Creative Boss: OTHR

We sat down with OTHR founder & creative chief Evan Clabots to talk about his company, design, and what inspires him. Photography by Carolyne Teston

Tell us what you are focused on as the Chief Design Officer at OTHR?

As Chief Design Officer, I have put a lot of thought into briefing designers in a way that steers them toward a successful product. It requires bringing them up to speed on the advantages of the technology, working with them to capture the essence of their creativity, and alleviating much of the busywork by taking it on in-house. This first year in particular, I have put a lot of effort into encouraging designers to challenge the breadth of our catalog and to really show off the diversity of products that we can offer as a home wares company.

I also have focused on presenting our catalog in a way that people understand who we are as a brand and make them want to come back to us in the future. Through my experience in e- commerce, I understood early on that we while were selling a product, people essentially are buying an image. In the months leading up to our launch last year, I spent a lot of time crafting the art direction strategy for all of our product photography. I also paid careful attention to planning out and pacing the stories that we told through the images on the product pages of our ecommerce platform. It is really important to present product in a beautiful and consistent way to make it easy for people to learn how to understand and shop your product without having to relearn the process for each product.

What is it like being a lead creative director and entrepreneur simultaneously?

It was a natural progression. When I started in this industry, I was a product designer. I was hyper-focused on the object and how every detail related to the next. I was object-focused. But as you continue, you start to understand your clients’ needs and their customers’ desires. You begin to understand how details affect production. In my first job as lead designer at Studio Dror, I gained amazing experience working directly with an amazing roster of clients ranging from Target and Tumi to Cappellini and Alessi.

In 2010, I started my own design firm, Nonlinear Studio. It was the middle of the global financial crisis, so consulting projects for established brands were scarce and I needed to find an alternative solution. I quickly started two product brands that produced and sold some of the work my firm had created. These were Amplifiear and Nonlinear. Amplifiear was a brand that produced periphery devices for Apple products. Nonlinear concentrated on the production and sales of the Slip watch, which was really successful. The watch sold worldwide, both through the leading e-commerce watch stores and in brick-and-mortar shops, like the MoMA store and

Chez Maman in Paris. In creating these companies, I ventured into packaging design, branding, art direction and marketing. I kept growing my creative skill set focusing on how to grow a business.

I learned a lot from starting these companies. The most important lesson was that product design is just a small part of the overall picture. It is a very important part, but a small part. Starting these companies made me realize that it is not about creating the best design, it is about creating the right design. Your product needs to fit a customer’s need, be in line with your Company’s brand, and leverage manufacturing in the best possible way. The product must meet the business needs of a company and also contribute to the overall story they put forth to the world.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I moved into the Design Director position that I even realized that for the past 4 years, I had actually been an entrepreneur. It hadn’t even been part of my vocabulary, but somewhere along the line I went from designing things to designing and running businesses. So, when Joe asked me to co-found OTHR, a start-up design brand, it seemed like the perfect fit.

What kinds of things have inspired your designs at OTHR?

When starting OTHR, we did not want to have a brand aesthetic; rather, we wanted all the designs to be driven by a core set of principles. All products would need to meet a certain set of criteria: Useful, Aesthetic and Unique.

Useful – We wanted all of the products to be driven by function, rather than being just pretty, decorative objects. The 3D-printing technology has been around for a while, but it hasn’t been made clear how this technology fits into people’s everyday lives. In a way, we wanted to show people that this technology could produce functional, durable products that they could use in a meaningful way It is something that you hear every design brand say, but we truly want to bring great and meaningful products into people’s lives.

Aesthetic – Although function is key, our products needed to have a value beyond their utility. Most objects spend 95% of their life in a non-use state. We wanted our products to be equally meaningful in our customer’s lives whether or not they are in use. Instead of putting our products away in a drawer, we want someone to proudly display them on a shelf or sideboard.

Some have called our products ‘modern heirlooms.’ We really like that. We want to produce items people will cherish and hold on to, and one day pass on.

Unique – We wanted to produce items that people would recognize and remember as an OTHR, even if they only saw them once. This is the toughest of the criteria – “design an icon.” If you look back at midcentury designers, many of their forms came out of reimagining the built world through the use of new technology. Think about how the Eames recreated the concept of a chair through their bent wood explorations. We feel that our designers have the same opportunity by designing for OTHR. The 3D-printing technologies we utilize allow them to create forms that would have not been possible with traditional techniques. Some of these details are buried inside, such as using different wall thicknesses or connection points that are not possible with other production techniques. The results are forms that our customers have not seen before. The technical innovations may not always be apparent to our customers, but the beauty is that the forms do not have to be more complicated. Many are really simple and subtle.

My main focus has been on the other designers we work with, but I also have designed a few products for OTHR. When designing them, I worked to highlight the amazing opportunities that the manufacturing process provides. The Ipseity Wall Hooks that I designed are printed in steel, but are completely hollow and are printed 1.5 millimeters thick at the surface. I was able to integrate really intricate geometry, both inside and on the surface of the hook. Internally, these details allows people to mount the wall hook to a screw in ways that you would not be able to achieve with a cast-and-milled part. But my favorite part is the external geometry. In particular, I love the hook’s concave face. it has asymmetrical print rings that come from the layered process of the printing. Some people say it reminds them of a fingerprint. I used the form to highlight the surface build lines in the belief that all materials have details inherent to them, and I felt like those should be celebrated. Wood has grain, sand-cast aluminum has a texture, and 3D-printed steel has these print lines.

I also chose to experiment with materials when I designed the Aqueous Wall Planter. It was all about combining two materials available to us – porcelain and steel – and using them in the most appropriate way. Porcelain is fairly cheap to produce, so it is great for a large, voluptuous surface. The steel-printing is great for a very precise mounting bracket. I incorporated the two to make our first multi-material product. The combination elevated this planter from a simple material print to a complex, multi-material product. Again, my driving force was trying to change how people perceive the value of a printed object, both for our customers and our designers, alike.

Everyone knows the line — less is more; and that seems to be your mission at OTHR. Tell us why?

‘Less is more’ is definitely something we embrace at OTHR, but maybe not in the way you think. Many of our objects are minimal in their appearance, but I think that is driven more by our design tenants rather than a brand aesthetic.

There is actually a lot of complexity behind what we are doing that may not be apparent in the end result. For example, one of the most interesting parts about what we are doing is that all of our products are produced on demand. They do not exist until the customer orders them. This means the customers are, in essence, a part of the creation process.

Our on-demand production also has broader impacts than the products, themselves. People do not often think about it, but OTHR is producing goods in one of the most environmentally- friendly ways possible. Usually, companies must produce thousands of units that are shipped halfway across the world and then stored in climate-controlled warehouses until the products are either sold or tossed in a landfill. But with our process, each product is produced only when a customer wants it.

The environmental factor is one of the main reasons that I was intrigued by OTHR. It is something that I actually incorporate into the classes I teach, as well. I started teaching a few years back, and my first studio was about sustainability and humanitarianism. At the time, I looked at sustainability in terms of whether my products were recyclable or toxic, but sustainability was not the main driving factor in my design process. So, when I was asked to teach on the topic, I referred to a class I took back in design school. My professor was Bob O’neal. He made us all get a subscription to the New York Times and dig through the paper for problems in the world that needed solving. This is precisely what I had my students do – I had them read the news and look for changes in the environment, in society, or in new markets and find a reason to design.

My students’ work ended up being an education for me, as well. Class after class, my students would bring in stories about air pollution and the trash island in the Pacific. I was horrified. It made me not want to design products anymore because I felt like everything I was brining into the world was just making a 5-year pit stop on the way to the land fill. So, when Joe approached me about OTHR, I was excited that we could produce objects only when a customer wanted them. The technology also uses an additive process, which means we use only the exact amount of materials needed in each piece. This is in contrast to many of the reductive

manufacturing processes, such as milling pieces of solid material, in which much of the material is stripped away and discarded as waste. Furthermore, as 3D printing continues to expand, we someday will have the ability to produce all products locally. That means that if someone buys a product in Japan, it will be printed in Japan. If someone orders a product in California, it will be printed and shipped from California.

I really appreciate the values we exemplify at OTHR. We believe in creating the best products with the least waste and environmental impact. This is why we number each product individually; each one is made for you, and one day, as the technology evolves, it will give these objects province in time and place. We hope that they are objects our customers will value and keep in their lives our families for years to come.

Is there a time when you were growing up where being creative became your calling?

I was always making things as a kid. My grandfather really encouraged it. I remember sitting with him at the kitchen table making a tank for my GI Joes out of a cereal box, the top of an oatmeal tube, a bunch of popsicle sticks, and thread spools. It was kind of amazing. I think we used a chopstick as the cannon.

As I grew older, I excelled at math and I loved art class. It was a bit of an odd combination of left- and right-brain. Because of this, I thought I would be either an architect or an engineer. I didn’t even really know that design was a profession, so I applied to a lot of architecture and engineering programs when I was applying to university. This was the 90’s and long before marketing was telling us we could ‘design our own froyo’.

It was actually on the department tour of the architecture program at RISD when I discovered design. We first went to the architecture building. There were kids asleep on their desks, and the ones who were awake looked like they had not slept in days. Then we went through the industrial design building and into the metal shop. There was music playing and the kids were all smiling while they hogged down a piece of aluminum on the metal lathe. At that moment, I said, “I want this.” Pretty much from that moment, there was no turning back…

What are you most excited about as the Chief Design Officer at OTHR?

Being the CDO at OTHR is exciting in so many ways. For me, I am in a really great spot that allows me to bring together my creative skills and business acumen. I get to grow a new business in a new market, with great partners and a great team. We are growing a company that is helping to usher new technologies in to the lives of mainstream consumers. We are doing it in a way that is as environmental conscious as it can be, and hopefully, we are bringing great and lasting design into people’s lives.

I also get to work with some of the best designers in the world, assisting them in bringing creativity into the world through emerging technologies. It is amazing to see how they all work differently and approach the problem from different angles. In a way, we get to act as an innovation hub and push the technology to new limits. Each designer experiments in a new way, challenging the manufacturing process. We all get to learn from that.

I’m in a unique position to pass lessons along from one designer to the next, and each person can start building upon what we have all already learned. I joke that we are in the wild west of manufacturing. Each new technology and new design is a game changer, and it is great to not only be on the edge of the frontier watching it, but hopefully helping to shape how things progress.

We have a bunch of really exciting brand collaborations coming up this year that will only help us reach a larger audience. It is amazing to work with great, established brands and feel like we are both bringing something important to the table to create something bigger than we could alone.