Design, sustainability and friendship
By Dominic Irons, Nanosphere
Meet Makers Cabinet, a team of young designers that have already disrupted the stationery market with their first two products, and have grander plans in the pipeline. It’s all about cleverly reinventing traditional design combining the best of an analogue and digital world.
If you launch a new product then you shouldn’t be surprised when you run into trouble. It’s all about how you deal with it. I am sat with Ben, Odin and Noah from Makers Cabinet as they describe how things had not quite gone to plan with the Høvel, an upmarket sharpener that had caught a lot of attention. Odin recounts it with a calmness I suspect was absent at the time. “We had our first batch of products coming in from China and we were very excited. Then it got stuck in customs and it was running up to Christmas and we were running out of time. I was going on holiday to Australia…” Ben, his business partner at the time, casually adds “…and I was going off to California.”
The Høvel had been launched by crowdfunding with backers expecting to receive their sharpener in time for Christmas. “The sharpeners literally arrived the day that I flew off and I was stuck needing to send off 700 sharpeners to all over the world,” explains Odin. Faced with disappointing everyone they had to find a solution. Cue Ben. “We found the most reliable guy we knew, which was Noah, he assembled the team and he was the foreman. He absolutely executed it perfectly.” A team was formed. Sometimes you find the best solutions when faced with a crisis.
Meet Makers Cabinet, an aspiring young team of three designers – Odin Ardagh (half Norwegian, head of design), Ben Weininger (from California, head of communications) and Noah Bier (from closer to home, head of sales). From the Høvel that elevates the humble of act of sharpening your pencil to an art form, to the Iris which deconstructs the compass into a beautiful piece of engineering, they have already marked themselves out as a breath of fresh air in the stationery industry.
Where most of us would shop around in the vain hope we might find something better for sale, Odin just set about designing one. “I was back home over Christmas doing woodwork using a hand plane, and I just played around sharpening a pencil, and it worked fantastically. And so I used that as my starting point and I just minituarised it and ended up with the Høvel.” Ben joined Odin and they launched a Kickstarter campaign. Nearly 500 people raised over £25,000 to get their first product launched and on the market.
So far Makers Cabinet have stuck to reinventing stationery but it’s fair to say they are already looking for new opportunities. After visiting various factories as part of launching their business they felt they saw how traditional brands were really missing the mark. Noah gives a glimpse into their thinking. “We went to a white goods manufacturer and they produce hundreds of thousands of fridges, freezers, microwaves and tumble dryers and there is a really big gap. Which was similar to the stationery industry where they weren’t modernised. They weren’t aware of sustainability. They weren’t aware of reaching their customers through new media. And also they sell through distributors rather than direct to customers. So I think we see there is a possibility of us moving from stationery or drawing tools into something a lot larger.”
At this point it is worth taking a step back to understand how they arrived at this point. All three are students at Central Saint Martins college in London, studying product design. They have taken the unusual step of combining their studies with launching a business. Originally known as Brahman Design, the business has since become Makers Cabinet.
The first product was the Høvel and it was born out of Odin’s frustrations with the act of trying to sharpen his pencil. “It started in the first year of university and I was drawing a lot and using this kind of blue pastel pencil, which was used for a lot of product design when sketching. I was using normal pencil sharpeners and they were just breaking the pastel pencils. So I thought I want a better pencil sharpener.”
Norwegian for plane (the wood variety).
Their inspiration comes from wanting to design products that are the very antithesis of the disposable culture we have today. Odin’s mind drifts off to the workshop. “For me it’s old hand tools passed down, let’s say from your grandfather. You’ve got this item which has been imbued with 70 years of use and can still perform the function.” Ben warms to this idea talking of items that that age with you and have a lot of meaning. Noah throws in brands like Patagonia or classic items like the Zippo lighter. “Sadly a lot of the a lot of the nicest things are lighters and stuff for smoking” says Ben ruefully. It’s also no surprise they like their pencils. “We all love Blackwing, we all draw with them” says Odin enthusiastically.
They had a steep learning curve, from self-teaching how Kickstarter and Alibaba.com work through to dealing with “Trump’s tariffs” they have had to immerse themselves in a world far beyond pure design. To look after their hard-earned launch funds meant doing most of the work themselves. Mistakes were undoubtedly made, but they feel even this was an invaluable lesson that a bigger budget may have denied them.
With Noah on board the Makers Cabinet team considered their next move. Although still studying, there was the opportunity of having a year out to gain work experience. Most students on their course followed the more traditional path of spending a year doing an internship or work placement. Instead, as Odin explains, “we thought we’ll go work for ourselves and we’ll try to give it a proper shot,” which it is fair to say they did. With the support of a start-up accelerator program they had access to offices, workshops, funding and business mentors and they built the business as it is now. “We were young product designers with no business background. So that was incredibly helpful,” adds Odin, touching on how much more they have had to learn outside of the design world.
That’s not to say that it has all been plain sailing for them. As anyone who has dipped their toes into the murky world of online communities will know, they have come in for criticism. After all, £50 for a pencil sharpener is marking yourself out for some raised eyebrows, and people were not afraid to tell them. “You get a lot of people who love it and a lot of people who hate it,” says Odin, before Noah quickly adds “and they have to tell you with a vengeance! But they just don’t get it – they think we are ripping people off, that it’s not worth the money. But the thing is that we’re not ripping people off. It’s just what it is. It’s not a 99p sharpener but it’s not meant to be one.”
With an audience on tap from the first launch they were able to do a bit of market research. By offering people replacement blades for their Høvel if they answered a couple of questions, they got some feedback on what people wanted. This led to the idea of reinventing a traditional compass, and the Iris was born. Their £25,000 crowdfunding target was more than seven times oversubscribed. It is easy to see why as the Iris is an incredible solution to the simple act of drawing circles, again elevating it almost to an art form. It is, as the name suggests, like the iris on a camera lens, expanding and shrinking to make a precise circular drawing tool.
“It’s very unlikely you will actually need to draw the perfect circle, you can use a computer to do that,” says Noah, whilst Odin explains further on how they see the role of the Iris. “For us it’s very much the analogue joy of the design process where you’re fleshing out ideas and sketching freehand. It’s more about getting a free flow of ideas and having tools which you enjoy using.”
The Høvel and Iris stand resolutely at odds with the technology available to creative people today. Beautifully engineered products that you use precisely because of the tactile pleasure they offer. The idea of analogue vs digital is a theme that runs through their work and also their lives. Noah describes the difference between drawing circles with an Iris or on a computer as being like “the crackle of an LP – it’s nothing like an MP3 sound.” It extends to their domestic lives too – Noah and Ben share a house with Odin living 5 minutes away, and Noah gives an insight into their domestic world. “Ben loves analogue music. So around the home we have these old 60’s speakers which are wired up which is kind of crazy. None of our peers have wired speakers.”
But for all their love of analogue they readily exploit technology when needed. Odin explains their process. “We use 3-D printing a lot. It moves very quickly to a computer once you’ve got the initial form and then you can 3D print a whole load of different designs.” He proceeds to show me one of maybe 30 early 3D-printed prototypes. Despite looking like one of those 99p plastic sharpeners they so oppose it also already looks like the Høvel it will one day become.
Another theme that is never far from the surface is the sustainability of it all. “There’s a new wave of designers with climate change being a very hot topic,” explain Odin to which Noah pointedly adds “I’ve never grown up not knowing what climate change is. I’ve learnt it from age 10 in school.” They are passionate about building products for a circular economy, one where products are made to last and the materials can go back into circulation not landfill. If this sounds a straightforward idea in today’s climate it has not proved so. They talk with frustration about having to keep pushing for even the smallest detail, like using 100% cardboard in the packaging for the Iris rather than the normal foam inserts you find. “Maybe it will get progressively easier,” sighs Odin hopefully.
When questioned on the inherent contradiction of making their products in China whilst trying to create a more sustainable world, they are hopeful of reversing even this as they go forward. Odin imagines a different future. “We would like to move production closer to home. I mean we’re flying off to China on Saturday and it’s halfway across the world. It’s would be lovely to be able to get the train down to your local manufacturer and actually speak in person and have a much closer relationship.” I am struck by something I had not considered before, that technology might actually bring some manufacturing back closer to home. “Absolutely,” says Odin, warming to the theme. “I think that’s a shift which is already happening. As soon as automation eliminates jobs it leaves a few more highly skilled jobs where you can have a higher output, and so it does absolutely give space for moving production closer to home.”
Combining running a business with their design studies has meant making some compromises, not least the amount of time they can now devote to designing. “We realise that the design takes up very little time,” says Noah wistfully. However he does talk of how much they enjoy the other work that the business brings with it. Enough to accept spending maybe 5 percent of his time designing. At this point, Odin feels the need to qualify his role. “More than that! I’d say I spend about roughly about 30% of my time on design,” but then Odin is head of design!
So where next for Makers Cabinet? They fell into the world of stationery when they launched the Høvel, rather than it being a grand plan at the time. Odin paints a bleak picture of the early days of drumming up interest amongst the retail trade. “We spent last winter trudging around shops in London in the snow trying to sell them the sharpener. And they were like ‘so what more do you have?’. Selling to a shop they want at least three products so they can put it out in the shop. I mean, this is essentially a brand so we felt we had to flesh it out a bit and that meant that the second product was a stationery object and probably the third will be as well.” That gentle hint at what might come next was soon given more detail when Odin told me of their third product, due next year. However Noah quickly stepped in to nip that one in the bud, demonstrating why he is the public front of the trio. “I think that’s probably off the record. Drawing and writing. We’ll say that for now.” And with that teaser we await news of their next reinvention of a drawing and writing tool.
This article was written by Domonic Irons of Nanosphere. If you have enjoyed reading it please check out their other articles.