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Simplicity is one of the hallmarks of good design. In fact, if you polled a group of designers, most would agree. But how many items around your house are actually simple? It seems everything is trying to get smarter and less simple. I set out to design a simple, inexpensive wooden toy robot months ago. The initial concept was awesome — a BB8-inspired toy with a stationary head and free moving wheels. But as soon as I took the idea off paper and into the shop, I recognized the need for weights and counterbalances, inlays and offsets. My simple project was no longer simple and would be expensive to reproduce. So I decided to start over and … well … simplify things.
Woodworkers and chair makers have long relied on the tapered mortise and tenon — a simple self-binding cone and matching housing (think of it as a wooden Chinese finger trap). It wasn’t until I nearly quit the Kyoto stool project that I discovered the tapered mortise and tenon — and it was a revelation. It’s a mechanically locking joint that holds like grim death without relying on glue and frees itself with a simple tap or twist. It’s amazingly simple and equally as strong.
Our new rolling robot has taken this technique and philosophy to heart. This simple locking joint lifts and holds the head — breathing movement and life into this toy droid. Crafted entirely of three wood pieces, it's simplicity in motion — literally.
The first known wood type catalog was published in 1828 by Darius Wells. What’s not known, however, is if Mr. Wells printed that catalog with wood type or the metal variety—a seeming paradox in our narrative, but I digress. In it he outlined the advantages of using wood type. Its availability, lightness, even surfaces, and low-cost made it the logical alternative to lead.
But before the science of mass production was introduced to the art of type, most letterforms were drawn and hand-carved out of a block of wood. The origin of woodblock prints can actually be traced back some 1000 years earlier to the Chinese. Initially, images were used much like a stamp to disseminate texts. But by the early seventeenth century, artists and painters were using them to print designs on paper and silk.
It’s now 2016 and wood type is all but petrified. So we’ve undertaken a new project aimed at introducing children, or reintroducing adults, to the the beauty of wood type and their timeless typefaces. Disguised as traditional four-sided toy alphabet blocks, each features two letters and four fonts (Helvetica, Gotham, Bodoni, and Baskerville) and inked with a brayer. The glowing screen may have replaced the printed page, but it must never break the backbone of communication - typography.
In 2013, the world was introduced to Vivian Maier, an intensely private and guarded nanny with an equally private passion—street photography. Just before her death in 2007, her massive body of work, a collection of nearly 100,000 negatives, was discovered at a thrift auction house. If you haven’t seen the documentary about this introverted yet eccentric artist, often described as Mary Poppins, you should.
When I first watched Finding Vivian Maier, I was smitten with not only her photography but with that mysterious camera hanging around her neck. I had seen similar cameras on display over the years, but I never knew what it was and how it worked. It turns out Vivian was using a classic Rolleiflex twin lens camera—a camera no doubt known to most professional photographers. It turns out the Rolleiflex wasn’t only popular amongst recluse nannies. Celebrities like Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and many others were often photographed while they were ... well, photographing.
The Rolleiflex, first introduced in the late 1920s, was made famous for its exceptional build quality, compact size, and its simple yet clever mechanics. It has a waist level viewfinder, which means images are viewed by holding the camera at your waist, and looking into the viewfinder from above. You can read reviews of the camera here and here. So it seems poetic that just as the works of Vivian Maier are introduced to a new generation, we’ve decided to introduce a Rolleiflex-style camera to an even younger generation—children. Alongside our Pixie wooden camera, Flex (as we’ve deemed her) is the most realistic, highest quality, wooden toy camera available. A strategically placed mirror inside the camera allows users to see the world in front of them using the viewfinder from above in classic fashion. A simple sliding mechanism allows even the tiniest hands to switch their view from the lower to upper lens.
In a have-it-now world where virtually anything we want can be delivered to our doorstep on any day of the week, we’re determined to slow down by reaching into the past and hand-crafting toys powered solely by a child’s imagination … and the Law of Reflection.
It’s not uncommon for men and women to look back into the past of their given professions. Lawyers look to prior precedents, doctors examine medical journals, and businessmen analyze successful case-studies. I’m certainly not a doctor, nor a lawyer, and I would consider myself an amateur businessman at best. The truth is, I studied advertising at my alma mater. Don Draper, coincidentally, had just begun his tenure on cable TV. So even before graduation, things looked promising. I soon realized, however, that the floor-to-ceiling windows, designer furniture, and beautiful secretaries I was used to seeing in the halls of Madison Avenue were just a metaphor for the hum of fluorescent lights, beige padded cubicles, and co-workers microwaving broccoli for lunch. The camera really does add 10 pounds of BS. So after some arm twisting, I decided to move on. Not because I don’t love good advertising—I do. But I hate bad advertising. Perhaps it was this paradox I couldn’t stomach. The best ads and ideas are typically hidden from the public—accessible only in yearly award show publications. While the worst fare is fed to us by advertisers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Instead, I became obsessed with the idea of doing the work I wanted to do without the input or constraints given by clients. But as it turned out, that business strategy was also a piece of Hollywood fiction. I told you I was an amateur. There is always a client. So now, I hope to simply be considered a good designer—finding the balance between what I want, or what I think others want, and what others actually need.
For the past few years, I’ve chosen to work with wood—a craft with a rich history indeed. As I’ve looked to the past of this trade, I’ve become enamored with traditional Japanese carpentry techniques and philosophy. The Japanese believe a tree acts as a link between the heavens above and the earth below. They have a spirit and one can give it a second-life as a piece of furniture. Care must be taken, however, not to work against nature. This often means meticulous attention to details such as simplicity, waste-reduction, growth direction, and joinery.
In that spirit, we designed the Kyoto stool. A large piece of lumber is dissected, hand-planed, and shaped into the individual pieces of the stool. Two dovetail keys hold the bookmatched (mirrored pieces) seat together atop a branching base. Once assembled, the stool relies on the end user for added stability—it’s that idea of nature and man working together. So it seems that by looking to the past that we find roads to the future. Or maybe I’m just a mad man.