- Buyer's Guide
Materials First :: Uliko Studio Interview
It’s refreshing when brands come at carry from a different angle and Uliko Studio does just that. Originally set up as a design, development and materials sourcing consulting company, they’ve taken their epic knowledge of said materials and plunged into the accessories game with pretty awesome results. Their men’s and women’s accessories tell really interesting stories, revolving around a single ethos – MATERIALS FIRST, stating that “each design is an exploration of the material, employing and celebrating its unique properties”.
We wanted to learn more about Uliko and dropped Ben Kenison a line, designer for Uliko Studio, and picked his brain about their philosophies, their products and their love of materials…
How did Uliko begin?
Uliko, Greek for “material,” was established in 2008 by Chris Linn, former Nike Materials Design Director. Our mission is to inspire and enable brands to consider materials earlier in the design process by connecting them with innovative raw material suppliers. We specialize in material design, development, and sourcing for product decision makers from a variety of industries.
We display, collect and organize materials and technologies from a variety of footwear suppliers from around the globe. Being in this material-filled environment, we’ve always been inspired to create. In 2012, to emphasize our ethos of MATERIALS FIRST, we began designing our own products in-house. Our design process is an exploration of the material, employing and celebrating its unique properties.
What have been your biggest challenges?
As with any small business, there are many obstacles to overcome. The most challenging in developing and bringing our product to market has been how best to promote ourselves and build brand equity. Luckily, there is an amazing community of designers/makers in the Portland, OR area, and there have been some great opportunities to get our stuff in front of the public.
How do you source your raw materials?
Uliko is partnered with best-in-class raw material suppliers in support of our client projects and development of our own innovative and proprietary material solutions. We have a broad network of supplier partners specializing in textiles, synthetics, leathers, foams, adhesives and components. Materials for our product line are sourced through these manufacturers.
What processes do you put it through before it reaches market-ready?
Before we move into production for the market we’ll do a multitude of R&D work focused on a select material. We test things like: how can it be manipulated, what kind of construction techniques work well for it, and what kind of abrasion it has. Then we’ll start exploring what it can be made out of, resulting in a lot of prototypes. Since we don’t start with any preconceived ideas, we’ll end up with a crazy variety of objects. From there we pick which directions we’d like to further explore. In the process of working toward a market-ready object, we’ll do user testing along with a series of refinements.
After a design has been thoroughly tested and refined, we move into production. Our production process is a dichotomy of industry and artisan techniques, allowing us to efficiently produce our product while adding the human touch. For most of our products, we start by laminating two materials together using heat and high pressure and a “hot-melt” film. This does a few things: gives more structural integrity to the material, seals the raw edges of textiles during cutting, and gives our products a front/back or inside/outside. Then we have the flat patterns laser cut from a digital file. Once the parts are cut, everything is assembled/stitched by hand in our Beaverton, OR studio.
How do you test your product?
We have a variety of wear-testers who will use our product for a period of time. We definitely try to give them to people that are tough on their stuff, to really test the products’ integrity. They’re generally tested for 4-6 months and we’ll get feedback throughout. A lot of times they end up testing the product longer if they really like it and want to continue using it. It’s great because we get to see a lot of long-term use cases. One thing we found during initial testing was how the recycled leather material wears. Similar to natural leather, the surface picks up oils and patinas, making it better with age. There’s also quite a bit of testing of materials, hardware, and construction techniques during the development stage.
What key insights drive your stuff?
We believe in thoughtfully considering every part of the design and production of an artifact. For us though, it all starts with the material. Most products are designed around a story, something that speaks to the end user. For our products we try to tell the story of the material through the resulting artifact. We look at a material and think about its properties, how it was made, what is being done with it, what could be done with it and go from there. Right now, our products tell an interesting recycled, reclaimed, and repurposed sustainability story. They’re all made using salvaged textiles/leathers (discarded from the footwear industry) and a recycled leather composite material.
What makes your company so damn special?
We are positioned as a creative and collaborative hub in the world of raw materials, which gives us a fresh, unique perspective on the product landscape.
Share with us a business ‘moment’ that you are most proud of?
On the product side –
When we received the first order from our web store. It was a small victory, but to us it was the stamp of approval on our product line.
On the materials side –
When we first opened our doors, we experienced such a positive response from the business and creative community. It validated the value that was needed in the area of materials design, development and sourcing.
What has been your biggest mistake business-wise?
On the product side –
Initially getting product into market with limited wear testing. “Measure twice, cut once,” right? We learned that one the hard way. Now, we definitely go above and beyond to ensure that the product we put out is ready for sale.
On the materials side –
The toughest challenge was translating the business value into a fee-based structure that ensured predictable revenue generation and satisfied our customer expectations. We quickly realized that we could not be all things to all people, and began to focus on the opportunities and relationships that yielded the highest benefit for both parties.
What did you learn from that mistake?
We made (and continue to make) adjustments to our business model with the customer need/value leading and defining our direction.
Who else is doing rad things in the world of carry?
There’s an abundance of rad things going on right now in the world of carry. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a designer/maker. I’m personally a huge fan of LAYERXLAYER, who makes beautifully refined, utilitarian carry objects. Some of my other favorites are: Truce Designs (Portland local), Boreas, Kletterwerks, Building Block, and Haerfest, to name a few.
What do you think could be improved in the carry industry?
I would like to see more people thinking outside the box. What and how do we carry is an age-old question, and it’s really refreshing to see new approaches to this problem. With the advanced production techniques and materials available, I believe there’s a lot of potential for innovation. Recently I’ve seen some crossover between daily and technical-outdoor carry, which is inspiring.
What’s your daily carry and why?
I have a Clive backpack that’s probably about a decade old, because when you find something that works, you stick with it. It has just the right pockets to carry all of my design essentials: sketchbook, drawing utensils, measuring tools, laptop, etc. Although it’s about time for an upgrade, and I’ll likely embark on designing and making one. Of course I also have an arsenal of Uliko Studio accessories. I carry two card sleeves, one to hold my business cards and one for the cards I receive. I also have a card case that I use as a coin pouch because I don’t like having loose change all over the place. I’ve used all of our wallets, but landed on the Snap Wallet as my favorite. It’s big enough to hold all my cash and cards, but still very slim and comfortable in my back pocket.
Wow! A Clive backpack, ha! Okay, what’s your go-to travel bag?
I’m an adventure traveler, so it is absolutely essential to have a good backpacking bag. For me, that’s the Lost Coast pack by Boreas. It’s a very considered object in terms of design. It’s minimal-yet-functional, lightweight, and made from quality materials.
What’s next for you guys?
We will continue to explore the possibilities of new materials in search of interesting product solutions. We’re currently in the beginning phases of the design and development process for some larger carry items. Hopefully we’ll be adding some to the product line in the near future. And we’re always open to new relationships that can help us continue our vision.