Product Design Made by Architects – How Graypants Built an International Brand
Welcome back to Archipreneur Insights, the interview series with leaders who are responsible for some of the world’s most exciting and creatively disarming architecture. The series largely follows those who have an architectural degree but have since followed an entrepreneurial or alternative career path but also interviews other key players in the building and development community who have interesting angles on the current state of play in their own field.
This week’s interview is with Grizzle and Jonathan Junker, founders of Graypants, a company that produces pendant lights made entirely of repurposed corrugated cardboard.
The company’s flagship line Scraplights embodies the team’s interest in repurposing and environmentally responsible design. In 2012, they set up their European office in Amsterdam, from where they started distribution to over forty countries, while the Seattle studio still provides local production for North America and functions as a prototyping shop.
Their portfolio includes public artworks, architectural installations and several lines of lighting, furniture, packaging designs sold throughout the world. Their debut architecture project Garage won the coveted AIA Seattle’s Award of Honor in 2013.
We were curious to learn how these two architects turned their ideas into products and made the transition from “classic” architecture to productizing designs, successfully selling them and establishing a brand.
Enjoy the interview!
What made you decide to found Graypants? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
Graypants was an early dream hatched in our college days and refined through scribbles and sketches on napkins. It was born from the desire to combine our love of making with our fascination in technology. We wanted to find a way to bridge that gap and bring technology back to our fingertips.
The moment that sealed our fateful decision was the recession in 2008. Working as architects, that soon had no more building to design, we had to find another outlet for our creativity and energy. We then decided to take the leap and turn those sketches into something crazy and tangible.
Which of your products was first piece with the potential to sell?
The scraplight series (made from repurposed/recycled cardboard boxes) was our first designs with commercial success.
What do you find the most fulfilling about product creation?
Coming from the world of architecture, which can take several years and up to a lifetime to realize a design, we instantly enjoyed how quickly you could prototype and touch a product design. We both really enjoyed model building in architecture and product design was a way for us to bring design back to our hands using a more tactile process.
How did you establish your brand?
Our brand was established and grew out of a friendship. The name Graypants comes from an inside joke between Jonathan and myself.
We saw creating our brand as another fun design problem to solve and we approached it that way.
We wanted to tackle this creatively and come up with a unique solution that was an extension of who Jon and I both are.
How has your architectural training helped you in the actual running of your business? What specific/transferable skills have proved the most useful?
To be honest, through our architectural training we learned how to be creative problem solvers which became our best asset. We had zero business experience and training. However, we approached business as a design problem and were eager to solve it.
With that said, I would definitely recommend some business training!
I think finding a business mentor was one of the most valuable things we ever did.
We soon realized that we did not have the appropriate knowledge to tackle a lot of the difficult challenges we would face. We were very fortunate to find mentors and colleagues early on that were able to help fill in the gaps that we really needed.
Graypants expanded to Europe in 2012. What was the biggest challenge in the process of developing the business from a two men startup to an international enterprise?
One would think language might be the biggest hurdle… but the fact that the Dutch can speak better English than us made that part pretty easy. All kidding aside, the biggest challenge was probably trusting that we were making the right decisions. It was scary to scale and expand.
Again, we were very fortunate and met some amazing people along our journey that made all of this possible. We learned to trust our dream and our vision. It is easy to second-guess yourself, but trusting your passion and speaking from your heart helped us realize our truth and gave us the courage to keep pushing ahead.
You continue to work as architects. Could you tell us about your project Garage?
When we started Graypants we were not sure if we would practice architecture again… There was something about the profession that we loved so much that we ended up having a struggle with it. We decided that we would only dip our toes back into architecture if we would be able to treat it as art. And that is precisely what the garage became… architecture turned into art and poetry.
The garage was a dream come true process for us. The clients allowed us to approach the space in that way and they also challenged us to design in that way. The garage became more than a space, it became an experience and it became a way for us to capture a memory for the clients in a surprising way that allowed us to transform the space into something magical. We wanted to find a way to honor the mundane things we do on a daily basis, and celebrate them as a tool to change the way we live.
What is next for Graypants? What kind of products will be launched soon?
Lots of exciting things are on our horizon…. perhaps too many to list but we are most exited about a new lighting series that we have just launched in Milan. It is a huge departure for us in material and technology.
Do you have any advice for archipreneurs who are interested in starting their own business?
Never give up, get back up and remember to breathe.
Pursuing your dreams is not a sprint but more of a marathon.
How do you see the future of the architectural profession? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming developers and architects?
TECHNOLOGY!!!! The profession is changing so quickly due to the rapid expanse in technology. Fabrication, 3D printing and virtual reality are amazing tools that designers now can easily access. I particularly find the virtual design space to be fascinating and can easily see how that will start to rapidly change the way we think, work, design and live.
About Seth Grizzle and Jonathan Junker
Seth Grizzle and Jonathan Junker are founders and partners of Graypants. They both enjoyed a similar upbringing in a small town in Ohio. Here, they lived with the motto “if it’s broke, you fix it”, which functioned as an inspiration for their later professional life.
They studied at Kent State University, and this is the where the first steps to Graypants were set. After submitting their work to Design within Reach in 2008 – and becoming finalists – their work is now well-known and respected. In November of 2013, Graypants was awarded AIA Seattle’s Award of Honor for their debut architecture project, Garage.
Graypants designs are products with stories and feelings, more than just beautiful objects. Seth and Jon are passionate about their work, and believe that this is an essential element that can be seen in their work.
Designs such as the Scraplights series and the Kerflights have made Graypants to what they are today. Nevertheless, new collections – like the Chronalights series – are constantly introduced, of which the latest have been shown at Euroluce 2017.
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