ProTalk: Designer Ken Tomita

Ken Tomita is one of the cofounders of Grovemade.

 

Gabe: What is your story outside of Grovemade?

Ken: Okay, I guess we could go way back. How far back do you want to go?

I want to go all the way back. I want to go back to right before you moved here, if possible.

Okay. I was born in Japan. We moved to America when I was two, and when I was in the first grade, we moved up here to Portland. And we my parents liked the country, so we we had this house. It was kind of basically up by Skyline. And it was totally comfortable. It was such a shock coming from LA because there was a gravel road and we had horses.

And our neighbors were farmers that had like goats and sheep and everything. Kind of the crazy part of that story is that my next door neighbors that I grew up with like running around in the woods, one of the brothers, Ben, he ended up becoming a furniture maker, and later on we crossed paths again. We just started working together, and then he’s worked here at Grovemade.

So I guess that’s why you go all the way back, right? So all this started when I was a kid, like me and my friends Ben and his brother Joel, we we grew up in the woods just exploring and like building stuff. Their dad was like a super handy guy. They built their house. I remember helping them like demo a house when I was like eight years old. We were country kids.

That’s interesting. When I talked to Sean, he was talking about how his grandfather would like just roughly draw up a house and get it validated by architects. It sounded like you had sort of a very parallel path in that way.

Yeah. I really wanted to be like their dad. This person that can do everything. Like I remember he he made like a radio controlled airplane like from scratch. You know, like the wing was made out of foam, and he made this like wire cutting tool from scratch to cut the foam and then like fiberglassed it. It was crazy. So I mean we weren’t at that level, but we were constantly making stuff.

There there’s like a very distinct difference between someone who wants to build stuff and someone who wants to build a business. And it sounds like a little bird on the tree told me you have some you know history with Epson. Maybe some lineage there?

Masakatsu Tomita

Masakatsu Tomita – President of Epson Portland, Inc.

My dad worked for Epson. He eventually became president of the factory in Portland. He passed away when I was 18, so I haven’t had like a lot of contact with like the business side of him, you know? And he was sick for a long time before that. By the time I was adult-ish, you know, he wasn’t really doing the business thing. But my mom tells me I’m turning into him, so maybe it’s just in the blood.

It could be. It could be. I assume through furniture and through RISD and that you that wasn’t really jiving for you. How did you do this? Did you have a mentor that was taking you under?

Right. Maybe we should go through that story. So I went after high school I worked for a year and went to college at the University of Oregon, and I couldn’t find what I liked to do. I was a physics major, and…I left that. And I think I switched to something else. And I switched and switched, switched, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up kind of just traveling a lot during college. I went to school in Hawaii for a year and Japan for a
year. And when I was in Hawaii, I was trying to take the easiest course load possible. So I looked through the syllabus, and I was like, oh, art classes! I bet these are easy!

I’ve heard that story before.

Ironically I ended up spending all my time in studio. It wasn’t “easy”, but my intention was to not study and like go party and go to the beach. I ended up getting really into ceramics, actually, and photography, sculpture some. The other class I took was drawing which I didn’t really get that into, but I ended spending all this time in the studio. But at my home school, University of Oregon, you can’t take art classes, or it’s very difficult to take art classes unless you’re an art major.

Oh, okay. So you can’t cross-pollinate.

It’s hard to, yeah, because majors get first dibs. So I was kind of getting a little frustrated. I was like, “Oh, I kind of want to go to this artistic side, but I really didn’t want to be an art major”. Through that I took an architecture class and tried architecture, and something went off in my head like, “Wow! This is what I want to do.” Because it kind of combined my curiosity for art which I didn’t feel like particularly talented in, but I really liked. And I was always good at like math. It just came naturally to me like engineering-type stuff. So I thought architecture combines what I’m good at naturally but I’m not that into with what I’m not naturally talented I really like. It’s like, architecture! So I devoted the rest of my education to getting good grades as possible so I can get into grad school. And just graduate with anything. Applied to a bunch of schools, ended up at RISD — definitely like a lucky break. When I got there, I was overwhelmed with how challenging it was, how good everybody else was except me.

They they weren’t there to party!

I think it’s called like imposter syndrome or something, except I was actually an imposter. I think that syndrome is supposed to be when people feel like they are but they actually belong there; and I just didn’t belong there.

When you and I talked at the coffee shop, you said you left because you were sort of dissatisfied with the practical side of what you were doing.

Yeah. The their educational model is super-conceptual, and ironically that’s why I went there. So when I was looking at all these grad schools, there were some that were really engineering focused, and RISD is the most conceptual one. And I knew that I struggled with conceptual stuff, so I did it on purpose to challenge myself. And it’s kind of an instance where, yeah, that’s great, but it was too far.

It was too far on the conceptual side.

Yeah. But I learned a lot because my thinking, my rationale for choosing that was like, hey, I’ve already I’m already a natural at this stuff. Like, why do I need to go to school for any of that? You know, like engineering-type stuff. So I went to this place that really made me step outside of my comfort zone. And i think it stretched my brain in ways that even helped me today, even though that’s not really who I am is like super-conceptual architect like wearing a cape and lecturing about theory. It’s not really me. But, being in that environment in a really intense year kind of got me to like ask some of those questions. So I don’t regret it at all. That was amazing.

So when you left, were you able to eventually seek out those pieces that you felt were missing? Or was it more you left so that you could have time to work on the things that you knew you were good at?

I think I went to RISD, I was like a normal person. And then after that year, I turned into kind of a creative person. You know, you do this kind of boot camp thing for people that don’t have an art background, and it’s super-intense. You take the same class with the same people, and you live together, too. And that I had a particular drawing teacher that his name’s Al DeCredico. He’s like kind of controversial guy, but everybody hates
him. And I hated him, too.

Just because he was hard, or…

The was hard, and he’s like yelling at you and stuff. It was an abstract drawing class, but something clicked at the end where suddenly I was an artist. And I wasn’t a normal person any more the way that I looked at the world.

Montage

Okay. So when you say it was a boot camp, were there drills or…

No, his boot camp was the intensity. Because it’s like 24 hours a day practically. That’s what it feels like because you you wake up in the morning. You go to class in the studio, and then studio ends and you’re doing it on your own with the same cohort and then you go back to your dorm and you’re living together. You do that for like two or three months straight.

I’m going to ask you a very cliché question, and I’m only going to ask you because I get a wide variety of responses from the people I ask. And it will be very interesting to see how your answer aligns with other people’s. What is design?

For me problem solving is the root of it. It’s how can you create something, make decisions about something that make it function and feel better which usually is from the aesthetics. But I believe design have like a heavy problem-solving component, and that’s why it’s kind of a buzz word, like design thinking for other disciplines. Designers are optimistic. It’s because they feel like they can solve any problems. That’s what you do. And actually I like the areas we have to compromise, and we’re like some aesthetic decision collides with, well, actually, that takes 20% longer to machine or I like those intersections or those collisions between like the practical parts and the aesthetic.

I was going to ask you, but I don’t think it’s a relative relevant question now, I was going to ask you how your Japanese heritage influences your design decisions. But it almost sounds like most of your design and creative life has been influenced by environmental circumstances.

The Japanese side influences my expectations, I think.

So it’s built in that way.

Yeah. So I grew up super Japanese because my parents thought we were going back to Japan the whole time. So they made me go to Japanese school. I didn’t even learn to speak English until I was five, or six. Because my dad was here for business, and they thought we were going back. So I went to Japanese school in LA, and then we moved up here, went to Japanese school on Saturdays every Saturday. When everybody else was watching cartoons, I was in Japanese school getting a the same language curriculum as Japan and math, too. So that’s why I’m good at math — I have a double education.

And American math, I mean, this is a tangent, but it was so easy compared to Japanese math. I was taking them simultaneously, so American math was always behind.

So it was a joke, yeah. So I was raised to be Japanese. I didn’t live there a whole lot. But when I go to Japan, I see kind of like the expectation for work ethic and also excellence for quality like in food or product or anything. Japanese people are always kind of talking about Americans in a little bit of a derogatory way. They’re like, we’re sloppy, you know?

I mean there’s good things about our culture. You know, the freedom. And that’s why most of the best technology and ideas come from here because of the freedom of thought. But I think I had kind of the luxury of combining because I’m Japanese-American…

Oh, it’s it’s a phenomenal combination, yeah.

You know, whatever I want from both. And my mom like claims that she’s got nothing to do with it, but if you go to her house, it’s like pretty nice.

Super Japanese?

And she has good taste. You know, she’s always doing creative projects or like when she makes me lunch, it looks good.

food prep

Yeah, it’s not just a pile of stuff served on a calendar.

Yeah. It looks good. Little touches of how she’d cut the carrots or whatever, you know.

Well, of course, then that you would create a company that has all this great stuff that’s high-quality. That make that makes sense.

My definition of normal is probably not the same as somebody else.

That’s good. No, I mean, normal is a spectrum, right? You sort of answered the how you’d become Ken the designer. How did Ken the designer become Ken the businessman? Because when you and I first met, and Amina asked you the question: How did all this happen?, you were like, ah, you know, I just dropped $75k on the laser cutter, that seems a little arbitrary.

Yeah, on a CNC. Joe (the other co-founder) drops $75k on the laser.

So that a lot of that is from what I did before right after school. , I worked for this guy, Gerard Minakawa who’s a bamboo furniture maker and sculptor. And I was apprenticing under him. And that guy changed my life, both design but mostly how I live it and as a it kind of turned me into an entrepreneur.

So I had no idea you could even be an entrepreneur, and it was just not something that I thought about. So I’d been working for this guy who’s kind of insane, you know? He was a brilliant designer, but I couldn’t believe how much he worked and how passionate he was. Up to that point, I was always worried about if I’d find a job that I liked. And this guy didn’t have a job. He just lived. That’s what he did. I see him every night like sketching with his little desk lamp on. And he’s not doing it because someone’s paying him to do it.

He’s doing it because he loves it.

That’s what he does. He’s like this unstoppable machine. So working with him kind of showed me like that you could do whatever you want and that work and life didn’t have to be this separate thing. And I just had no awareness of that until I met him, and I worked with him for a few years. And I think that impacted me later. And it still impacts our company. A lot of the things we do, a lot are from him. Just make sure that what matters to you is what you’re doing.

Yeah. How did how did you meet him?

Through my professor when I was frustrated at RISD, I asked my favorite professor for advice, and he told me to quit school and go work for this guy.

There you go! That’s that those are the best instructors, I find. Just go over there! That’s awesome.

So he’s got a company called Bamboo DNA.

Oh, okay. And is that part of Project Chaboo?

Chaboo. No. That’s the project I did, though. Bamboo DNA he builds these like large-scale sculptures. So when I was working for him, we did two at Burning Man, and then he he continued doing that full-time. Even after I moved up here and did my furniture thing or even during Grovemade, I’d go work for him every year.

At least one project I’d go work for him because the intensity of his projects and the spontaneous problem-solving that has to be done when you’re doing work on site, I continued to do those until I couldn’t do them physically. Both for that and also to never to keep myself humble because these projects are so intense, and I’m not the boss. You know, usually when I go on these things, I’d be the lowest on the totem pole, even though I was highest before because I’m not doing it every day now.

I’ve taken Sean [Kelly] on a project and three other people from our company have gone and worked for Gerard on projects.

That’s awesome. That’s good to encourage people to do trial by fire sort of situation.

They come back changed people. It’s it’s like a rite of passage.

So it looks like you are kind of addicted to seeking out that intensity.

Yeah. I think the reason I was so worried as a little kid about like finding a job I liked is it takes a lot for me to be stimulated. I get bored really easily. So I was like terrified of this idea of work. And I’m super lucky that I can like control that. I can vary the intensity. But yeah, it’s definitely a theme.

So what what is the most meaningful project you’ve worked on this far in your career and why?

They’re all different. They’re all different. I think those years working for Gerard really transformed it at kind of kind of the highest level. They transformed me as a person. But each one that we’ve done along the way has changed the way I think and helped me grow.

Yeah. Have you done any as sort of something that had personal meaning to you as part of your existence almost?

I think Project Chaboo which was a collaboration where I worked with 50 other designers to design this. I encouraged everyone to do like a reinterpretation of one of my furniture pieces. That kind of showed me the power of people, because up to that point I worked alone for a long time.

There was supposed to be a Chaboo 2. It never happened. That was incredible for me to work with that many people and see what they’re into and inspired by what they’re doing. I think that spirit has carried carried on to Grovemade. This space is about us as a team. When the chemistry is right, you can do amazing things, completely impossible for me to do on my own or anybody, really.

Yeah, yeah, the power of numbers. And the right kind of numbers, too.

Yeah, the numbers can make can drag these down. So that’s what we’re trying that’s what we’re always striving for.

When you’re developing a product or a piece of furniture, what would you say is your general approach to the design process, and do you do a lot of this process mentally?

Yeah. I mean, it’s changed a lot. I mean, I barely do any design work any more. Sean has really stepped it up. I feel like he’s better than me so at that particular part, so why should I do it? It doesn’t make any sense.

Well, let, okay, Let me in chronologically or temporally shift that over to when you were doing that kind of stuff.

Oh, yeah. So when I was doing furniture, I had kind of a very manual process. I really liked drafting by hand, so I had a huge drafting board.

Oh, you’re sick.

I was drafting it by hand. And of course it’s hard to change things, but I’d do the orthographic drawings and then isometric drawing. And I don’t know part of the just the act of manually doing it real intriguing. I really like making paper models. The early stages of design used to really frustrate me because a lot of my projects were really open-ended. I could do anything. So it was a lot of like going on walks with my dog. I had this particular park near my mom’s house that I liked to go to, and he’d just run around without a leash. And I had my sketchbook and catch what I was doing.

It was pretty solo back then. I would draw a lot, and even though when I was RISD I’d gravitate towards paper models, real like really sketch-level modeling and not the computer. I’m terrible at computer programs even back then. He forced us to learn them, but I was terrible at it. I was also not very good at 2D drawing. I really preferred sketching in 3D instead of translating. For example, when I was at RISD, I would fake my drawings. I would like do all these models, and then afterwards I would simulate that I had sketched them. You’d require some kind of drawings. And one critic actually called me out. I was amazed at how good she was. I was like, how did she…? She’s like, “That almost looks like you did those drawings after you…” I was like, “Oh, my God! How did she know?!”

You got humbled!

Yeah. Some people are really good critics.

So coming from that to this world of you know eCommerce, how has eCommerce changed how you approach what you find to be good design now? Or has it affected it?

Yeah. Only in recent times. So for probably this first six or seven years of the company, we were just making whatever we wanted to make. And it was all about what we like and this year we’re kind of shifting the way we look at things to I think it’s time to mature as a company and be more than like a hobby. And I mean it sounds crazy to say it’s a hobby because we have millions of dollars of revenue and all these people, but it kind of was.

Like, we weren’t a real business that serviced our customers. And that was part of the magic, you know, when everything’s driven by money, it’s all going to be the same. We were coming from a different place. So I’m looking for this year to without losing that magic of what are we really care about, and what excites us? Let’s look at what the customers care about and that part where it overlaps, that’s where we’ve got to be.

Finally, it’s in the process. Finally, eCommerce is part of the process. Finally we’re considering you know is this product going to get us referrals you know from PR? Is this product going to help us with search engine? We’re really thinking about that a little more.

Do you do you feel like the products that you’re producing should have sort of a self-marketing component to them?

Not necessarily. Up till maybe six months ago, we our company was running at a much more simplistic way of thinking about things like I described. And we’ve been really been working on the the past six months becoming much more sophisticated and really understanding the picture with all the components. So if we launch a product now, I’ll create a worksheet that has…it’s just a one-pager. It will say like this product is supposed to drive 20,000 clicks through PR and 5000 through a search engine. This product these complications with vendors. Here is our revenue goals. This product is designed not to get new eyes on our products but to add to customers that are already buying our stuff, you know? I mean, it’s a fifth grade level, one pager, but we never had that before. We were just launching stuff without thinking about it.

Yeah. And where are you pulling those metrics from?

From the past. So from really the the first thing we did is really look at the past and what the current picture. And it took a lot of data hunting on my part to dig in. I’m fortunate enough that the company can run itself, so I spent about three months. Nobody knew I was doing it because I wasn’t here. Like really looking into like what’s actually happening. I’m still guessing, but even the guessing is good. If it just signals intent, right? We’re doing things with intent.

Is there a bigger picture?

Yeah, and that’s what we’re putting together right now. , we’re trying to build a new strategy for success for a business based on our customer starting with them. And still working on it, but, yeah. We need we need to become much more sophisticated, I think.

What did establishing your own brand do for your satisfaction for you as a human?

Oh, versus like if we were like a retailer or something?

If you were just you know doing furniture more that struck your fancy and…

Oh, gotcha, gotcha. Well, I might answer your question in kind of a roundabout way, but I mean me personally, I a lot of my identity is tied up in the company. And I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished or what we’ve what we’ve done.

You should be. It’s awesome!

Both in product and the people side. And I think everyone here has a lot of pride about that, and it’s a challenge for us because the pride leads to good work, but it also restricts us to you know from being a doing things that just make more money.

Right, right. I think that’s the companies that have the integrity to develop products with intention. They kind of outlast. They’re the ones with the long game in sight.

I’d like to think so. , but we are a business, and it’s been challenging at times to sustain it financially. So I’m determined to make it work, though, that that we can create a company where we’re not compromising that, and we can be financially viable. I know it can be done. It’s just harder.

I mean I kind of steered this interview more towards business, but I can’t help it because it’s part of who you are. I mean, you are so strongly tied to this, and I get the sense from our last conversation and just the time in between how much of you is in this place. And so I feel like it’s very relevant to ask you those questions. So with that, the question I’m going to ask you next was initially intended to be directed towards your design sensibilities, but I think it’s more about your overarching vision for this place. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

From other people mostly now. I used to be much more solo, so I’d get it from like reading books and like a lot of photographs; I would get it from. I looked at a lot of books of Japanese because I mean you can see all the books I have right here. All these design books. But now I spend an incredible amount of time maybe like a third of my week in what I call “professional development”. And that’s just learning. And a big chunk of that is learning from the people.

It’s kind of like a cheat code. The skill is in distilling it down to what matters for you. But there’s so many smart people out there.

Do you have like a top three?

Mm. I take bits and pieces from everyone. So I don’t have a person or I’m like I want to be this person. I’m looking at special specialists. Maybe there’s this digital marketing woman who’s like really good at that, but she has no idea about design or business or something like that. And I’m like I’m going to learn from her as much as possible or this design person or like a finance person. The specialists are so good. And I have a few mentors that
have kind of put it all together, but it’s pretty rare, and that’s kind of what I’m trying to do is like learn about everything and hopefully I can guide the company to get all those pieces working together properly.

And does Grovemade offer partnerships and entrepreneurial investigations?

Oh, internally? We used to. Yeah. Sean is really passionate about teaching the younger generation. So we used to have high school kids and college kids. But we don’t have the resources any more. For that, we did one-day internships which is actually kind of the highest return on effort where we can impact the world in the biggest way with the least amount of our time. Because people can come in here, and they can experience so many different jobs, you know? There’s not many places where in one day that you can job shadow like seven completely different jobs.

Well, that’s actually a good point because you we talked about you have designers working in the shop at when it’s slow, and it’s important for everybody to kind of understand how to do that. Are you eventually going to have those people learning the digital marketing side, too, or…

Not really. I think we’ve become more siloed recently, more specialized. You know, we’re always going back and forth between the efficiency of specialization versus the closer ties when everybody’s like together. And lately we’ve been trending towards more the specialization, so I think we have to be sensitive to mental space and time.

I hardly do any like real work, quote unquote, right, because I have to think about this bigger picture stuff?

Right, yeah. You’re macro.

And think about and talk to a lot of people. But I can only do that because we have this great team that’s actually doing good work, physically doing it whether it’s making the products or operating company marketing, you know? And those people wouldn’t be able to do that if they were trying to do my job.

Right.

So that’s the kind of beauty of team, right?

It it seems like this company is sort of a natural transition, an evolution from where you were growing up in the woods to the furniture to architecture school to Grove. What is this your stopping point?

I don’t know. I know like I’m the kind of guy that I’m always going to do what I feel like I really want to do, and if that’s no longer what we’re doing here, I’ll probably stop doing it and find something else. What we’re doing now is kind of a surprising evolution because I’m pretty introverted. I’m like kind of like being alone and doing my own thing. And I never would have thought that I’d be like leading a team and that I would find that rewarding. And I guess that’s what my dad was doing. He’s an executive. And I just wasn’t interested in it back then, you know? Kind of turning into him. It’s kind of crazy.

And I mean not to get too personal, but with the unfortunate loss of your dad, do you feel like there’s some sort of continuation of family legacy by going from the introvert to the head of the team?

I think so. Yeah. I know my mom’s always talking about that, but I mean he was a much much bigger scale. He had like 2000 employees, and we have 20. But…

You got to start with one.

I guess a lot of the ways I think about things, she says it’s similar and I hear old stories about my dad from people that worked for him.

Were you close with him?

Yeah, yeah. He was a people first kind of guy, and and he had kind of an unorthodox management style that and enabled him to succeed at a young age in a Japanese company which is pretty rare. And I kind of feel like the way I look at things is a little off compared to the rest of the world.

If he were here today, what would he say about this place?

I think he would love it. Yeah, he wanted me to be an engineer. He said that engineers are the smartest people at his company. So like mixing that fabrication side with business, I think he’d be pretty into that.

That’s awesome.

Yeah. And I mean he was a total business geek, right? He was always reading his books, but I didn’t really get it. And now it’s like now it’s all I think about is is business, you know?

Yeah, that’s good.

I would have never thought I’d follow in his foot…And maybe I was rebelling against that, you know, when I was younger.

Yeah. And then you embrace it and and then full bore go into it. That’s awesome. Ken, thanks so much for talking to me today. It’s been really good to get the Ken side of the story vs just Grovemade overall. I think by getting to know the individual people, you get a better sense of the company as a whole.

It’s really important to remember though that is company is not just me and Sean. Everybody has these vital roles. The magic is that we’re all working together, you know?

Are you a professional 3D artist or designer? I’d love to talk with you about your work! Reach out to me here and maybe you, too, will be featured in the ProTalk! 

**Editorial note – Joe Mansfield is the other cofounder of Grovemade. While he is still a friend of the company, he no longer has an official role.