Welcome to our very first JOIN Design Profile. On behalf of JOIN, Dylan and I will interview talented and emerging designers and visit their studio and homes starting in the Northwest region. Our goal is to share a little something about each designer's work, personality, work/living space, and design philosophy.
Today we’ll be featuring Bainbridge Island-based design all-stars, Grain. We had the extreme pleasure of enjoying a perfect summer BBQ evening at their picturesque 1901 island home situated a short ferry ride west of downtown Seattle. Grain partners, James and Chelsea, live and work out of the home and adjoined workshop, which they have renovated and decorated to perfectly reflect their appreciation of the home’s character, but also their clean modern style. They prepared an amazing meal, which we enjoyed on their wooded porch. What an inspiring setting to design in.
When Grain isn’t enjoying laid-back island living, they’re busy working away as a design studio and consultancy with an ecological focus (easy to understand their appreciation of the earth given their surroundings). Grain’s goal is to help clients develop sustainable solutions that have a positive effect on humanity on a social and global scale.
Each of the four members of the collaborative can trace their roots back to Rhode Island School of Design where they first developed their approach to sustainable endeavors. Their diverse body of past work ranges from furniture to socio-cultural documentation and more.
They also have a budding collection of their own products that includes the simply clever Ty shower curtain (made from durable, recyclable and water-repellent Tyvek). Grain is also in the unique situation of operating on both coasts with half its workforce on Bainbridge (Chelsea Green and James Minola) and half on the East Coast (Brit Klienman and Sami Nerenberg). While working at a distance can have its challenges, Grain sees the arrangement as an advantage, allowing them to meet their client’s needs from multiple perspectives and locations. We spoke to partner Chelsea Green to learn more about what makes Grain tick.
Studio Name: Grain
Members: James Minola, Partner, Chelsea Green, Partner , Sami Nerenberg, Sustainable Systems Strategist, Brittany Kleinman, Designer
Location: Grain is based on Bainbridge Island, which is a 35 minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. We also have designers available in Boston and New York.
Started In: 2007
What's the story behind your (company/studio), how did it start?
James first conceived of the consultancy while we were all still students in the Industrial Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He invited us all to participate. At first he was the only full-time Grain employee. In 2008 I began working full-time for Grain as well. Along with being our Sustainable Systems Strategist, Sami is the youngest adjunct faculty member in the Industrial Design Department at RISD, where she teaches the popular Design for Social Entrepreneurship studio. Brit works full-time for Jack Spade, is the creative force behind AVO Market and designs for Grain.
What's your design philosophy and approach?
We focus on uniting sustainability and business through design. We believe that there is an inherent responsibility in the practice of design. We approach every design problem through a rigorous and systematic process - always considering the social and environmental benefits and affects of the work that we do.
What are some highlights (life changing events) you've experienced that influenced your current work or philosophy?
We all come from different backgrounds which have led us individually towards design and focus in sustainability. My background was luxury interior design. I had enormous conflicts with using my design thinking merely to facilitate conspicuous consumption. I loved the opportunities for creative expression that the seemingly limitless project budges allowed me, but at the end of the day I felt unfulfilled as the work required me to turn a blind eye to some of the larger social and environmental realities of the world. I believe design has the capacity to promote positive changes-to inspire and be catalyst for good. I want to spend my short time on this planet working on projects that are in line with this belief.
What do you consider your most successful and or rewarding project?
For me, one of the most rewarding projects that we’ve worked on together happened before we even became an official collective. It was Bridging Cultures Through Design, the wintersession course at RISD in which James, Brit and I met. It was led by designer and educator Mimi Robinson, who has worked for years helping artisan groups bring sustainable products to market.
After a month of studying Guatemalan artisan techniques and traditions, we traveled in a group of nine RISD students to the communities of San Antonio Palopo and Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala to create a collection of textile-based products for contemporary markets. The goal of the project was to build sustainable income opportunities for the artisan communities that we worked with – providing them with design ideas to help build future collections. As a group, we developed over 60 products (many that are still in production) that were launched at the New York International Gift Fair.
Getting to experience the whole process of authentic research, culturally and environmentally sensitive product development and the economic forces that influence everything, really opened our eyes to how impactful design can be.
On top of it all, it was the project that led us to meet each other!
What's your favorite place to visit and get inspiration? (i.e. countries, cities, your home, beach, middle of nowhere, etc.)
I personally get a lot of inspiration by going back to New York (my home of 7 years) to be with friends who are in similar places in their careers and creative work. I also have family in London that I like to visit often. It is such a gritty, diverse and creative environment for me. We get a lot of inspiration from living here in the Northwest as well. There is just so much awe-inspiring natural beauty. Its influence is ever present.
What do you like to do when you need a break from design?
James and I have to remind ourselves to get out there. Because we live and work in one place (on an island no less) and are a couple, we spend the majority of our time together and in work mode. We get that guilty feeling that a lot of young entrepreneurs experience when they steal time away from their work. That said, we are learning to create more balance. We spend a lot of time outdoors since moving back to the Northwest. Walking, hiking and beach lounging are a major part of our repertoire and definitely get us out of the office. I am also pretty dedicated to practicing yoga several times a week and spending several hours with The New York Times on Sunday.
We also love food: foraging, cooking, reading about and experimenting with. We have a so-so vegetable garden, though it seems to get better each year. We also belong to a CSA so we have access to a lot of spectacular local produce to play with. We have lemoncello working its magic as I write and beer and wine making on our to-do list this year.
What's your favorite object? Why? (i.e. something of sentimental value, or something with character, charm, or simply will designed)
The most important objects that I own are all sentimental. Photos, love letters, old journals, sketchbooks and jewelry that I have been given by family and friends. They would be the things I grab in a fire. That and my hard drive.What's your favorite, well-designed food? why?
Um, this could be a long list... Generally, I prefer simply prepared foods that celebrate ingredients at their finest. A caprese salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with basil from the garden and great olive oil and balsamic comes to mind. When prepared properly, it just lets each ingredient shine and fills you with the taste of summer. In winter, we also make this slow cooked bolognese that is so rich you almost have to lie down after a bowl of it over pasta. It has these deep flavors (from the red wine, pancetta, etc.) that just continue to reveal themselves with each new bite.
What are the strengths of design in the Northwest? How do you see it becoming stronger?
There is a lot of great design happening in the Northwest. The tricky part is getting to know what’s going on beyond the surface. Becoming involved with JOIN has made a major impact on how connected we now feel to the Northwest design community - which is really important to us as we think about growing our business here.
In an effort to educate myself on contemporary art and design in the Northwest, I began a blog in late 2008 called Village Mews as a way to archive everything I was stumbling across in my own personal research. In doing this, I thought I would begin to get a more cohesive picture of the Northwest design scene. Almost a year later, I am not sure if I can summarize it into a neat package. That said, there are some themes that begin to bubble up. One is materiality; there is definitely a consciousness to the way designers here think about their use of material – whether it be reclaimed, sustainably sourced, or locally produced. Secondly, in the process of making, there seems to be a strong D.I.Y./craft/handmade affinity. Also, here in Seattle at least, it feels like a lot of designers try to leverage the tremendously rich manufacturing/production processes available locally in their work. These themes are not necessarily unique to the Pacific Northwest, but they are the themes that I would identify with Northwest design if I had to make some unifying connections. If I were selecting a couple adjectives to describe designers here, I would probably pick authentic, straightforward and resourceful.
As far as strengthening design in the Northwest, I think the efforts of JOIN are going to be a catalyst - bringing together the disparate work of our regional designers. This should help us more clearly define our collective efforts and get the word out about what we do so well here. Through the grey and gloom that we are infamous for, I think the future looks bright for Northwest design.