Interview: Jaime Salm, Sustainability Designer
--Thanks for talking with us Jaime. Last year looks like it was pretty great for you. Why don't you tell us a little about what inspired you to create MIO, and your latest sensation, the V2 wall tile.
Upon graduation, I had the option of either working on my resume and portfolio to begin searching for a steady job or working on a project that had come about thanks to some Fibrid product we had been showcasing in a Philadelphia boutique. The project entailed creating signs for the retail chain Anthropologie using recycled waste paper. I opted to give this unique opportunity a try. During the course of the project it became clear to me that I could start my own design practice to make a living (even having come fresh out of school), really loving every minute of it, learning first hand what it takes to run a business and contribute to the community.
When the project was nearing an end, I realized that it had been one great project, but if I was to make my business a success I really needed a concrete plan to move forward. Over the next couple of months, I put together a business plan and began to really explore all the connections I had already. I thought about what needed to be done, considering my strengths and weaknesses, so that in the end I could "work" in the kind of design that I enjoy and transform it into a successful business venture.
The real inspiration for MIO comes from what is happening all around us every day. I believe that design can be a more accessible and constructive force in society, and I want to help build a culture where good design means affordable, meaningful and sustainable design.
After having explored molded fiber for my thesis project, I realized the great potential this material had and the many different technologies available for producing it. For me, V2 and its predecessor Tangent 3D wallpaper were an opportunity to push the envelope with a material and technology that had never been thought of as something "cool", desirable or durable (after all in its "raw" form it is considered waste). I also decided that the best venue to showcase this new approach to design (Green Desire) would be ICFF in New York City. V2 and the MIO Collection exemplify what MIO is all about. V2 challenges people to reconsider what they know, think, want and even goes further by elaborating on a particular market.
--You've succeeded at what many designers only dream of: starting your own business to sell your products. I imagine it hasn't been totally smooth sailing the entire way. What was the process like?
Some days are incredible and others you just think "what am I doing?" It's a roller coaster ride. At the heart of sustainable design, there is always going to be better ways of answering questions and solving problems. I find that every time it gets too comfortable it¹s because the harder questions have been omitted or excluded. I believe that design is an ongoing process that has to be continuously engaging and challenging if its goal is to improve our daily existence. Having said that, I really don't foresee any "smooth sailing" when it comes to innovating.
From an economic point of view, starting a business is a smart long-term investment but is a real trade off in the short term. The stability of a paycheck is obviously non-existent and each investment requires careful calculation (even the monthly rent is sometimes at play). Being creative with money and credit cards as well as maintaining a thrifty and entrepreneurial attitude are only one part of the equation. A smart businessperson who you can trust (my brother in my case) and a supportive family are all incredibly important assets in the process of starting a business, especially in the beginning when things are rarely stable.
--Are there any bits you would definitely have done differently given another chance? Or sage advice you might have for designers looking to go it alone themselves?
Looking back and finding better ways of doing things is easy, as my brother likes to point out your vision is 20/20 when you look at the past. I think I would have dedicated much more time in the beginning to putting proposals together (i.e. dedicating as much time to design as I did to the business side of things). The time constraints and all the minutiae of starting a new venture were much more time-consuming than I had ever imagined. Learn from your mistakes. Some of the most important lessons come from your own experiences. But overall the best advice I can share is this: Be very persistent and put your work out there. It is impossible to move forward in design if you just keep ideas in your head and wait to see what happens. If you really believe in something, you have to take a chance and try it out.
--You grew up in Colombia with parents in the packaging industry right? Has that had any bearing on your direction with Fibrid or MIO?
Actually my father runs a packaging business in Colombia and my mother is a psychologist. Growing up around a manufacturing environment did have an effect on my thinking, but this information did not really click until I was a design student. The same goes for psychology. I knew some basic concepts from high school and was very interested in the social sciences but these didn't really play a major role in my life until I discovered how central they are to design.
My fathers experience in business has influenced me a lot, but design as a business is a completely different cup of tea. I would say the most valuable aspect of growing up around manufacturing is beginning to understand the challenges in manufacturing and their perspective/attitudes on design. This knowledge has helped me address some of our manufacturers concerns, making them feel more comfortable with the design process and the end results, even when they often still don¹t understand or agree with the design.
--The undergraduate program at UArts where you co-developed Fibrid is a strong advocate of design as a social tool. To what extent does that idea influence MIO?
I was taught that design can be the most powerful social tool. It shapes everything from politics and government to culture and economy. I think that people rarely present design this way because it is a very overwhelming picture. Friends and acquaintances still look rather confused when I tell them that I studied industrial design -- now can you imagine what they would think if I told them that I studied "social engineering" as some UArts teachers use to call our profession?
Good design is the blue print for a better society and the reason is simple:
Design is ultimately about people. It is now feasible to make pretty much anything, which should force designers to consider the most important question of all: why make it? Some designers are already starting to not only understand this but they are also updating, integrating and re-thinking all the productive and cultural elements that don¹t hold into account the most crucial ingredients: People and place/context.
MIO applies design as a social tool in a very concrete manner and on a scale that is accessible to both consumers and clients. We design with an audience in mind and address the requirements of each design in such a manner that it raises questions and/or produces alternatives to a specific need, behavior, experience or expectation.
The way we do this is through our choices in materials, technologies or through the designs themselves. We provide users with more information about the design: why, where and how it was made. We select our manufacturers based on the ecological benefits of their technologies and their location (we try to keep all of our manufacturers within the tri-state area). We work closely with manufacturers to create alternative markets for their goods, and with their employees to explore new ways of preserving and adapting their skills and craftsmanship to new markets. We design the products so that they can be shipped and stored efficiently (minimizing the impact of transportation and cost). We are also constantly working on more effective
ways of reclaiming our products and designing them for easy disassembly and recycling. Finally we keep our price tags affordable and our designs as democratic as the economies of scale we currently work with allow.
--Part of our mission at IDFuel is to provide inspiration for aspiring designers. What would you say are some of the driving inspirations in your life?
I am very inspired by technologies that are under-utilized and by waste streams that are untapped. I think that any manufacturing facility is a design resource waiting to be explored and re-engineered. I am also very interested in how technology is changing our daily interactions and creating new digital and physical spaces for exchange and "learning". I think these new interactions are very inspiring and will ultimately take us beyond our current system of products and services.
--What about future goals? Where do you see MIO going in the next 10 years, both economically and philosophically?
The plan is to keep developing the MIO Collection as a means of exploring and advancing sustainable design for everyone, and providing the CultureLab's design services to clients who understand the importance of a sustainable future. I think we are going to grow not only in our offerings but also in the areas that we operate in. The home and the office are a very solid starting point, but sustainable design should be all around us.
I want MIO to be a laboratory where designers, users and clients can re-shape their thoughts and develop a sound course of action. This aspect of MIO will never change. I want to be able to always ask questions that have not been asked and try things that have not been tried.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team