- Buyer's Guide
Design Heads :: Interview with Carlos Calderon (Samsonite)
In our ‘Design Heads’ series we pick the brains of the designers behind the carry we dig so much, and today we managed to track down a senior designer from the Samsonite team. I know, when you think of Samsonite your mind immediately floods with visions of luggage – really awesome luggage. But they do a whole lot more than that, and Mexico-based Carlos Calderon is the man who’s developing their backpack, casual luggage and sports bag range. We asked Carlos the hard questions about design, product developement and creativity…
Hey Carlos, I know you’ve been working hard on Samsonite’s new backpack range. What recent carry product are you the most proud of and why?
I am proud of every project I have the pleasure to work in. But obviously some products have a special place. Right now, the entire 2014 Samsonite daypack and back-to-school line is my pride and joy.
What are your main channels for your creative inspiration?
The Web, going out of the office, outdoor shows and expos and researching on new product trends. Trend blogs are really, really mature right now and they have tons of inspirational design articles.
Where is your most creative space and why?
On airplanes or in general while traveling. You kind of leave behind most of your daily worries and that disinhibits the mind. So you can really focus on designing new stuff, and you are in direct contact with the environment that the product you design for is used in.
I don’t know why airplanes relax me so much. I can do tons of sketching on a long flight, the ideas pour in since you are like in a 200-plus people focus group that happens to be flying at 30,000 feet.
Any unusual places or circumstances where you got an idea for a new innovation in carry? Do you get a lot of ideas in the shower or the corner market finding organic dragon fruit?
While driving in the morning or when running in the afternoon. Working out jump-starts your brain.
What’s your daily bag? Why?
Right now I am using a backpack called Delta, it’s a 2014 model but with a custom colorway. I’m loving it since it has really good compartments and weight distribution is spot on. If there is an upcoming trip, I always test out a different bag.
Do you have a go-to travel bag? And why does it suit you?
My trusty travel companion is a black cabin size Samsonite Cosmolite spinner.
I’ve had it since 2010 and it is as good as new, even though it has been around the world. I have used various other sizes and types of bags but nothing beats small hardside luggage. While traveling there have been a couple of times when I see the little Cosmolite under the weight of all the other bags on the baggage truck and it always arrives at the other side looking much better than me.
The size is perfect for a three-day trip, even a week if you are good at packing. The dimensions are perfect for overhead bins, but you can check it in if you want to.
Can we see a pocket dump?
– I just love that Bellroy wallet, it was given to me as a present.
– The Gerber multitool always comes in handy and you can take it with you in the plane.
– A man should always carry a torch; this one is so small I use it as a keychain.
– The MUJI pens never break and don’t have logos so I kinda like that.
– The surface pro is the portable Wacom Cintiq I always needed, it really smooths out my workflow when out of the office and when traveling.
– Also everyone should invest in a good pair of headphones.
Wow! That’s a big pocket. While you’ve got the camera out, would you mind taking a photo of your workspace, and perhaps identifying any tools or personal items that help you most in your creations?
My workspace is kind of standard; the tool I use daily is my Wacom Cintiq tablet. It allows me to sketch down ideas, apply colors quickly and keep most of my sketches synced between computers.
Any specific drafting pencils or a lucky charm or an explanation of why your workspace is so tidy and ours is…something not describable using the terms of polite conversation?
Hahaha, I keep my workspace tidy because a cluttered space clutters the mind in my view. The pens I always use are MUJI 0.7mm black, I like the thin lines and they work really well on Moleskines.
I do not have lucky charms since I am not very superstitious, but do keep some objects that get my mind going like a scale Lamborghini painted white and some assorted Hot Wheels for quick inspiration fuel.
Who else is doing rad things in the world of carry and why do you think they’re important?
While there are many brands that are important in their respective market niche, I deeply respect the ones that push innovation and quality over the rest of the pack.
For active outdoors I was amazed with the Boreas booth in the OR show last year. What amazes me is that they look like they designed it without design paradigms in mind. As if you could design the first backpack in history without ever having seen one, that is the result that would come out.
Kata is another player that makes amazing bags. I own a Sensitivity V bag and can happily report that it resists everything, even catching fire (literally!). I am so sad that they discontinued it.
When talking about daypacks and school bags, more things come into play since they are less focused on one sole activity.
The snowboarding brands are so good at making and mixing patterns and colors, but no one can beat High Sierra for their daypack print patterns.
In conclusion, the market is better off when brands really push themselves.
What’s next for Samsonite?
Lightness across the product portfolio is paramount. Lightweight travel benefits your back, the environment and your wallet.
While lightness is a key feature in our luggage, I believe it could also be a key feature across our backpack range. There is no reason why a lightweight business bag can’t be comfortable and tough.
We also have to make sure that we can move with airline regulation changes swiftly so that the consumer can rely upon us for their carry needs. Quality is paramount and I am proud of the construction quality of our products, I cannot fathom our quality going away. There are things that people will always carry in their bags (jacket, glasses, wallet) but we have seen exponential changes in the digital side of things. Schools are replacing books with tablets, and those digital things are EXPENSIVE.
Also in the business side, instead of brick-thick computers, now we have wafer-thin wonders that weigh no more than a sketchbook. So in a way, inside a bag some things will need to change while still offering good organization and space and protecting the devices that we can’t live without.
How different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for Samsonite?
Deep breath… Okay, I would definitely design bags without paradigms in mind. It is tricky because people do expect a general “backpack” shape. But if you could get your message through and show them why you made your design so different, it could be successful. Also design is about the fabrication process and I would love to devise a completely new way of making a bag. Think about it, bag fabrication is almost the same in any case. I have this idea in my mind since I saw those Nike Flyknit shoes.
In essence they are socks with laces and a sole. But they create such beautiful color combinations since the material process allows them to go crazy. And that has changed the external shape and appearance of their shoes.
Now imagine applying that to bag construction. Imagine that instead of cutting fabric panels and then stitching them together, you could just program a big loom and make a bag in one piece (well almost one piece if you use zippers), shoulder straps, logos, lateral pockets, everything in one go.
No material waste would definitely be one of my priorities.
How similar are the designers in your team? Do you guys shoot for consistency or diversity?
The way we work is that we shoot for diversity within parameters. We always have an idea of what we need in our product but the design journey and inspiration process is different for all of us. What we keep consistent is the high quality of our result.
What motivates you most with Samsonite? Why do you keep doing new stuff?
It is a brand that I have always looked up to, and to be working within it is kind of a big deal. I don’t want to sound selfish but I never get tired of going out on the streets and looking at someone using one of my designs; that means that person made a deliberate decision of choosing it over the ones in the store. And that those long nights and hard effort really will make this person happy with the product.
How many styles do you not release?
Mmmm, we design with specific products proposals, so not very many are left behind. I would dare to say that in a collection with 30 different models, maybe two at most will be discarded. But when talking about pet projects, well that is a different thing. But I prefer to be trying new design out and seeing if they work rather than just designing the same stuff every month.
Who are your favorite inspirations/mentors/peers in the world of carry? Is anyone nailing it? Or does most of your inspiration come from outside influences?
There is no one specific in mind, but everyone doing this kind of job should try and go to shows and expos, meet other people in the business. It is so useful and eye-opening to receive critiques from people who work in other places.
Are there mistakes you see lots of carry companies making?
Countless mistakes are made, and it amazes me that some are constant every year. I hate when products are built to a price. It is not the same to design an accessible bag as it is to design a cheap bag. Adding features just for the sake of adding features is another ongoing problem – bags aren’t cars.
Also airmesh, I mean I’ve seen softer Scotch-Brite pads than some meshes out there.
Any favorite carry hacks?
Weight balance, and good packing skills. You can stretch the volume of a suitcase by just being skilful. Oh, and using the big blue Ikea bag as a grocery bag.
You’ve been in the game for some time, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about design? And secondly about the carry industry?
I have learned that you have to design things as if you were a Nasa engineer. Take everything into account when designing a bag since it is a mix between fashion, performance and practicality. And it is among the things that you use all day, five days of the week at least. If there is at least one annoying detail in a product it will become unbearable when using it constantly.
About the carry industry, it taught me that innovation really pays in the long run.
* Carlos’s carry rack
How do you test your product? What do you look for when testing?
I personally cannot sign off a bag without trying it out. I look for what things can be detrimental when using it daily. It is such a personal product that any issue, even a small one, could get annoying as the days go by.
When quality testing we make sure that the handles, shoulder straps, the fabric itself and the zippers go by simulated months of abuse without failure.
How many prototypes do you go through before release?
Depends on the project, some complex designs take literally years of refining before final. And they represent a big investment in money and effort.
What carry product (of your own creation, or anyone else’s if you feel like being generous) do you enjoy the most? What makes it enjoyable?
As I said, I adore my Kata Sensitivity V; the way it is compact but still holds tons of gear has been unmatched ever since it came out of production. It resists both rain and fire. Planes, trains and angry taxi drivers. People always give you nice comments about that bag wherever you go. I beg Kata to make an updated design.
I am currently obsessed with a leather coin purse from Loewe that is shaped like an elephant (I do not own it, haha). Whoever came up with that design is a genius.
From my own creation, I use some prototypes that I love in different scenarios. When traveling by land on weekends I use a medium size duffle that has a laptop compartment built in. It’s gunmetal grey and the logos are barely visible and it looks so stealthy but in a tactical way.
For longer air travel or trips that I know a small carry-on will become useful on the return leg I use a prototype backpack that has an expandable main compartment on the back the size of a small carry-on, while the laptop compartment is a removable sleeve that also holds your headphones, passports and iPad. I love it because it gets me through security really fast since the sleeve is TSA friendly and if you want more legroom in the plane, you can store the bag in the overhead bins and keep the sleeve with your valuables with you.
What kinds of hobbies do you pursue when you aren’t creating wonderful new carry products? Have you created any carry craft specifically for that hobby, or do you intend to in the future?
I love running, and right now my issue is that I do not have a safe, comfortable place to take my car keys and wallet with me. So I am designing for this problem with many ideas in mind. I love biking so riding with a hydration pack of my own design would be cool.
Are there any innovations that make this carry creation superior to all others? Space distribution? Shape of the pocket? Material of the strap? Alloy in the buckle? Dragon scale lining?
Superlight fabrics, waterproofness, snug interior so things stay in place and my wallet stays safe from the car keys. Weight balance also.
What carry product doesn’t currently exist, but would if you could wish it so? To put it another way, what would you tear your hair out over if another carryologist were to create it first?
Hardside luggage that can serve another purpose in your house instead of just taking up space in closets. Can a suitcase become a bedside lamp?
Haha maybe. Okay, what do you think is most often shamefully absent from carry products? When you see carry creations from less-masterful carryologists than yourself, what do you shake your head and tut-tut over?
Love and care is absent in most cases, most products out there look as if a machine designed them. Many things out there are completely devoid of insight or taste.
What materials do you most like to work in? Are there any new materials you’re experimenting with? Anything that will break the time-space continuum?
I love working with standard materials but coming up with new ways to make them look more interesting like print varnishes and patterns. If someone in the store gets the urge to touch it out of curiosity, then you succeeded with your materials.
Are there any materials you used to like, but now find impractical for your creations?
Natural fibers. Also semi-transparent suitcases with funky linings so when you fill them up the lining shows through.
What wouldn’t the layperson know is essential to a good carry product? We all tend to appreciate convenient pockets, for example, but is there anything that we wouldn’t notice about an excellent carry product off-hand, but a master of carryology always would?
Good carry designers just know when something will be comfortable. Shoulder strap dimensions, back panel shape and overall size is very nuanced. You can make a bag unbearable by just adding five millimeters of width to a strap. It is something that the consumer will notice at first hand.
If you weren’t making carry products, what would you likely be doing for a profession? Or do you have another passion that your carry creations help you enjoy more fully?
I would absolutely adore making high performance outdoor equipment, the kind of stuff that people use to go up 20,000-plus mountains. That would be like designing spacesuits. I love this whole idea of designing stuff that augments what humans are able to achieve physically.