14 innovative Western designers

These visionary designers and craftsmen are bringing an indie spirit to mainstream design

Western design boom

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

Western design boom

It’s a golden age of creativity in the West, and design innovation is transforming the way we live. That’s thanks in part to these 14 game changers, who are influencing everything from our furniture and lightbulbs to how we interact with words. And they’re doing it all with an edgy, grassroots spirit. As Trina Turk says of moving to California as a young fashion designer, “There are fewer rules about how things should be done. That’s one reason people have been coming [West] for so long.” So pay attention to these innovators. You’ll be seeing a lot of their work.

The texture genius

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt; written by Mimi Zeiger

The texture genius

By juxtaposing fine and chunky textures in her hand-dyed rope cuffs, sculptural necklaces, and furniture, Tanya Aguiñiga has honed a singular design style—one that has caught the eyes of design shops, retailers like CB2, and hotels like Kimpton.

Enter her L.A. studio, and you’ll find it packed with skeins of wool and pieces of fabric. There’s prickly goat-hair yarn from a fixture of the city’s 1970s weaving scene. A leather belt that’s a loom used by women in Chiapas, Mexico. While her designs are contemporary, Aguiñiga is clearly inspired by traditional craft.

Raised in Tijuana, she took a bus across the border every day to go to school in San Diego. From that experience grew what she calls her “two-sidedness” and knack for contrasting cultural references in her designs. For a series of brightly colored folding chairs, she took damaged chairs and nursed them back to life by hand-felting each one, making a mass-produced object feel unique. “The color and felt change it to the opposite of its original identity,” she says, distilling exactly what makes her designs so witty and appealing. aguinigadesign.com

The made-in-the-U.S.A. champions

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Jess Chamberlain

The made-in-the-U.S.A. champions

Made Collection is a flash-sale site with heart, the first of its kind to sell products exclusively manufactured in the United States. For Dave Schiff, John Kieselhorst, and Scott Prindle--the former ad execs behind it--the site has a higher purpose too: to show that American-made products are every bit as good as imported ones, and to help boost the economy and jobs by connecting crafters and makers with American manufacturers.

“In our old jobs, we’d spent our careers convincing people to buy things,” says creative director Dave Schiff. “Not to sound too idealistic, but we thought, What if we could use those skills to benefit the community in general?”

The site highlights 15 products every week at discounted prices, telling you where each one was made and how many people the company employs. With every purchase, you get “boom points”—pegged to the concept that every dollar you spend on U.S.-made goods sparks another $1.40 in economic growth—which can be used for deals down the line. Call it the ultimate retail therapy. madecollection.com

Highlights from Made Collections past flash sales include composition notebooks by Scout Books (pictured; $10 each; 11 employees; 140 boom points); KnappSacks by Buck Products ($120; 3 employees; 1,680 boom points); guitar strap by Riversong Leather Studio ($118; 1 employee; 1,652 boom points); barber products by Imperial (from $10; 4 employees; 280 boom points); and guerilla gardening slingshot kit by Greenaid ($15; 4 employees; 210 boom points).

The queen of prints

Written by Elizabeth Jenkins

The queen of prints

Imagine the world before Trina Turk. More monotone, less glamorous, not as much fun. Okay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but this designer has done more to showcase the power of prints than just about anyone. With a Palm Springs collection for Banana Republic earlier this year and her home line, she’s bringing happy colors and a carefree West Coast style to the mainstream. trinaturk.com

How do you define Palm Springs style? It’s optimistic, which to me means color. Palm Springs has an enduring appeal because of its association with leisure time—cocktail hour by a pool outside a striking architectural house. Who doesn’t want a piece of that in their closet?

Why did you add interiors to your portfolio? Five years ago, we started making pillows out of our fabrics for photo shoots. Afterward, we’d put them in the store, and they’d sell quickly, so we thought, Hmmm.

What was it like to create a capsule collection for Banana Republic? They approached us about doing a collection inspired by Palm Springs. We went back through 17 years of prints, pulling ones that were iconic or had been fantastic in multiple categories, and ended up with five, including one we called the crazy botanical print. The store ended up using that fabric for its displays.

Why do you think people are so interested in design today? The Internet, for one. And retailers like Ikea and Target have brought design to the mass market. People are treating their lives, bodies, and homes like a curated exhibit. You can tell a lot about who a person is by the environment they live in.

The lighting star

Photo by Yellena James; written by Miranda Jones

The lighting star

That warm, dusky glow in your favorite date-night place? The sconces in the new boutique hotel you just stayed at? There’s a good chance they came from Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co., the lighting company founded by Brian Faherty. Ten years ago, “most of the lighting I saw was disposable at best,” he says, so he set out to create a line of lamps and fixtures—incorporating an impossibly flattering Edison filament bulb—that puts design and quality front and center. schoolhouseelectric.com

Schoolhouse Electric: A history

2002: Faherty searches out and restores a forgotten cache of old cast-iron molds for glassblowing. With 3 employees and a 100-piece lighting line, Schoolhouse Electric is born.

2004: Manufacturing expands to a 10,000-square-foot historic factory in the Central Eastside Industrial District.

2006: Schoolhouse starts using the Edison bulb in its designs.

2007: The Ace Hotel in Portland becomes a client.

2008: Ralph Lauren’s American Living puts Schoolhouse lights in its JCPenney shops across the country.

2009: Schoolhouse teams up with Yellena James for its first local artist series (pictured).

2011: Faherty restores the 100-year-old former Pacific Hardware and Steel building on the edge of the Pearl District, and Schoolhouse moves to its new home.

2011: The company launches a home-goods line with 200+ products, including a vintage industrial–style clock.

2012: Sales volume doubles from 2011.

The curator

Photo by David Fenton; written by Rachel Levin

The curator

Crowd-sourced-stationery start-up Minted—the site that launched a thousand designers who otherwise wouldn’t have a commercial platform—has now expanded to wall art. Founder and CEO Mariam Naficy explains why and what it means for artists across the West. minted.com

How did you get the idea to add wall art? Minted began five years ago as a site for stationery, but we started looking at the quality of work being submitted—illustration, watercolors, graphic art—and realized: This stuff belongs on walls.

Who are these “Minties,” as you call them? Psychology professors and stay-at-home moms, corporate designers, people with all sorts of day jobs who are unfulfilled creatively at work—and suddenly find themselves moonlighting as working artists, actually making money from their art.

Where are they from? Our most successful artists actually live in places like rural Colorado or Utah, disconnected from the greater design community. Minted helps give them visibility. We didn’t intend to be a social network, but that’s what’s happening.

Three of Minted’s favorite Western graphic designers, on the Minted experience:

Kayla King, Arroyo Grande, CA: "The sense of community at Minted is unlike any other. Everyone supports one another, gives constructive feedback, and truly wants to see each other succeed."

Melissa Egan (Pistols), Portland: "It’s a great feeling knowing that something I’ve created is hanging on living-room walls. And because of Minted, I was contacted to illustrate a children’s book, which I’ve always wanted to do."

Amy Ehmann (Design Lotus), Highlands Ranch, CO: "I knew zip about typography before Minted. I had no idea the spacing of letters, words, and lines can make or break a design. It rocked my world as a designer."


The tech artist

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Alissa Walker

The tech artist

In 2010, Joey Roth wowed gadget freaks everywhere with a pair of speakers made from porcelain, cork, and stainless steel, transforming a stereotypically plastic eyesore into a sculptural centerpiece. This fall, he’s debuting a subwoofer, which reproduces bass frequencies, to match. joeyroth.com

Why porcelain for your speakers? It’s just like plastic in the way that it holds a shape, and it’s also very dense and reflective of sound.

What drew you to designing tech products? While my school friends were into computer games, I was obsessed with building computers themselves. I built enclosures from scratch, using wood, metal, old car parts, my mom’s countertop offcuts. Creating a home for cutting-edge components with basic, well-worn materials was enthralling for me, and still is.

What’s your product design philosophy? You’re playing a supporting role to what’s happening. People are playing music through my speakers, so the music is really the point; I’m just creating the context.

The accessory geniuses

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Alissa Walker

The accessory geniuses

In 2002, the husband-and-wife team of Angie Myung and Ted Vadakan founded their design company, Poketo, just as they started dating. Now they’re a golden couple in the accessories world, bringing together artists, illustrators, and designers to create their colorful, quirky lines. In addition to collaborating with companies like Nike and MTV, they launched their second product line with Target this summer and opened a brick-and-mortar store in L.A. in the summer of 2012. Here’s how they do it. poketo.com

Myung: First of all, we have very different ways we think about design. Ted is an eternal optimist. I’m a little less so.

Vadakan: I like to throw a bunch of ideas in the pool and see what’s possible. Angie tends to rein things in and view things more realistically. For example, with the first Target line, Angie designed all the silhouettes and knew what she wanted.

Myung: I’m more about making the dream into reality, but luckily, we’re on the same page when it comes to aesthetics.

Vadakan: Angie’s great at the product, and I love bringing people together. Which is good because Poketo is not only products, but also a community of creatives, artists, and fans of design. We only work with people who are joyous to work with.

Myung: Everyone always says, How do you work together and live together? We literally are with each other 24/7. But as soon as we met, we started this fun project called Poketo and just went with it—we don’t know anything else.

The type master

Photo by John Madere; written by Alissa Walker

The type master

These days, our ABC’s are undergoing a renaissance, and that’s thanks to people like Jessica Hische, who makes art out of letterforms. You’ll see her letters looping their way through work for Tiffany & Co., Target, and American Express, and you can also catch her curvaceous characters in the titles for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

“Type designers have been a relatively unappreciated group of folks in history up until now,” says Hische, who attributes the change to films like Helvetica (yes, a movie about the ubiquitous typeface) and the rise of Web design, which allows more designers to experiment with typefaces.

Hische’s A’s to Z’s caught our eye because she has brought back the luscious, looping script of the past in a completely contemporary and tech-forward way. Instead of just caring about how a type looks, she also thinks about how it works, making sure that the lettering functions across mediums and devices, not just on paper.

Look out for her Buttercream typeface line and Penguin Books’ set of classics emblazoned with her ornate capital letters. Both speak to the power of type. jessicahische.is

The bike jedi

Photo by Gabriela Hasbun; written by Loren Mooney

The bike jedi

Custom-bike builders usually make one-of-a-kind dream machines for the spandex set, but Jeremy Sycip goes way beyond that—designing cargo bikes that can haul loads typically requiring a car. “A custom-bike builder is really a problem-solver,” says Sycip, who has been building bikes for 20 years. Among his non­tradi­tional solutions: specialty bikes for local businesses like San Francisco salumeria Boccalone, to deliver their “salty pig parts,” and Noci Gelato in Mill Valley, which needed a bike with huge coolers front and rear.

Since 2010, he’s also taken part in a progressive project called Oregon Manifest, where designers build bike prototypes that hold a variety of things, from a six-pack to a week’s worth of groceries. “The coolest thing about it is that it’s a testing ground” for elements he might incorporate into his own designs, he says. “We actually ride these bikes 50 miles to see how they function.” His invention, in collaboration with San Francisco design firm Fuseproject, has a giant cargo bin in front with wheels on either side of it, a sort of SUV trike.

Hauling bikes have yet to become mainstream, but the idea of an all-use bike has been catching on. “I’m getting a lot more requests for wider tires, fenders, rack mounts,” he says, “the things that let you use one bike for every purpose.” sycip.com

The furniture game changers

Photo by José Mandojana; written by Jess Chamberlain

The furniture game changers

It took a stint working with mass production in China for Andy Whitcomb—the design half of Brackish furniture—to realize he wanted to start his own company. “I’d never considered building anything myself; I was fine drawing and having someone else make it,” he says. But his experience with mass goods—“designed to go out of style in six months and be thrown away”—changed his mind.

The result is Brackish’s first furniture collection, all handcrafted in Seattle from local materials. The centerpiece is the couch, which at $3,500 reflects a ferocious commitment to local resources. “We wanted it to be $2,000,” says Whitcomb. “But to hit that price point, we would’ve had to outsource somewhere else in the country, and probably overseas. Instead of feathers and down from Oregon for the cushions, we could’ve used only a thin layer of petroleum-based foam. At that point, we’d rather not make a sofa.”

Most important to the duo is that their designs stand the test of time structurally and artistically—which is why they avoid trends. “So much is made today with planned obsolescence in mind,” says Forest Eckley, the business heavy of the team. “This sofa is as aesthetically strong as it is durable.” The proof? “A kid can superman onto it and land comfortably.” brackishdesigns.com

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