Where Corporate Meets Craft: An Interview with Paul Olmer
Our Director of Operations, Eric Schwartau, checked in with Paul Olmer (MA Design Research Class of 2017) at his design-build studio, Hewn Bros., in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. Olmer founded Hewn Bros. with business partner Chris Tilden in 2011 and since then, they’ve racked up an impressive list of clients—Casper, AirBnB, and Quip to name a few. Before coming to SVA, Olmer worked in set design and construction for theater and received a B.A. in Fine Arts and Poetry from Bennington College in Vermont. Olmer was awarded the 2017 Susan Merritt Scholarship for his Applied Thesis at MA Design Research.
Eric Schwartau: What’s your specialty? Are you more of a fabricator, more of a designer?
Paul Olmer: We do everything. I get bored if I’m not doing a lot of different things. What we’re really good at is walking clients, who are unfamiliar with pop-up type projects, through the design phase, fabrication, and logistics of everything.
ES: What are some of the challenges you face as a studio?
PO: I think the challenge for us it that we’re a little passive about getting work. Clients just come to us for stuff, which has been fine over time because clients like word of mouth. And the good thing about New York in the pop-up community and also with start-ups is that people who were at one startup leave to go to a new start-up, they need something, they find us, because they know us from before. And that just keep happening over time. It’s actually been really positive.
If things are slow, there’s no plan B. But for me it’s good, because that’s usually when I make art. Eventually it works out but New York can be pretty fickle.
ES: Do you make Etsy-type products as well?
PO: No, but it’s one of those things that anybody who knows us says all the time. Whenever you’re like, “Well, there’s not much going on.” They’re like, “Oh, you should make stuff for Etsy.” I wrote about this when I was at SVA, whenever you’re crafty and you make something, people always feel compelled to be like, “Oh, you should put that on Etsy.” And you’re like, “Why don’t you just buy it from me now?” And they’re like, “No, no, no. I don’t wanna.”
ES: They need the platform. It feels safer.
PO: Exactly, or distance. No, but we’re definitely not Etsy types. Our sweet spot is that collision of corporate meets craft. It only works for certain clients for certain venues at certain scale at certain times. When brands get bigger, we’ve been less successful with them, so we know our niche.
ES: And what brought you to SVA Design Research?
PO: I think the main thing was that I wanted to write more. I’m actually pretty good at creating fake structures for myself so that I can create work, both with writing and with visual arts. But it just wasn’t happening with writing. I wanted to write about art and design and find some space.
When I got to SVA, I wanted to do Studs Terkel-style interviews with artists and craftspeople, so it was a good match. And some of the work that came out of that research was really good.
ES: You interviewed a lot of people?
PO: Yeah, the part of my time at Design Research that I enjoyed the most was interviewing young designers about their work, how they work and how they got into it. And that also helped me, because the other reason I went back to SVA was to get the credential, so that I could teach, because I was in a place where people were telling me, “Hey, you’re great, I want to hire you, but you don’t have an an MA.” Those interviews with young designers, they are really helpful when you’re teaching design.
ES: What do you teach now?
PO: I teach a 3D Intro to Design class at Pratt University, which is a perfect match for me, because the class is in studio, and there’s a wood shop next door, so it’s all hands-on. You talk a little bit, and then the students go make something and then you talk about it more. That was the other good thing about SVA—stuff is in front of you —talk about it.
ES: You seem to be halfway between a really hands-on and a more scholarly approach to design.
PO: Since SVA, there’s a lot going on—between running my business, being a designer, being a visual artist, and then writing about all of it—it ebbs and flows depending on what’s pressing. I’m putting together a book proposal that’s connected to my thesis work at SVA.
ES: What was your thesis?
PO: The academic part was about brand and craft. It was about how brands were leveraging craft to sell products, basically. And the applied thesis was the interviews with young designers.
I started mostly with people I knew. Some of them were old interns that I worked with or just people in my community. Then when I was at SVA, if I bumped into somebody’s work that I was interested in, I would reach out to them and say, “Hey, I saw you.”
ES: And what did you do with all these interviews?
PO: I cleaned them up and packaged them. I was getting a lot of guidance about how to sculpt those interviews into a meaningful series. The best thing about SVA was permission to talk to anybody. I would just email them, which I don’t do normally, but now I think I could. It’s weird, when you’re researching something, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I can …”
ES: It gives you the confidence and cred.
PO: Yeah, exactly. Even now, with the book proposal, I’ll say something like, “Oh, I’m working on this research project that I started in grad school.” It’s this gravitas, where they’re like, “Oh, it’s academic, you’re not sketchy.”
ES: Does the work you do now for Casper and these other startup brands feel like an extension of your thesis, or did it help you see the interest in craft from brands?
PO: Yeah, it’s all connected. That’s why I was interested in it. Part of that was obviously the time and place. Like you’re in Brooklyn at a time when all this is happening. The branding of Brooklyn and Gowanus. But I didn’t have any academic background in branding and the history of craft. At SVA, people were like, “Oh, capital C “Craft,”, British craft, the history of craft, and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But when I talk to people in my day to day life, they don’t give a shit about the academic side of all of it. I was trying to go back and forth between the day-to-day application of craft and the more academic side.
ES: The branding of craft…is that a criticism? Or does the “branding of craft” lead to exciting new ways of craft making?
PO: Both. It’s not really a criticism so much as noticing. I’d notice people were hiring me because of my craft background. And I’m a businessman, I’m trying to run a small business and I’m like, ok those people want that and they want to point to it. They want to see it on Instagram, they want to see me working, they want to see process. Then you delve into that more — have your instructors tell you, “Oh, you should look at this or that,” and try and connect the dots.
ES: Does seeking out craftspeople have to do with the rise in brand storytelling? Are brand storytelling and craft intricately linked?
PO: Absolutely. What’s important now is the story and the experience. It’s not the product as much. Millennials don’t want objects, they want experiences. Even if they’re gonna buy a razor, they want the experience of that object, or they want the experience of community around that object.
ES: Hence, Etsy.
ES: Hence, platforms.
PO: Hence, platforms. Since graduating, it’s been good to be more comfortable in a room with corporate clients. I speak that language now. It also helps elevate our brand as a company. We can say, “Oh, what’s the metric that you guys are gonna use to measure if this is successful or not? Cool, I’ll work backwards from that so that I can design something that’s more connected to your metric.”
ES: What metric might a company use to determine whether a pop-up installation is successful?
PO: Some brands are all about the social media, some are more about butts-in-seats, or having people trying things, or people walking by, some brands are more about just needing to have a presence at South by Southwest. Quip’s thinking was, this is their coming out party in that community. They wanted to be there, have it look good, have everybody notice it. Everybody has their own metric.
ES: Views, engagement, clicks.
PO: Yeah, if a client wants a lot of social media, then I’ll say, “Oh, do you want send somebody over while we’re building it and you can take pictures? Or do you want me to take pictures?” They’ll be like, “Oh, that’s an awesome idea. We’ll come over and we’ll do little teasers, maybe we’ll make a little teaser video. It’s added value for them.”
ES: So clients come here and take pictures of your process?
PO: Sometimes, yeah. Or I just take pictures and send them along. The process angle is the other part of my work at SVA. People love to fetishize process.
ES: What is it about the craft aesthetic that attracts millennials? Is it just style?
PO: Part of it’s style, part of it’s material. Quip had a living room vibe, they had a place that you could sit. They wanted everything to be more friendly, less plastic, less laminate, less shiny, less bright.
ES: More casual.
PO: More casual, more open, more “accessible”, which is part of their brand language. With Quip and AirBnB, what they really want is to foster “relationships” and “connection” with people.
ES: So how do they do that?
For AirBnB, we used wood for this big NYC Marathon check-in station. Everything else was metal and plastic, and there’s this nice place that’s warm and inviting and cozy, there’s something about that generationally, Millennials think, “Cool, this isn’t bullshit.” It’s less corporate, it’s more comfortable.
ES: It’s interesting that these new technologies and platforms are packaged in such a soft way. It almost allows for the technology to slip more easily into your life.
PO: Yeah, for Quip it’s not about the object so much as the on-going relationship about your health. With Casper, they’re as invested in the tone and the playfulness as the technology.