The New Revolutionaries: The barnacle that saved Ohio

A dozen colorful containers, pentagon-shaped and less than a foot wide, snake along a massive white wall at the Losantiville Design Collective on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. The textural, connected pods come in reversible shades of cardboard, making for simple and eco-friendly solutions to studio, dorm or nursery storage.

Designer Tim Karoleff says the wall pockets “riff” off clumps of barnacles, the tenacious crustaceans that make their homes in shallow waters. It’s not that he planned for the funky yet utilitarian pieces to look like they could be straight out of the Ohio River. But once he placed them on walls, their inspiration seemed obvious.

While nature sneaks its way into Karoleff’s designs, it also symbolizes a new way of doing business. Like a growing number of his industrial design peers, Karoleff, president and sole employee of Ampersand, opted out of the traditional corporate design path and onto an entrepreneurial one. Along with 12 like-minded spirits at Losantiville, he’s turning an historic building on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine into a hub of fresh, fun and uniquely independent American design.

Out of the ashes
You might call it the recession’s silver lining. When Karoleff and his fellow alums graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked Industrial Design program, typical corporate gigs were few and far between. The scarcity of “real” jobs emboldened this new creative class to take risks. The affordability of life in Cincinnati made their college stomping grounds an ideal, and comfortable, place to try something new.

“Cincinnati is brilliant for design businesses,” says Karoleff, 25. He spends less on an apartment and ample studio space with access to tools at Losantiville than he spent on rent alone in Brooklyn, and cites the proximity to manufacturers and raw materials as underappreciated benefits.

Take the barnacles, for example. The die-cut recycled cardboard pieces are made at Metro Containers in Norwood and printed at Peerless Printing downtown. After his first sell-out run, he began working with Clovernook Center for the Blind for packaging the pockets, increasing his profit margin by a whopping 75 percent in the process. But that access streamlines more than just cost.

When Karoleff did a check of an early run, the manufacturer noted an irregular pattern on a batch of blue pockets—one section of cardboard was corrugated, not smooth like the rest. What would have been tossed in a trash heap elsewhere caught Karoleff’s eye. He told the manufacturer to keep making that mistake, and sold hundreds of the mixed-textured pockets.

“I can jump in the car and have a conversation with people and get my problem solved right away,” explains Karoloff, who compares that with the laborious process of having products prototyped and made cheaply overseas. “I can make sure the final product comes out exactly how I want it to be.”

Back to the basics
You might call it a return to old-fashioned craftwork. Thin and ponytailed, Karoleff grew up making things in his Okeana home, near the Indiana border. As a young boy, he dreamed of becoming an inventor, a dream that followed him to UC’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning.   

“I became really interested in working hands-on and using the computer as a supplement,” he says. For Karoleff, nothing beats the connection, the relationship really, between people and products. He sees every design as a chance to build new ways of connecting. “We are looking at not just minimalism, but emotionalism.”

Inspired by masters like Ray and Charles Eames (Buckminster Fuller had a role in those wall pockets, though), Karoleff works to solve everyday problems simply, elegantly and with a distinctively human touch. Hence the wall sculptures that also serve as containers.

“Furniture to me is the most human of objects,” he says. “It has the stance and friendliness of how humans interact.”

He first started playing with his “bundle” series while looking at a handful of pencils cinched at the center. An umbrella stand was the initial goal, with hardwood spindles atop a circular Corian base. Then a Losantiville peer, Noel Gauthier of LaunchWorks, suggested he literally turn the design upside down.

“I was like, ‘Oh, table, perfect,” Karoleff says with a laugh.

Into the ether
You might call it the Internet at its best. Thanks to online distributors, designers like Karoleff don’t have to live on a coast to have their designs sold on one.

While he worked in Brooklyn as an apprentice to furniture designer Patrick Weder -, a friend took a job with a fledgling online store, Once Karoleff had wall pockets available, his Fab friend introduced him to a buyer. The wall pockets went online for a “flash” sale—a three-day, limited quantity offering. They sold out, quickly. Two more flash sales later, Karoleff estimates he has sold more than 1,200 wall pockets in six colors, with another Fab sale slated for later this month.

“They're useful, but also beautiful,” says E. Grace Glenny, Fab's senior director of flash sales. “His work epitomizes what Fab is all about. What we do is create an audience for artists, designers, entrepreneurs who are making awesome products and art and say, 'Hey, check this out.' If the work is authentic and Fab, everything else happens naturally.”

Fab exposure landed Karoleff’s designs in more than 2 million inboxes, the kind of instant exposure an independent designer in the Midwest couldn’t have imagined before the Internet. “I’ve gotten a lot of brick and mortar stores that have contacted me because of Fab,” he says. “I am very happy with that relationship so far.”

When he offered 34 “bundle” tables for sale on Fab, his stock was gone in 10 hours. New York designers purchased the tables, which Fab sold at a discount for just under $400, to use in photo shoots. Feedback from customers, and stores, led Karoleff to design more “bundle” products, including lamps that can sit on tables or hang as pendants. He’ll experiment with new woods and black Corian, which he purchases locally, for his next Fab “bundle” sale, also slated for this month.

“If Tim makes something, we want to sell it,” Glenny says. “We're committed to working with him often.”

Paying it forward
You might call it frustration with the status quo and with the environmental waste of mass production. While growing interest in his work and the support of his Losantiville peers spur Karoleff’s passions, he also finds inspiration just up the hill from his downtown home and office spaces, at the campus where his design principles took shape.

“Three or four of us teach in DAAP,” Karoleff says of his peers at the collective. “We are able to take our beliefs and pass it forward.”

From an institutional perspective, designers like Karoleff keep DAAP’s coursework relevant and fill unexpected skill gaps. One of the courses he teaches, “The Making of Things,” is a relatively new addition to the curriculum, says Associate Professor Dale Murray.

In the past, students who enrolled in industrial design courses had been building models their whole lives, he says. Current students “can do anything on a computer, but they have never used a hammer.” “The Making of Things” helps certify students to use every tool in the shop.

“Those machines allow them to create artisinal products,” Murray says. “It creates an interesting dichotomy. It’s created new ways of making a living.”

While Karoleff and his colleagues worked corporate co-ops, they learned about the necessity of compromise and the inevitability of waste in manufacturing systems that rely on foreign factories producing massive inventories. They also learned about losing control of the most important element of their designs—the finished products.

Being able to maintain that control, and pick and choose materials that are sustainable and as local as possible, makes Karoleff proud. He bristles that chain stores ever make “best of” lists in Cincinnati, where locals can find finely made products at stores like High Street, Park + Vine, Elgin Retro and the store at the Contemporary Arts Center, all of which sell his designs.

At DAAP, students find as much inspiration in Karoleff’s success as he does in their potential. When he talks about teaching, Karoleff, who has years to go before he hits 30, sounds like a wizened mentor. “It’s been great to see all of these young kids interested in entrepreneurial pursuits,” he says.

As he plots 80 to 100-hour work weeks to fulfill orders for his upcoming Fab sales, Karoleff smiles. He wears paint-speckled boat shoes, no socks, a rumpled polo shirt and shorts as he sits in DAAP’s Café, offering the occasional “hey” to students and professors as they pass.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.

Do you know a New Revolutionary? Email [email protected] with your idea.

Photos of Tim Karoleff by Adam Henry/Alias Imaging.

Other photos courtesy Tim Karoleff.
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