EXACTLY ONE year ago, local furniture builder Ken Tomita and custom engraver Joe Mansfield were just friendly Southeast Portland neighbors, “nerding out and talking about design,” Tomita laughs. But one shining moment of inspiration (and 12 months of tinkering) later, the duo’s Grove line of bamboo iPhone cases is a hot commodity nationally. “We get maybe 100 e-mails a day,” Tomita says.
Grove isn’t alone. In recent years, the Rose City’s designers have given form to an array of beautiful, functional things Americans use every day, from zip drives and keyboards to camp stoves and even Thortex artificial joints. (For more P-town-designed beauties, see our Lust List at portlandmonthlymag.com/lustlist.)
In fact, Portland is shining a bright enough light to lure the Industrial Designers Society of America’s (IDSA) annual thinkfest here this month, when 700 attendees will listen to eggheads—half of them home-grown—wax philosophical on everything from electric cars to violins.
But does it signal Portland’s rise as a industrial design (ID) capital?
More like a cozy village. Credit Nike and Adidas for pouring the foundations. The dynamic duo have spun off dozens of firms, from Thomas Raymond & Co, a footwear studio staffed by alums of both companies; to Krown Lab, an ID shop created by former Nike TechLab Design Director Stefan Andrén; to Terrazign, a specialist in structural fabric design started by ex-Nike engineer Bill Dieter.
“It’s a truism of capitalism: there’s a cluster,” says New York City-based Julie Lasky, an editor at Design Observer and former editor of the industrial design bible, I.D. magazine. “Someone comes in, then they spin off and professional organizations rise up, creating community.”