Craft & Vigor: 
Inside Design at Grovemade

Craft & Vigor: Inside Design at Grovemade

By Jonathan Simcoe
In a small white unmarked building nestled quietly in Portland’s Central Eastside, a group of artisans hone their craft.

This is home to some of the most inspiring and approachable industrial design to ever adorn the desks, workspaces and homes of the design-focused millennial working class. Welcome to Grovemade.

Grovemade’s product line on beautiful display in their SE Portland shop.

Recently our design team at Opal took a tour of Grovemade’s Portland offices and spent some time with Lead Product Designer, Sean Kelly. Instead of giving a complete play-by-play of our tour, I’m going to focus on four areas of inspiration from our time with Sean and the Grovemade team.

Helping Humans to Flourish

At the heartbeat of the Grovemade ethos is a stubborn insistence on doing things the hard way, even at the expense of increasing costs or having a more challenging engineering and manufacturing process. At the helm is Ken Tomita, Grovemade’s humble, warm, and enthusiastic founder.

Grovemade founder Ken Tomita, hard at work from his standing desk.

Ken’s willingness to think differently about the employees and what they bring to the table is one of Grovemade’s more unique qualities. One thing that Sean emphasized that stood out to me was the company’s desire to leverage their employee’s individual passions in order to see them flourish. Notice the word them. At Grovemade people come before profits. One example is Grovemade’s designer Max Brown. Max was hired to do design and illustration but had an interest and a passion for photography. At Grovemade he grew into his role as photographer and now he does all their product photography in addition to his design tasks.

This sense of taking the "path less travelled" has led Grovemade into some unexpected places but it also makes for a compelling product line, where each product they design and produce has its own story behind it. One of Grovemade’s newest products, their beautiful wood speakers, are no exception.

Sean Kelly showing off the CNC-routed ridges that form the innards of their new wood speakers.

The ridges were a result of the way the wood had to be routed to produce the wood housing for the speakers. What started as a by-product became intentioned into the design of the speak and its control box, which mimics the rings from the inside of the speaker.

Notice the routed inner rings around the speaker's metal control knob.

This kind of playful and exploratory process produced results that nobody (not even the design team) could have imagined.

Let the Process Shape Design

When thinking about an industrial design process one might fathom that the design radically shapes the process of what it takes to bring a given product to fruition.

Wood iPhone cases waiting to be finished.

One fascinating thing about Grovemade is how the process shapes the design. Because Grovemade is largely a made-to-order company, products are made (painstakingly and by hand) as orders come in. This process of making products as they are ordered has shaped the way the processes are designed and built. Everything has to take into account how a given product can be produced and assembled and delivered within this framework.

Sean showing us the sanding process as Alex Boepple and Misbah Afshari do finish work.

Instead of fighting against or re-engineering a massive constraint, Grovemade has instead leaned into their constraint and made it core to the way they design and build. Constraints aren’t always obstacles to overcome. Sometimes they can be a catalyst that leads to something beautiful and unexpected.

Design Your Tools

Designing tools has seen a huge resurgence in the past several years in the digital product design industry. Starting with Facebook, there has been a massive effort in the web industry around design tools. Origami, Framer, Atomic, and InVision are just a few products that I can think of that are building whole ecosystems around a need for better tools to prototype interactions and take digital products across the finish line.

The same attentiveness and care put into designing Grovemade’s products is also put into their tooling. We toured the manufacturing floor and saw two massive CNC machines with custom venting that have been designed and rigged specially to be able to cut wood and deal with the by-product: sawdust (lots of sawdust).

Denim aprons adorn the door to Grovemade's manufacturing wing.

The care, thought, and energy put into the manufacturing systems is astounding for a small, independent team operating in Portland.

This level of craftsmanship elevates the importance and need for designers and craftsman to have and hold tools that are shaped around what they want and need to build.

"Find What Matters"

Grovemade has several of their company creeds plastered on the walls laser-etched beautifully into plywood.

One of them that Sean talked to our team stood out to me:

"Find what matters."

It’s the underlying ethos that drives Grovemade and touches everything from employee’s personal lives to the products they build (a recent journal entry tries to capture this ethos through story). The central idea is to find what details are important or pivotal or central and focus on them. Much like the Swedish concept of lagom, this ethos is hard to define neatly but as a whole it is what shapes and drives Grovemade and how they think.

If something doesn’t fit within the grid of "find what matters" then it needs to abandoned or de-emphasized in favor of pursuing what is most important.

Parting Thoughts

Sean showing us some exploration around the new iPhone 7 case.

Coming away from Grovemade, I left with a sense of excitement and hope.

Sean ended our time talking about the design community in Portland and how they love to partner with and work alongside other makers in their space. Folks like Shwood and Tanner Goods. Their sense of community alongside other complimentary (and sometimes competing) brands is strong.

It’s clear that Grovemade has a vision about the world and design that is bigger than themselves. And that’s what makes them so darn awesome and fun to be around.

Ken Tomita and Stefan Andrén talking watches.

If you choose to invest in Grovemade’s vision of modern, accessible industrial design, then prepare to be delighted.


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.