model that can attract cutting-edge investment dollars.

Embracing rural Oregon

“There is a lot of angel money for startups, but not as much for ready-to-scale investment. That’s our sweet spot,” Bauer says. “We’re really about accelerating. We’re trying to get companies out of that first stage and into stage 2 or 3 expansion.”

Bauer said the mission is straightforward and simple. They are looking for companies within the rural Pacific Northwest that have potential sales growth and potential social impact.

Both, she insists, are critical.

“The impact is built into the costs, say, like the wood we use,” she says, because compromising local impact would dissolve the mission. Each company under the Gilded Rogue umbrella must be focused on “benefiting a social issue and making a difference in the world,” according the company’s website.

Building on what works

“The do-good stuff is more than a slogan in the daily operations of Roguewood. It translates in observable ways into the work place, just as when Quin Wilson, a Roguewood furniture designer, returned from a hunt for reclaimed wood. Wilson described the value of the large beams he brought back like trophies of his latest expedition.

20141008_20141007_Roguewood_0175-3I got this out of a saw mill they are tearing down in Klammath Falls,” he said.

He struggled to hold the massive beam—perhaps a 2×12 to an inexpert eye—on its end.

“See how tight that grain is. New timber today may have as much as 1/3 of an inch gap. But this is so much higher quality…” Wilson explained, then segued seamlessly into his plans for converting the beams into a new artisan table.

Wilson plans to smooth out the grain (“just a little, so it’s smooth, but still looks right”) and fill in some holes. On the spot he bought a significant amount of the wood on site and dragged plenty back in his truck.

“How much?” Bauer asked.

“$2.50 a square.”

“Very nice,” she said.

Wilson was also excited about a new wood he’s exploring as a potential product.

“I just found another type of wood I think we might want to take a look at. It is yew wood. It’s a salvage wood. It has a lot of potential,” he reported.

Bauer encouraged him to take a look. No micromanaging here. That freedom, Bauer says later is a big factor in Roguewood’s plan. Bauer, who is now serving as the company’s CEO, is building the business around the craftsmanship and quality that already existed. The employees will be the eventual owners, so autonomy now—with a guiding hand on the business side—is critical. Empowerment is a big part of the growth strategy.

“It’s like putting floaties on a company instead of tossing them into the deep end,” Bauer says.

Economic Rebound

Based on the early explosive growth under Bauer’s leadership, Roguewood won’t need the floaties for long. The word is out in the community as well. Former employees are returning, applications in hand.

“I shouldn’t have left,” one man says as he quickly dropped off his application.
Inside the Quonset hut energy and activity hums. Different sections are used for making different products. The smell of steel saws burning through hard wood mixes with the noise of machines in high gear. But the relaxed vibe of the work represents more high-school woodworking class than high-pressured manufacturing.

In October Roguewood hit $250,000 in sales and ramped up to 60 employees, up from $120,000 in sales and 17 employees back in July. November sales will hit $350,000, Bauer says.

“We just need to get them out the door,” she says of recent sales.

November will also be the first month of a new strategic partnership with Sawyer Paddles and Oars, which agreed to move its manufacturing into the Roguewood site. Employees will be able to cross-train in both furniture manufacturing and paddles, according to Sawyer President Peter Newport.

“I think Liz is an amazing leader,” Newport says.

The partnership fits with what industry experts say is the future of American manufacturing. John Bova, director, MTN Capital Partners LLC, told Industry Week streamlining is the future of American manufacturing.

“The types of decisions that needed to be made include streamlining of go to market, successful new product introductions from a strong pipeline and steady global business investment. Those will be key characteristics for manufacturers poised for higher growth levels,” Bova said.

Lead with sales

It’s all part of the process Bauer envisioned when she first focused on Roguewood.

“Sales came first,” Bauer says. “Then came the employees. Now we’re connecting all the dots,” said Mariam McVeigh, Roguewood’s director of sales. She shares that the arrival of Bauer and her team has infused the company with creative energy.

20141021_Roguewood_0472“It’s like my handcuffs came off,” she says. “The potential always has been there. We have the product and quality and we have the reputation. Now we have the possibility.”

McVeigh used her personal connection to an employer at the Wild River Brewing Company to land a new account. Shaun Hoback, manager of the brewing company, said he just signed a contract with Roguewood for new dining room tables and matching décor that includes old photos of the mills in town and new sustainable products made there including Sawyer paddles.

“Those paddles are gorgeous,” Hoback said. “We want to connect first and foremost with local companies. But the story behind the wood, the company, the industry here, all plays a part in why we want to do business with them.”

Bauer also brought in a team of professionals to help Roguewood organize its front office. One of those is Sam Leaber, systems administrator for Gilded Rogue, on loan to Roguewood.

“Companies don’t always know what they need until it all goes wrong,” he says.

By having Leaber available, Roguewood can improve its online presence without the added cost of a full-time IT guy. Bauer’s husband also pops in, helping out with any number of tasks as needed.

“The more we do this kind of stuff,” Bauer says, arms sweeping across the spartan office space, “the more they can do what they do best, building a great product.”

Significant impact

For all the business savvy, the mission remains impact-centered, much like Wilson’s hunt for reclaimed wood and Bauer’s determination to build a solid, permanent workforce. It also is evident in the exit strategy Bauer has in mind, which is to eventually sell the company to the employees themselves.

Because the company was undervalued and is now getting the lift it needed it should soon hit industry standards, Bauer says. That realized growth will allow the employees to buy her out. It means a company will sustain in the community that gave it life and will benefit that community long after Bauer is on to other projects.

20141023_roguewood_0240-2Bauer knows profits are critical. But unlike much of the venture capital world that is looking for the explosive dividends of tech companies that require 10 times the amount invested in returns, Bauer says the same return can be realized with a lower rate of growth with fewer failed investments.

“There are a lot of companies out there that don’t fit the 10x model,” Bauer says. “But we sort of put them together to outperform that model. We don’t have the eight in ten failure rate to absorb. It allows us to succeed.”

It also allows them to continue to make an impact, like donating money to the Ashland-based Lomakatsi non-profit that educates children about forest health. For every piece of furniture Roguewood sells, Lomakaski is given money to plant a tree, Bauer says.

Bauer says the company must excel and the impact must be reflected in the product, which “drives money into impact.”

She says the overall aim of the company is connecting the diverse artisan craftsmakers in the Pacific Northwest to the burgeoning market of clients across the globe.

“If we can do wood products right, in a sustainable way, here in Southern Oregon, in timber country, well that’s a great model for everyone,” Bauer says.

A model Bauer is willing to gamble on.

For more information, visit http://www.roguewood.com, follow Roguewood on Twitter, or like Roguewood on Facebook.