• Bruce Tomb turned his art piece for a gallery exhibit into the IF Basin, a full-scale product line that nicely supplements his firm's bottom line.

    Credit: Infinite Fitting

    Bruce Tomb turned his art piece for a gallery exhibit into the IF Basin, a full-scale product line that nicely supplements his firm's bottom line.

Bruce Tomb had no clear plans in 1984 when he hand-cast a basin for a gallery exhibition in Santa Clara, Calif. As an art piece, Sacred Basin was successful, but “it wasn't done with the intent to become a product,” the San Francisco-based designer says. Perhaps, but it became just that soon thereafter, when Tomb was serving as project designer on the now-closed Clodagh Ross Williams store in New York City.

“I had a couple of castings that I had done in my attempt to make the first sink,” Tomb explains. “They were rather crude, and by most people's standards they would be considered unacceptable.” But once installed in the store, the basin was a hit, generating numerous requests from customers. Eventually, as orders trickled in, he decided “it made sense to mass produce it.”

The move isn't unusual; many well-known industrial design pieces began as singular objets d'art fashioned by architects before blossoming into modern design icons produced by major purveyors. Less common is the architect who assumes control of his product from the design phase all the way through manufacturing. For those who manage to pull it off, the rewards can be creatively fulfilling and financially lucrative, but the process is more arduous than it appears.

infinite possibilities

Tomb's story had a happy ending. In addition to running his eponymous practice, he operates Infinite Fitting, a company that manufactures the sand-cast basins out of white or silicon bronze, brass, and aluminum. Tomb refined the earlier sink, making it more applicable for conventional installation (while keeping the spirit of the original). Although the company works with small local foundries, Infinite does the finishing and machining in its own shop.

Whitney Sander also got into the product biz by accident, when he moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and began designing his own house. “Because I had moved from another city, I didn't have much of a client base here,” explains Sander, principal of Sander Architects. “I had all the time in the world, so I designed everything.” This included a resin sink that captured the imagination of visitors. As more people asked for one of their own, Sander began producing them in quantity.

“At the time I was doing trade shows for my prefab Hybrid House, exhibiting at events such as CA Boom and Dwell on Design, so we put a sink in the corner [of our booths] and put a bunch of fliers next to it,” Sander recalls. “And folks started calling.” Sander partnered with a local fabricator for production, but his firm handled fulfillment and shipping. “We were turning out 10 sinks a month at one point,” he says, “and at $2,000 a pop, that was nice.”

While some architects and designers stumble into a manufacturing opportunity, others, such as Brooklyn, N.Y.-based 4-pli, make it part of their business model. “Furniture, in a way, has been integral to the firm since our first project,” says partner Jeffrey Taras. “It was an office space, for which we did the design and made all of the furniture—24 desks and a conference table.” Eventually 4-pli started a sister company, Associated Fabrication, which makes the firm's pieces.

  • 4-pli offers furniture pieces, such as the Nesting Desk, that are customizable by size.

    Credit: Courtesy 4-pli

    4-pli offers furniture pieces, such as the Nesting Desk, that are customizable by size.

industrial strengths

Compared to a small architecture firm producing sinks and furniture, the operations of established industrial design firms are far more sophisticated. London-based Jake Dyson Ltd. is comprised of a team of product designers and design engineers whose sole task is “coming up with new product ideas that are visually stunning and go where no one has gone before in providing innovative, functional benefits,” says principal Jake Dyson, son of the well-known vacuum designer.

Dyson says his approach is to conceive a product and follow it through to the point of manufacture, which is “unusual in a world where product design typically is separate from the development and manufacturing side.” Having a “hands-on” approach to the process is essential, he adds.

But not all architects and designers have the time, money, or wherewithal to do this. Fortunately, companies such as Reveal Designs have emerged to fill the void. Founded in 2004 with the goal of licensing products designed by architects, Reveal discovered almost immediately that establishing manufacturing partners is hard. “It was very difficult getting things to move in a timely fashion,” says Scott Roskind, principal of the White Plains, N.Y.-based company. “So we started creating things on our own.”

Reveal works with such firms as Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Cutler Anderson Architects to bring their architectural hardware and furniture to market. The beauty of working with Reveal, Roskind says, is that the architects aren't encumbered by the business issues associated with doing so. The process is surprisingly simple. “I've literally had Jim [Cutler, FAIA] step off an airplane and say, ‘Hey, I drew something and I'm going to fax it to you,'” Roskind says. “We look at it with our manufacturer partner in the United States, get the sizing [and other details] right, and then we do a prototype.” Once approved, the product is manufactured and shipped to the company's network of more than 50 high-end distributors. Each deal is different, but generally architects own the copyrights and patents on their work, and Reveal pays royalties on product sales.

double down?

For those looking to go it alone, be forewarned: bringing a product to market is no easy task. Having the artistic acumen to design what people want is important, but a solid business plan, marketing talent, and lots of money are essential. “There's a lot of behind-the-scenes business that people don't see,” Tomb warns. “Manufacturing is a really difficult endeavor. It's very capital-intensive.” Taras agrees, adding, “If you don't have the ability to go out to furniture shows and market yourself and also have capital to do all that while you're waiting to get orders, it's going to be hard.”

  • Reveal Designs' hardware —including the stainless steel BCJ Lever 1 by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the Bainbridge Lever by Cutler Anderson Architects—comes in a variety of standard and custom metals and wood species.

    Credit: Courtesy Reveal Designs

    Reveal Designs' hardware —including the stainless steel BCJ Lever 1 by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the Bainbridge Lever by Cutler Anderson Architects—comes in a variety of standard and custom metals and wood species.

Even the seemingly simple things can be tricky. Sander cites packaging as a prime example. Finding properly sized boxes and fittings so his sinks wouldn't arrive damaged or dysfunctional took a good deal of time to resolve.

Conquering such issues doesn't necessarily guarantee success either. In Sander's case, the sinks simply grew too expensive to produce. The manufacturer who was making them “kept upping his price as he saw they were selling,” Sander recalls. “The margins kept getting thinner and thinner, and we just couldn't make [enough] money” to justify continuing, so he shuttered the sink business in 2007. “I was born to be an architect, not a product manager,” he says. “Making sinks became a drag.”

Tomb concedes that operating your own manufacturing arm is difficult and time-consuming, but with those obstacles come certain rewards. “It definitely has created challenges for the firm, and it's taken a considerable investment,” he says. But “it also has paid back and [supplemented] our income.” And the long-term value of a limited-production, architect-designed objet in a client's house? Priceless.

For a Web-exclusive slide show of architect-designed products, see

Launch Slideshow

doctor spec web-extra: architect-designed products

doctor spec web-extra: architect-designed products

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    Courtesy 4-pli

    The partners at Brooklyn, N.Y.-based 4-pli made furniture design part of the firm's architectural work from day one. Its gently curving Maeve's Crib is manufactured using birch plywood, MDF, stainless steel, low-VOC milk paint, and water-based polyurethane.

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    Courtesy 4-pli

    The firm's Ply dresser is constructed from stacked laminated birch plywood, aluminum, and stainless steel and finished with low-VOC milk paint, water-based polyurethane, and Danish oil. The four-drawer piece features recessed ergonomic handles.

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    Courtesy 4-pli

    Ideal as a stool or side table, the Petal5 has opposite-facing twin legs that allow it to stack five stools high, 4-pli says. Each piece is crafted of natural birch plywood and finished with low-VOC paint and a water-based polyurethane top coat. Available in five colors.

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    Courtesy Articolo

    Launched by architect Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, AIA, in 2007, Articolo offers side tables designed by Frattini Magnusson and other architects. This oak and laminate table-a Gianfranco Frattini creation known on the Articolo website as #22-features dovetail joinery. (For more on Articolo, click here).
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    Courtesy Articolo

    Designed by Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, the #2 Articolo oak veneer side table has hand-carved recessed pulls and solid side panels.

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    Courtesy Articolo

    Articolo calls this James Irvine design 'a reinterpretation of the classic trestle table.' Crafted from natural oak, the #29 stands 16 inches tall, with a diameter of 14 inches.

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    Courtesy Reveal Designs

    Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed the BCJ Lever 2 to reveal its mechanics and gave it a knurled grip. Reveal Designs manufactures the handle from stainless steel, but custom metals are available.

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    Courtesy Reveal Designs

    Designed by Cutler Anderson Architects, the Mercer Lever has a smooth, cylindrical handle for easy gripping. The piece is shown here in oil-rubbed bronze, but Reveal Designs offers it in a variety of metals and woods.

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    Courtesy Marmol Radziner Furniture

    The principals of Marmol Radziner + Associates call the firm's furniture division a natural extension of its design/build work. This 96-inch sideboard comes in solid walnut or maple, with concealed hinges and an oil finish.

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    Courtesy Marmol Radziner Furniture

    This Marmol Radziner dresser sits on a blackened or stainless steel base and can be specified in walnut or maple veneer with an oil finish. It measures 84 inches wide.

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    Courtesy Marmol Radziner Furniture

    Marmol Radziner's bedroom collection includes a platform bed made from walnut or maple veneer, with a blackened or stainless steel base. It is available in three sizes: queen, king, and California king.

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