Redesigning Raleigh: Limitless possibilities

by J. Michael Welton

photographs by Travis Dove

In the 1950s, Raleigh’s visionary design community redefined the way we saw our city architecturally. Today, local designers are at it again, turning their attention not just to buildings, but to consumer and industrial products, too. And they’re going about it in a new way. Top-down hierarchy is a thing of the past, say leaders in the field; open-source collaboration is taking its place in the sun.

“There’s the old Frank Lloyd Wright model, where he was the master and made all the decisions,” says Matthew Muñoz, 32-year-old co-founder and design director at New Kind, a design and marketing firm on Brooks Street.

That model once served an important cadre of Raleigh architects – visionaries like James Fitzgibbon, Eduardo Catalano and Milton Small – quite well. With Henry Kamphoefner, who founded and led N.C. State’s School of Design in the late ’40s, they were part of a community that transformed this city from sleepy Southern enclave to bastion of snappy, mid-century modernism.

But they’re all gone now, and some of their most innovative designs – like Fitzgibbon’s Paschal Residence and Catalano’s double-parabolic house – have been leveled. Decision-making in the design community has been flattened, too. “The old model was what the boss said to do,” Munoz says. “Now, it’s about whatever the best idea is.”

Still, the design fervor established here back in the 1950s not only survives, it endures, too. The process, buildings and products may not look the same, but they tap into the same source of energy: the idea of limitless possibilities.

To hear some in the design community talk today, it’s as though we’ve slipped across that legendary bridge into Manhattan on a golden morning in the 1920s, with Nick Carraway riding shotgun alongside Jay Gatsby at the wheel: “Anything could happen – anything at all.”

In Raleigh, “there’s an attitude that if you want something, go do it,” says Joshua Gajownik, principal of Design + Direction, a local branding firm. “There are so many needs to be filled here.”

He should know. Impressed by the success of restaurateur Ashley Christensen’s efforts to reinvent Poole’s Diner, he cold-called her to see how he might help. “I sent her a portfolio,” he says. Before long, he was designing corporate identities and web sites for Beasley’s, Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, all Christensen venues downtown.

Others, like Michael Laut, Don Corey, Aly Khalifa and Fredrik Perman – each profiled below – are heavily engaged in product design and development.

They’re all successful. And they’re among the those who are starting to display their success in interesting, symbolic ways: Matt Munoz and his firm are perched high above terra firma on the second level of an office building designed and built in 1966 by Milton Small, for his own architecture practice.

And Aly Khalifa, founder and president of Gamil Design, lives in a house so modest that it’s hard to believe that James Fitzgibbon would design it for himself.

But he did. And Khalifa is preserving almost every single inch of it.


The Other Edge  ✳  Designing with wit and whimsy

Don Corey was 14 when he first understood what it means to be a product designer. He was playing basketball at night, under the glare of floodlights. But for just a moment, he was distracted from the game.

By an arachnid.

“I saw a spider creating a web from a house to a tree,” says Corey, now 43. “It didn’t have the third part it needed for triangulation – so it picked up a stick and created it.”

By the time he was 26, Corey had blown through four years of industrial design at Auburn University and another three at N.C. State’s College of Design, including a summer in Prague.

But he never forgot that spider’s ingenuity. One of his first patents was for a product inspired by its lesson in triangulation. He’d designed a cell phone holder for a car – a pouch, really – connected by bungee cords to two foam wedges inserted into defroster openings on the dash.

“That one was purely for function, and it’s when my work started to change,” he says. “Now I enjoy adding wit – if I can get someone to smile or take a second look, it’s a success.”

One of his best-selling products looks suspiciously like brass knuckles, until a closer inspection reveals they’re made of rubber. He calls them “Stress Beaters.”

“They’re not meant to take stress out on something, but to relieve stress,” he says.

Manufactured and marketed by an international company called Fred & Friends, they’re sold in gift shops, catalogs and web stores. And they’ve done quite well.

“We’ve sold 25,000 of them – about $100,000 worth,” he shrugs.

His firm, The Other Edge, is lean, with just four creatives on staff at its downtown office. He’s been working at his craft for 20 years, and teaching at Appalachian State University for seven (he splits his time evenly between Boone and his home in Oakwood). He says he’s in business to design, not to make stuff.

“I don’t want to manufacture,” he says. “I’d have to be selling all the time, with overhead, and I’d have to know all the buyers at all the trade shows.”

So he sticks to coming up with products like his personal favorite, the “Pocket Vase.” It’s a sliver of steel five inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide, a half-inch hole drilled through it. It’s designed to turn any cup into a bud vase. “Put it in a cup and it holds a flower upright,” he says. “You can see the flower or the cup, but not the holder.” It retails for $14; he has sold more than a thousand.

At the higher end are his insect totems, made of gold and silver plate, and punctuated by Swarovski crystals. With a total run of just 30, they were priced at $120 each and sold out within a year.

“They’re manifestations of things you want,” he says.

One’s a gold-plated cricket, for luck. Another is a silver-plated firefly, for creativity.

The third is a gold- and silver-plated spider.

That one’s for power, he says.



Laut Design  ✳  Design by process

Inventor Scott Buell arrived, check in hand, at Laut Design in Northwest Raleigh on a recent March afternoon to green-light a prototype for the high-performance goggles he dreamed up.

Buell and 28-year-old Michael Laut, president and creative director of the firm, are working to develop electronic, wraparound sunglasses for use in outdoor sports. They’re goggles designed to shield runners or bikers from wind, dust, debris and ultra-violet rays. But they’ll also enable the wearer to view an odometer, heart monitor or map. And if a bike chain splits or a tire goes flat, advice for fixing either can be accessed electronically.

The team is a little more than midway through a thorough design and development process. “We had the general concept,” Buell says. “We needed to refine it to an actual physical product – then we’ll send three-dimensional drawings to manufacturers.”

“Part of our job is to help Scott come up with his product on the shelf,” Laut says. “The company that makes ski and snowboard goggles is the first we’ll talk to.”

It’s all part of a process that Laut learned while an undergrad in industrial design at N.C. State’s College of Design. That’s a place, he says, where art meets engineering.

He and his staff of three, along with four interns, begin by researching concepts and developing sketches. They’ll go through paper by the reams, churning out 300 to 400 drawings for any project. Then they’ll move on to sketching with a pressure-sensitive, electronic pen on a 22-inch Wacom tablet.

“We probably did 60 to 90 concepts for Scott before choosing the best style, look and function,” Laut says. “Sketches are important because clients are looking for a visual description of their idea.”

He refers to that first part as the ideation stage – the visual manifestation of thought. It’s about taking an idea and transforming it into images of how it looks, how it’s used and how its parts fit together. When they present it to a client, they don’t talk about it – they simply show their drawings.

“It’s visual story-telling,” he says. “It’s the story of what it’s like to open that package, or to see it on the shelf as part of a family.”

Once the client has signed off on the concept, Laut’s team develops three-dimensional modeling and renderings to create the product without actually building it. “That’s where the math comes in – for the correct size and weight, and the right materials,” he says. “With the three-dimensional model, we get data to fabricate a prototype.”

The goal is to show something that doesn’t exist yet, in a way that’s exciting. Buell’s goggles are heading in that direction now. Later will come time for testing, feedback and modifications.

“Right now, it’s a solution looking for questions,” Laut says.

And not surprisingly, he has the process to find the answers.


The Product Farm  ✳  Hitting it big

The Product Farm is a poster child for a new paradigm in the Raleigh design community. Frederik Perman, a 33-year-old who lives in West Raleigh, founded the company in New Jersey in 2007, but it wasn’t successful until he came back here.

A native of Sweden, he initially arrived in Raleigh in 1998 to study three-dimensional art and animation. Shortly afterward, he left for New Jersey and Sweden, worked on product design for Anheuser-Busch and Heineken, and returned a decade later.

When he came back, he was surprised at what he found. “Raleigh had changed and grown in 10 years,” he says. “There was young crowd here, with an average age of 30, and a much more relaxed environment.”

As he saw it, Raleigh’s creative community was spreading its wings and taking charge of its destiny. People like Aly Khalifa were talking about making Raleigh the design hub of the South. And they were actually stepping up to do it, by creating new civic events and establishing collaborative workspaces.

“I went to SPARKcon in 2009,” he says. “I got to know Aly. I was looking for a space to work, and I heard about Designbox. I swung by and asked him about it, and he had a spot open for me.”

In short order, Perman was crammed into a nine-foot by nine-foot space, with one employee and an intern. They stuck together for a year, collaborating along the way.

Then they hit one out of the park.

It came in the shape of a tumbler made of clear, dual-insulated Plexiglas. Embedded inside was a plastic wineglass, stem included. Its top was made of plastic, available in 10 different colors. Most important, it offered a slide tab opening for sipping. It was shatterproof – and spill-proof.

“It holds 10 ounces,” he says. “You can take it to the pool. And it’s great for camping or boating.”

They called it “Vino2Go,” and it took off like a rocket.

“We decided to market it virally in August of last year, through Facebook and Pinterest,” he says “It spoke to a female audience – we had 3,000 pins within a week.”

Then came the media coverage, with appearances on NBC’s Today and Anderson Live, with Anderson Cooper.

Perman ordered 2,000 and sold them all within two weeks. He ordered another 2,000 and sold those in two days. Ten thousand more were gone in two weeks, and an additional 10,000 evaporated in two days.

He estimates more than 55,000 “Vino2Go” units now have been bought at $16.99 each and shipped.

In January, Perman moved The Product Farm out of its cramped quarters at Designbox and into more expansive space on West Hillsborough Street. Half is dedicated to warehouse and fulfillment, and the other half – a luxurious 1,600 square feet – is for offices.

Six employees work there now. They send an electronic newsletter out to 22,000 potential customers, coast-to-coast. And they’re working on some new ideas, one of which sounds slightly familiar.

That’s right: It’s another tumbler – this one, for beer.


Designbox  ✳  Reinventing Raleigh’s design community

Even if 44-year-old Aly Khalifa is one of Raleigh’s creative impresarios, he’d be the first to deny it. Top-down management just isn’t his style. He’s a big believer in the open source, the collective effort and the collaborative exchange.

“This is a new model – we want to get away from the monolith,” he says about Designbox, the creative space he has established on Martin Street downtown, not too far from his home on Kirby Street.

Inside the 3,000-square-foot storefront, a couple dozen independent creatives – designers, architects, photographers and app developers – are constantly working through projects together.

“We needed an environment friendly for design,” he says. “It’s a space to collaborate for creative ideas and civic projects.”

He has the creds to back that up. After studying design and mechanical engineering at N.C. State, he helped launch SPARKcon eight years ago. The event, which featured two days of workshops on invention and design and a third that cut loose a public burst of creative energy all around Moore Square.

“We joined forces with the Visual Art Exchange for lectures, a fashion show, a gallery installation and independent business programming,” he says. “The whole thing was programmed by the community, and organized by artists who wanted to grow it organically – with no administrators.”

Two hundred and fifty artists, performers, techies and business owners attended that first SPARKcon, with a decided emphasis on inclusivity and ethnic diversity. After its move to Faytteville Street a few years back, the 2012 event attracted 35,000 from across the Triangle. Talent scouts flew in from Los Angeles, seeking out the area’s artists and musicians.

One of SPARKcon’s most interesting success stories may be its celebrated circus community. The City of Raleigh has hired its crews and performers for Fourth of July festivities. And recently, a circus-based studio and store called Cirque de Vol opened next door to City Hall.

Mostly, though, SPARKcon is about leadership development – about how to work with budgets, city codes, the press and social media. “That’s how we found its mission,” he says.

His own mission lies within a third design entity he established in 1995. Gamil Design was created as a consultancy that specializes in building relationships and finding new approaches to product and graphic design.

Approached by a coffeehouse to design a new teapot, Gamil basically turned the entire client/consultant relationship inside out with a product called “The Teastick.”  It’s a one-cup infuser for tea lovers who can use it to scoop loose tea, then steep it and stir it. It’s made of kitchen-grade stainless steel and it’s reusable and dishwasher-safe.

Once it launched, it became an immediate hit. Gamil created a partnership with the coffeehouse owners, who promptly formed a sales team for the new product and eventually sold their shop.

“We’ve sold tens of thousands,” he says. “It’s got a suggested price of $18.”

“The Teastick” has begat the “Impress Coffee Brewer,” a one-cup-at-a-time coffee-maker and to-go cup. To fund its production, Gamil launched a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter. Its stated goal was $50,000.

On Nov. 3, when all was said and done, 2,449 backers had kicked up $131,130.

As Khalifa might say, that would be a new model in fundraising.