In 2009, Industrial Design supersite Core77 took the extraordinary step of launching its own product: the Dutch Master bicycle, made in New York City. While they had experimented with the Fila Blu Fom sneaker in 2006, this effort was marked by a more deliberate consideration for product design over mere cross-branding. I talked with Core77 partner Eric Ludlum about the Dutch Master effort and what it revealed. A condensed version of our conversation was published recently in Ambidextrous Magazine (view the PDF here) while the complete interview (which explores some other issues around craft production and craft consumption) is below.
Eric Ludlum: The Dutch Master project is a natural extension for Core and also myself. Having gone through the industrial design program at Pratt Institute, and then founding Core77, covering industrial design, with Stu Constantine and myself always being on the outside of the industry in terms of actually participating, but then covering it, watching it from the inside. The Dutch Master, and previous to the Dutch Master, the Blu Fom shoe have been our attempts at doing some product development and design.
In particular, the Dutch Master being more of a story than a product. Our background is as a magazine and place where design stories get told. So if there’s any kind of expertise we have it’s recognizing good stories and promoting them. With the Dutch Master, we actually got to write the story and promote it.
Steve Portigal: Was there an aspect of that with the story of the Blu Fom shoe?
EL: The Blu Fom was just a name, and actually, the concept behind it came from the model-making material designers used to use – mostly. There’s not too much use of it now, but the insulation foam that would be used to make the mock ups, either ergonomic models or actual look models of products. Definitely from my experience in school back in the mid-‘90s, it was a staple of the process. With Core77, it was an insider take on industrial design. It was our insider wink-wink product. Very quintessential ID project. I think it was 2005 that we came out with it, and it had 300 pairs made by Fila. We worked with Phil Russo while he was there. Again, it really central to the story of it and the presentation on the web, pushing that out to other blogs, other web based media.
SP: So when you had this opportunity to write the story for Dutch Master, what is that story?
EL: With the Dutch Master, we wanted to take the starting point with New York City manufacturing. The interest level was there for a bicycle in Core77 because we’re all very interested in bicycling. A few of us actually commute by bike, so it was a natural product choice for us. But once we started getting down to the actual decision about what it was going to be and what the story was going to be, we were looking at New York City and the disappearance of manufacturing, and how really stunning it is to find something still made there.
That was the Worksman frame, and made in New York City for over 100 years. It formed the basis of the project. From there, it was like how do we create a product around it and extend the idea of New York City manufacturing and local production, as well as trying to be saleable. Hit some market price points that would make the project economically viable for us.
SP: That makes me think about who is the target customer. Did you have a sense of that?
EL: I guess there would be two. To some degree, we knew that the bike itself wouldn’t a real profit center for us. There’s the market of the consumer of ideas that’s out there on the Internet. In that case, it’s like a branding exercise for us. To be like, “Here is something we feel represents our nature as a company. Here is a way to communicate it to people.” There’s one market there, which is the much broader market. People consume that product by just seeing it.
Then the actual market for the bike itself: Through the process of developing the bike, the market started to move higher and higher based on this being a craft process where there’s a lot of skilled labor involved with actually producing it. It naturally tends to push the market price point higher. That informs the aesthetics of the products as well. Once you start moving into that higher rent neighborhood, it means that certain things are going to have to look a certain way. So inclusion of other accents on the bike, or an overall aesthetic that matches the rough luck look that you’d see out there in trendy restaurants or hotels.
SP: I had this reaction when I saw the bike, and I saw what it was selling for. I was surprised. I’m not a connoisseur of bikes. I haven’t shopped for a bike. I haven’t bought a new bike in a very, very long time, if ever. It wasn’t an informed perspective, but in general, I think of a bicycle as a commodity product. When I saw that it was more of an exclusive product, with some of what you’re describing it and at that price point, I was really surprised.
It makes me wonder in general about commodities going exclusive. Someone was telling me about heirloom chickens. I believe as a consumer that there’s more quality in those things. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this general movement towards many things being created at a level of – I’ve got to be careful with the word – I’ll call it exclusivity.
EL: Yeah, I think maybe in the case of the chicken as well, but definitely in the bike, the marketplace dictates where the opportunities lie for small run manufacturing or small run production. So the people who are very expert consumers of chickens or bikes, they are a tiny fraction of the overall market. They’re the ones who are willing to pay a premium, so now whatever your product is, it’s going to be a fairly low volume item, meaning that if you were going to have it as a sustainable business, the prices are going to have to have a fairly high margin, so you can keep going.
In the case of the bike, we’re doing them build-to-order, and putting them out there for sale on an ongoing basis. We want orders to trickle in a bit, so that production of the bicycle isn’t a chore that we hate because we’re squeaking just a little bit of profit out of it instead of other things we should be doing that would be making money. For it to be a viable product, it has to have some kind of ongoing benefit to the producer.
I don’t know about the gap between craft production and mass-market, how people would be able to bridge that, some kind of manufactured bespoke or semi-exclusive product. It seems like if the market really does kind of push you to one side or the other.
SP: You’re bringing the the producers frame in. I’m glad to get the benefit of your perspective on it because I think of it as a consumer in categories that I’m involved in as a consumer, like chickens or bikes or ice cream. You made an interesting point early on where you said that looking at what the manufacturing process was going to do to the cost, that then informs the design, the details, the trim, the materials, and so on. It has to be chosen in a way that supported the price point. Is that right?
EL: Yeah, definitely.
SP: So if you’re going to choose to do it in a small manufacturing way, it needs to be done in a way that is beneficial to the producer, and then the sort of details of the design have to send a specific message to the consumer. So you create a coherent story. I hate to bring up chickens again, but kind of a chicken and egg between the whole set of decisions. I guess it comes from choosing to be small manufacturing.
EL: Yeah. As an example, perhaps sports cars or other performance related products. Maybe like high-end electronics. The aesthetic becomes one of communicating that added performance, as an exclusivity or surplus of its abilities. I think that’s something that mass manufacturing picks up on and imitates in the mid-market, like in vehicles, for instance.
SP: There’s a look to an organic farmers’ market. You go into your grocery store, you can find some of those visual cues being replicated.
EL: Right now, it is a trend and will have a life cycle within the marketplace. It starts out as a fringe kind of happening, and then it will move, be adopted, and make its way through. I don’t know if we’re seeing that too much with actual consumer products, but we definitely see it with things like the chocolates or the craft brewing, like micro brews with the larger breweries. Budweiser or Michelob, even though they don’t replicate the taste of craft beers, they’re replicating the packaging and coloration.
SP: I read an article in the New Yorker about the craft brewing movement. They pointed out that micro brewing and craft brewing are actually very different. The scale of micro brewing is enormous relative to scale of craft brewing. You had mass breweries, and you had this micro‑brewery emerge that entered the public consciousness. That lasted for a while, and now you’ve got this even smaller business able to compete in some way for shelf space and for mind share. That wasn’t possible before.
EL: In that example, micro brews came out at a time when Internet wasn’t around. I feel that the Internet is what has helped drive a lot of the craft – the reemergence of interest in craft across the board. Just from DIY stuff that you see on the web to organizing small social groups or craft fairs or whatever. It seems like it really is the marketing or the communications, essentially. It’s the thing that has changed, where as even in the ‘80s when you wanted to make alternative beer, if you wanted to continue to do it and make money off of it, you’d have to scale to a certain size to make it viable. Perhaps now, maybe the ethos of it has come around.
If you can just get by and consider “craft” as a profession and make enough money to support yourself with it, it’s a worthwhile thing to do with your time. Maybe it has gone hand in hand with the actual development of the communication channels that would allow you to sell your product or distribute it to a smaller set of stores or venues has gone hand in hand with emergence of that as a respectable or viable or attractive lifestyle.
SP: One of the threads I wanted to explore with this in the fact that we’re in a recession right now. Lots and lots of ink is being spilled about people giving up on this, not buying new stocks. They’re buying more Spam, or whatever it is we think people are doing.
At the same time, we’re learning about heirloom chickens and Core77 is putting out a higher priced bicycle, for example. Do you see any relationship between those two kinds of forces or events?
EL: With us and the Dutch Master, we knew that it wasn’t going to be a blockbuster for us. It wasn’t going to make a bunch of money. We’re doing it for the sake of doing it, being driven by the impulse to create. The economic climate, that contributed to that. If you’ve got a lack of options to really be productive economically, it is counter intuitive, but there’s a little less pressure for us to measure projects economically. Maybe it’s slightly defeatist, but I guess when it comes back to the value system, if the economic value system is being downplayed for companies or individuals within a certain economic time, you look for other value systems that can justify what you’re doing. In the case of the Dutch Master, the first audience that I mentioned that would consume the idea, if part of the idea was that a web magazine could produce a bike, why not. In a way, it’s an empowering idea. Creating things isn’t solely the domain of big companies or companies that have a focus on producing things. It’s just the idea that we’re pushing forward to that first audience – these things are possible. If you can put together a story behind it, you can probably do it on an individual level.
In our case, it’s throwing support behind the value system of craft, which is basically producing. There is value in making things by hand or just for the sake of producing. A form of expression via product. In our case the economic times have lead us to measure this project in those terms. A large part of it is not economic, it’s more ideas that it represents. I think in the case of crafts on the web, or with industrial design or furniture design, and people who are students or fresh out of school people who end up making projects that aren’t necessarily going to be produced ever, but will go out onto the blogosphere and get a fair amount of publicity, they’re being paid in “ego bucks.” Their idea is receiving some kind of play, not necessarily a direct relationship to some benefit to them in the future, either job offers or having their objects picked up. It’s rewarding itself because they do have this new venue that wasn’t there ten years ago. The web allows their ideas to receive some kind of feedback. It allows them to gather some momentum and enthusiasm from the audience. There’s certainly a part in Dutch Master of getting positive feedback. That’s just encouraging that there’s some kind of payment and producing something that people like. It’s untethered from economic – or the marketplace.
SP: A lot of the projects highlighted on Core77 are things that might fall under the label of bottom of the pyramid, really amazing design solutions where somebody takes materials that are worth nothing and solves some incredible problem through a real clever use of design. You guys have highlighted many of those stories. I don’t know what the price of the Nano car in India is, but it’s some manufacturing and design revolution that will create change in that society by producing this affordable vehicle. It makes me wonder about could Core77 create a story around a bicycle or something else. A $49.00 bicycle that has a story, showcases a different set of design values that you guys also champion.
EL: Certainly. In that case, there’d be a different starting point for us. The starting point we took with the Dutch Master, which was the local manufacturing in New York. Our price point was predestined to creep higher and higher. Resetting it to the starting point of a rural Indian manufacturer and their capability, whether it’s metal forming or some other natural resource that is readily available that could be packaged into something, that would definitely lead into an entirely different product.
The story is that the first audience for that would be the same. Ultimately, with the Dutch Master, the story we were trying to tell to our audience, which we always focus on more of the insider aspect of our total audience. So the people who are actually involved in the design that we really want to speak to. I think the Dutch Master might have been one of trying to show that we have some affinity for the values of craft versus the values of mass-market manufacturing, whereas in the case of that project, more of a humanitarian aspect, it would be communicating to the audience that it’s a worthwhile application of design. I think both of those ideas are generally accepted already. It doesn’t need too much pushing from us, either of them. I guess if we do have any thought leadership role within the industry, it would probably be more on that side, the humanitarian side. So perhaps for the next project.
SP: I’m so interested in this idea of a story as a starting point. It’s not what I expected. I think about my own consumer perspective, say being in a grocery store and seeing 28 different kinds of eggs that are 99 cents or $1.29. Next to that on the shelf are eggs that are $7.00. They’re markedly different. When I look at A versus B, the producer of B has some explanation for me about why this thing is better. So my assumption is always that these are the best eggs possible. They’re healthier. They taste better. The chickens aren’t abused. They’re heirloom chickens. The thing you get for paying four or five X of the commodity solution is better. You’re going to experience that. That’s not the point you’re coming from. It’s been really clear that you’re not really thinking about it in terms of those things. You’re starting with a story and a vision for what you want to put out there.
EL: Yeah, I think that it’s the result of who we are as an organization. We’re a magazine. Stories are our strength. For some other organization it would actually be the manufacturing knowledge or the design skills of that. I think it’s the nature of the organization. We try to be self aware our own abilities, what we could actually pull off. Actually make something interesting out of it. Those people who are focused on the ten-cent price difference with their eggs, their organizational capabilities are distribution, efficiencies, or whatever else. Obviously, we’re in a position to just launch things, but they’re not essential to our core business. They have to have some revenue generating aspect to them, but the storytelling aspect, since we’re in the business of generating editorial, if they do have a strong story to them, it could come out of the editorial budget if we’re looking at it that way. The product development is the development of a story, which would then be told in the magazine.
I think I suffer and we suffer at Core77 from the solipsistic tendencies of designers in general. We want to make stuff because we want to make stuff. Your initial response to the bike with the price point and the use of our social capital in support of a cause being misdirected as you point out in your example of with India. We sometimes don’t tend to measure things along that kind of good of the whole, where as maybe we’re just focused on what is going to make our day-to-day more interesting, and what is going to maintain our interest level in something. Given that Core77 is a collection of people, Allan being a definite advocate of the green humanitarian side of things, but perhaps not being involved in the manufacture of something, like with the Dutch Master, this came from a different place. than the editorial face of the organization. It’s just a different thing. If it seems a little perhaps trite in its origin, I think that possibly it is.
Note: Since this interview was conducted, Core77 has alluded to plans to open a retail space in Portland, OR. I can’t wait to see how the ideas Eric was talking about do or don’t manifest in the new store.