We have not done a designer interview in awhile, and we thought it would be the perfect time to talk to Mike Tuttle, one half of the husband and wife team who founded Inhabit. The timing is just right, as they have just released their new line of Wall Flats and they are holding The Great Pillow Design Competition (there’s about a month left to get your act together and enter!).
You and your wife Jennifer have branched beyond your own brand development firm, Planet 10, and created a brand of your very own. What made you decide to do this?
What we were really looking for was a creative outlet. I know this may sound weird being that we owned a brand development firm where creativity is the business. It’s much different designing for a client than designing to your personal tastes. We had acquired an enormous amount of do’s and don’ts, developed an intricate process for building brands from scratch and really had a good feel for what we wanted to spend our time doing. Ultimately we felt our efforts were better suited to working on our own brand full-time. We always wanted more control over all the potential touch points a brand has with its consumers and this takes that constant evaluation of all aspects of the business to truly make a finished product seem effortless, when behind the scenes there is always a lot of chaos. We’re not saying this has been seamless or easy but we do feel our background prepared us well for what we are doing now. We still consider it a work in progress, but we are having a blast doing it. There is no comparison between satisfaction level both personally and professionally this business has brought us over the previous one. Since we design everything ourselves it really is our thoughts and sketches that make up the product line and there is a great deal of satisfaction and humility that go along with that.
You and your wife are a design team – who’s the boss? It’s not Tony Danza.
We really try to keep the creative process collaborative. All designing is an open process around here. We share ideas and concepts back and forth constantly. As the business has grown it has become more and more difficult to find time during normal business hours to design so the creative sessions sometimes happen at weird hours, maybe in the car or on the weekends. This becomes a huge advantage to us, that we are married, and in business together. It allows us a lot of time to think and talk about design and business without being pulled away from our personal obligations to each other. It seems for us anyway, the more formal setting you try to force something like the creative process into the more it stifles it. So, we try to keep it casual and let it work when it feels right.
What is your workspace/studio for Inhabit like? How does it differ from your Planet 10 workspace? From your home?
It seems our workspace is always evolving based on our current needs. We purchased a 6,500 square foot building two years ago, gutted it and moved both Inhabit and Planet 10 into it. As Inhabit has grown we spend very little time designing for other clients anymore. We do take on the occasional project if it is something we’re really are drawn to, but for the most part our focus is day-to-day business operations with Inhabit, new designs and product development.
Our office and gathering areas are in the front of the building where there is an open environment with 14 foot ceiling and lots of natural light. We have no closed off rooms or offices in the entire building. We try to not let the chaos creep into certain areas so we have a more clean, stimulating area to work. We designed the space and did probably 60% of the work on it in the evenings and weekends over a 4-month period. Being a small growing business we tried to be very innovative with materials in the space to maximize our budget. We’re real DIY people so getting the chance to design a space from scratch was a lot of fun. We love taking products out of context from the hardware store and using them for something totally different than their intended use.
Our home is a work in progress. We have slowly been gutting and updating the house room by room. Our house is a ranch with some mid-century influences like 25’ ceilings, lots of natural light and limestone. We actually have a tree that grows right in our entry way out of the ground.
Please share five things/people/places that inspire you.
For us we are design junkies so inspiration kind of creeps in from everywhere. We get excited about even small things that are really well designed like a bottle opener or clothes hanger. The whole process of design is very inspiring to us. Especially design that is focused on people spending time with the end product. To just put it on a shelf somewhere and ogle at it’s greatness kind of seems like a waste of time to us.
We have a very graphic driven style so even things like nature get regurgitated in a graphic way. Yeah, nature would definitely be one place. The patterning, colors and texture of nature often intermingle with more clean, modern lines in a lot of our designs. Architecture also is a heavy influence on what we do, we see our products in a very specific environment when we design so making sure they can co-exist in these environments without competing with them is always in the back of our minds. We also find inspiration in areas like product design and automobile design where functionality has to blend with beauty. Love looking at concept cars. The new use of materials in these fields is very inspiring and is bound to impact the home furnishings market more and more.
I think our biggest inspiration though comes from a challenge. We love the process of building something from scratch. Taking something that did not exist before we came in contact with it and growing it to the point where the brand stands for something.
In my opinion, your products are great in terms of aesthetics and price point for people ranging from those getting their first apartment to those who are older (and wealthier) living in a loft or even a large suburban home. Do you have a particular demographic or muse in your head when you are designing?
We feel the common variable that defines an Inhabit consumer is an appreciation for affordable design-driven products. A lot of them may be in a creative field themselves or have a flair for design but it does seem they seek out products that you can’t find in your big box stores. Typically this seems to cross age barriers. We do feel younger consumers are much more familiar with a modern design style when they reach the age where they begin making their own buying decisions. It seems all the reality TV shows, shopping environments, restaurants, hotels, clubs, etc… are choosing a more modern aesthetic than in the past. So our consumer may have more of a young, modern mindset than their traditional counterpart, regardless of age.
We pretty much design around our personal tastes and try to incorporate that into where we think the market is headed.
How important a role does affordability play in your designs? You certainly bring quality design to the masses.
We do clearly understand there is a vast difference between a mass consumer and an “Inhabit-consumer”. The whole category of what is being called “modern,” has just recently began to reach out to a larger audience. For every modern boutique store or modern appreciative consumer there are 50 stores who cater to more traditional-minded consumers. So, our audience, to begin with, is not a huge one.
I love the way you bring unexpected materials, textures and/or forms to your production. The scale and materials of the SLATS (70″ high grass blades printed on gabardine), it puts a twist on say, covering a canvas with cotton Marimekko fabric. Likewise, the new WALL FLATS are innovative in texture, form, and the ease of installation. I hate to use the ubiquitous term “you think outside of the box,” but you really do. Can you run us through your thought process in how you came up with one of these ideas?
Let’s look at the Wall Flats and how the idea came about. The way we print all of our fabrics creates a huge amount of paper waste. From the day we started doing this we have always been looking for ways to eliminate or reuse waste from our production processes. It is sort of an obsession we have. So you take this paper waste, a cheap blender purchased at a second hand store and some sizing from the grocery store. Throw it in, mix it up, and mold it. The process has been around forever. Things like soft drink carriers, computer packaging and some new building materials all use this basic process. We wanted to use it in a way that created a finished product worthy of a more visible role. The good news for us was, it worked, but the bad news was we were not creating enough paper waste internally to power an entire product line. So with our internal waste we now shred everything, and it is repurposed into packing material for shipping. We throw away no paper and have to purchase no additional packing material.
The original Wall Flat was literally a blob of molded paper. We had an idea and a process we believed would support making a product from it. Now, how to use it. At the time were really looking for a way to get larger areas of pattern onto the wall and this process seemed to fit that desire perfectly.
We then set out to find a factory to help bring the product to life. In the meantime we had decided we wanted to use pulp from one of the planet’s fastest self-replenishing resources; bamboo. And where is a large portion of the words Bamboo located? This brings us to the country side outside of Shanghai, China. To make a really long story (almost a year) short, this is where the idea for Wall Flats came from. It has taken three different factories, hundreds of prototypes and a great deal of frustration to arrive at the finished product we have today. We were very specific about the type of finish we wanted on the product and it took a lot of work to get there.
We are currently working on a line of lighting that is completely customizable. One concept literally yields over 100 combinations for the look of the end product. This is exciting to us because there is nothing else in the market anything like it. We’ll keep you posted. Look for it late 2006/early 2007.
What advice would you give to those entering your pillow design competition? When will our loyal readers be able to learn more about it?
The main thing we want to happen with this competition is to see the individual designer’s style come through. We don’t want to see them trying to replicate what we have done in the past or what we are doing now. This is about bringing something into the line that wasn’t designed by us. Have fun with! Sometimes designing in a job setting becomes just that, a job. This is an opportunity for a designer to put their spin on a pretty unique medium and just design for the sake of designing.
We are really looking forward to seeing the entries, and then ultimately sharing the final 3 selections for everyone out there vote on the winning design. There is $1,250 in prize money, royalties and a spot in our 2007 spring line up for grabs.
It has finally started. Please help spread the word.
OK people! It’s your turn to try and be a part of Inhabit’s design. Click on the the big image above to learn more details about the contest!