INTERVIEW : CHARLIE SCHUCK / CHELSEA MINOLA FOR GRAIN

We asked our friend and collaborator, Charlie Schuck, to come up with the questions. Charlie is a Seattle-based photographer who has been shooting our work since we started and is often found at the center of anything happening in design here in the Northwest. He is a creative, thoughtful and generous human that we knew would be up to the task.

CS: You two are married and design together.  When did you first meet and at what point did you realize you wanted to design together?

CM: We met as students at The Rhode Island School of Design. We probably wouldn’t have crossed paths if not for a special Wintersession course called Bridging Cultures Through Design where we developed textiles and textile products through collaboration with Guatemalan weaving communities. The project was developed by the inspiring instructor, Mimi Robinson, to help build sustainable income opportunities for artisan communities through design.

The experience really lit a fire in me. I saw a very direct way to contribute through design. Prior to that, I was kind of unsure how object making would connect to my personal values after graduate school. I think that if it wasn't for this program I would have left products behind and moved into experience design or something else with a lighter footprint.

James and I started working on what would eventually become Grain before we graduated. We always say founded in 2008 because that is when we got our official business license, but we were brainstorming as far back as 2006. We started off thinking of the practice as a consultancy, but right out of school, and in the middle of a terrible economy, we felt we had to make something physical to communicate the direction that we wanted to go. Our first product was our Ty Shower Curtain. I think we made the first run for about $75.00. Though not very glamorous, it is still one of our best selling designs to date.

CS: We as humans seem to fall into routines and roles.   In your design practice, do you find one person or the other taking on certain roles in the business?

CM: Yes, we have pretty defined roles within the creative practice and the business.

Our process for developing ideas is very conversational and fluid. We are always in dialog around what should come next. James takes a lot of inspiration from processes and fabrication techniques, which makes sense since he does or oversees most of the production in our studio. He is much more of an inventor. I have always gravitated towards the role of organizer.

My contribution comes from the color and material side. I also enjoy brainstorming product categories that would be fun to explore as well as putting together concept boards. These roles support each other really well for the most part.

Within the practical, box-packing / bill-paying / email-writing side of the business, I manage a lot of the studio in terms of client service and planning. James manages the shop and all that goes into fabricating each piece.

It is kind of wild how much we get done in our little studio and in collaboration with the artists that we work with. There isn’t a lot of time to sit back and reflect, because there is always another deadline approaching, but we are trying to be more mindful of this. The day to day of running a small business can be filled with annoyances, but in the end we are thankful to be together side by side making creative work that we are proud of.

CS: How did your move to the Northwest affect your design practice and how has it inspired your work?

CM: When we met back in Rhode Island, I think our shared history of growing up in Southern California and then the Pacific Northwest really drew us together. When we were thinking about what should come next for us after school and after being away from home for about ten years, we were drawn back to the Northwest through a shared nostalgia. Even though it was homecoming of sorts, neither of us had lived here as adults, or with each other, so it was also a new frontier in many ways.

I honestly wasn’t sure if we could find or make fulfilling creative work so far away from New York, which has always been the center of US design in my mind. That said, I think we let the romanticism of the West take the lead.

Now I’d say that our distance from New York has helped us develop our own voice. We also benefitted immensely from being a part of the small independent design community here. Specifically, we came together with the Seattle-based studios Iacoli & McAllister and Ladies & Gentlemen Studio (now based in Brooklyn, NY) to form JOIN which became a vehicle to show work and share resources. We created friendships and gained courage in our businesses through joining forces with other up-starts operating in the fringes.

CS: As designers you probably have many ideas.  What is the process for editing your ideas into an actual item that gets prototyped and produced?

CM: Yes, we have so many ideas. Time and limited resources are usually the two factors that keep us from making more than we do. We used to be so frustrated by this, but I think it can also be helpful. It forces you to edit things down and to make hard decisions about what can reasonably move forward.

Since we produce all the items in our line, we have to be mindful of that process. We can’t take something forward, no matter how much we believe in an idea, if we don’t know how we can make it well.

CS: For each item that you ultimately end up producing and marketing, how many ideas get sent to the shelf?

CM: The majority! It is not something we are very precious about. We compile sketches that we casually meet and discuss. A lot of the time we do this spontaneously as the ideas come. The first step is convincing the other that it makes sense in some way and then it can be left for a while to see if the level of enthusiasm sustains over time.

As you know, we have some larger concepts - outside of the traditional product sphere - that we have been enthusiastic about for a long time. These have been put on hold as we try to grow a sustainable business, but they keep speaking to us. Even though they are shelved for now, I have faith that we will get to them in time.

CS: When viewed together your design objects create a very cohesive world. Do your ideas ever lead  you to consider design on a larger scale or system such as architecture?

CM: Yes! This speaks to the above question. Architecture and interiors is a true love for both of us. James is actually interested in real estate and land management as well. There are so many amazing places here in the Northwest that we would love to bring people to experience through design. It would be a dream to work at that scale - to shape experiences in space and time.

CS: There’s been a lot of dialogue in the design community concerning sustainability and its relation to design. How does your studio acknowledge this issue?

CM: It is integral to the work that we do and the way we try to live our own lives. In the beginning, we tried to be outspoken about sustainability as our priority. As we have moved forward, we have kept responsibility - both environmental and social - at the core of our practice, but we don’t necessarily make it our main narrative.

Design has to be the most important starting point. If an object is compelling on its own and it is made well - that is in and of itself the most important factor in creating work that is sustainable. It will be loved and kept and lived with.

We, of course, look beyond that in the way we select and source our materials, the processes we use for fabrication and the people and places where we work to have these things made. We think about sustainability within our business operations as well - such as printing, packaging and shipping - and how we give back with our staff and in our own community.

Charlie Schuck
American, Scorpio, 1977. Charlie Schuck works as a photographer and director. Free time is spent on a range of creative projects, collaborating with friends, and sailing. Charlie is founder of the design space OBJECT and directed the creation of the new Frye Museum store. Additionally, Charlie recently served as guest curator for the Bellevue Arts Museum to create an exhibit on NW design. Inspiration and a deep underlying influence come from the unique geography, history, and weather of the Pacific Northwest. www.charlieschuck.com

Grain
Grain is an American design practice dedicated to social and environmental responsibility. Founded in 2008, the work of partners Chelsea and James Minola unites current manufacturing technologies and age-old craft techniques. Goods are produced in small batch runs in their Bainbridge Island, WA studio or through special collaborations with expert artisans in the US and abroad. Chelsea and James met while studying Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their furniture, lighting and objects are sold in over 100 retailers worldwide and have been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Elle Decor and Metropolis. www.graindesign.com