5 Things // with Tess Lithgow

We’re well into fall now, and here in Albuquerque leaves are starting to change and drop. Fabricator Tess Lithgow, part of the Glue Team, is on board with this seasonal shift! A transplant from LA, they know how to enjoy the little things once the heat lets up. Enjoying nature both inside and out, having a limited edition beverage, and most of all spending time with their brand new German Shepherd Aussie mix puppy – Tess has some solid autumnal 5-Things. Enjoy!

1.  I have around twenty house plants, and being stuck inside more than ever has really made me appreciate them extra. I recently got this 3D printed planter that I love from Printerror, an Etsy shop based out of Austin, TX.

2.  Balancing my job with getting my BFA and producing my own artwork doesn’t give me much time to stop and chill. But my new pup Frankie has given me a responsibility to go on daily walks. Taking in the fresh air and sweet Craftsman and southern-inspired homes in my neighborhood of Downtown ABQ helps me unwind. But more importantly, watching my dog frolic around really helps me take in the simple stuff.

3.  Any free time I get these days I spend painting. I’ve been doing lots of mixed media paintings/drawings on paper recently, working on smaller scale stuff. The size allows me to finish pieces faster and produce more, something I value while I have less time on my hands.

4.  It’s October now and I’m fully in the fall mentality. I love seasonal beer, but this spicy pumpkin beer from New Belgium is hands down my favorite. It’s brewed with cinnamon and chili peppers which gives it an extra kick.

5.  Working at Submaterial has really been the sweetest of deals. Not only do I get to work with my hands and be in an artistic environment, but I love so many of the products we make. The Murmur Trees have always been a personal favorite of mine since their release. They remind me of tiny, magical trees, and they’re so peaceful to look at.

How We Design: Simple Home Collection

Pictured above: Round Coaster Set

We simply love natural materials partnered with clean, modern shapes. And in this era of staying home-based for health, we realize firsthand the benefit of being surrounded by items that both boost our mood and elevate our style. So, off to work we went – Introducing our Simple Home Collection! We created this new array of products to celebrate simplicity, care, and softness in geometries; a collection of functional items to protect and bring warm cheer to your surroundings.

Designing products that define practicality and at the same time make us smile, now that’s a good gig. Take an inside peek with Damian Garduño, Submaterial designer, about the thoughts and processes behind the design development.

Pictured above: Strata Cookware Protectors

THE ORIGIN OF THOUGHT

In developing these products, we wanted to celebrate simplicity, care, and softness in geometries. We looked at what has been making us feel happy. We then take those cues and moments of inspiration from places which might spark any sort of thought and feeling.

Specifically, we wanted to have a product line available to those who might find our other items inaccessible but appreciate handcrafted design and quality. The shapes are referencing our current retail collection but are pared down in the same way we might pare down the complexity which our other products hold. The general idea was to scale down and chunk up the feeling of what is in our brand, while also celebrating what we are known for – cork and felt.

With regards to what type of products we wanted to develop, we were primarily thinking about the home; especially working/living from home during the pandemic. We are all looking around our houses during this newly found time and considering what could be better and how we can care for objects and surfaces within the home – this line will pair nicely with your belongings.

Pictured above: Capsule Coaster Set

THE DESIGN PROCESS

Our process involves many steps, sometimes in granular detail such as splitting eighths over radius size. We had a couple iterations of the Trivets, for example – the earlier designs were of angular, sharp cornered bread board origin. The symmetrically round and organic shapes we landed on are more cohesive with the rest of the line; circles, arcs, and capsule shapes embody the sense of softness we wanted to bring into your home.

Sometimes we run into over-designing a project for sake of experimentation. From this, we are able to pare down ideas that work better with the overall concept. Ideas that we have experimented with were pulled, but can be later used in future developments. Within the design team, we have discussions to examine what is and isn’t working so that we can really execute what we are trying to relay in the final design.

MATERIAL MATTERS

One of the most important elements of this lineup was the material choice. Wool felt is so versatile and is 100% organic and sustainably sourced. It comes in so many colors – and choosing which of those we would use was really exciting! Our colorways were chosen to celebrate New Mexico: the neutrals that one expects to find in the desert, with the pops of color that the desert also produces. Yellow Chamisa flowers, doors and window casements painted turquoise, the deep forest green of the pines in Northern New Mexico forests.

The combination of felt and cork really sets ours apart from other products in the market in that it conveys a sense of care towards sustainable practices and handmade craftsmanship. We are well versed in many materials, and plan to use others in future product releases; but felt and cork for this product line really celebrates what Submaterial was founded upon.

Pictured above: Capsule Mat Trio

IN YOUR HOME

Above all, we wanted utmost functionality without sacrificing beauty and quality. With most of us at home much more often, our surfaces are being used on overdrive. Protecting them and the objects they hold – while at the same time bringing in handsome shapes, colors, and cozy, natural materials – was a no-brainer. Atop tables, lining shelves, under plant pots on the floor, a soft landing spot for your keys, mugs, wine glasses, knick knacks and more: surface mats and coasters have endless uses.

We also brought things into the kitchen with trivets and cookware protectors. With the approach of colder weather, stews and braises are always cooking. Trivets consist of extra thick felt for insulation, and eyelets to hang when space gets tight. Cookware protectors prevent you from knocking your pots around when reaching for the bottom-most pan; keeping your cookware looking new and beautiful, longer.

SIMPLICITY BRINGS JOY

All in all, we wanted to keep things simple and fresh during unusual times. Our homes are havens for all of us, and it’s so necessary that we create comfort. The goal at Submaterial has always to give the gift of quality, warmth and joy in handmade items – and our new products help bring those attributes to your table during a time when we need it most. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

Pictured above: Round Mat Trio

5 Things // with Bobby Nolan

Hello again from 5-Things, an inside peek at what our team members are currently into! This week you’ll hear from Bobby, one of our most stalwart glue team members. Floridian in origin, with stints in Chicago and San Francisco before landing in New Mexico, we’re ever so glad he’s a part of our team. Dog dad to Norm and Ollie, expert chef, guitarist and… knife maker! We hope you enjoy his picks.

1. I spent a few years running production for a culinary knife company out of the San Francisco area. Here, I was able to develop the craft of knife making and built myself an excellent carbon steel chef’s knife. This knife has been with me for many years and has been an excellent tool that I use everyday.

2. I love cracking into a bottle of natural wine. As summer fades into fall, I particularly enjoy a great bottle of orange wine. The world of natural and low-intervention wine is endlessly exciting and bridges ancestral methods with the vibrancy of winemakers creating outside the typical and traditional. Also very tasty!

3. A few years back, I took my love for coffee to the next level by beginning to roast my own coffee from green beans. Originally, I began by roasting with a modified popcorn air popper and eventually upgraded to a fluid bed coffee roaster. I have loved tinkering with roast levels and exploring coffee varieties, origins and how growing conditions affect flavor profiles.

4. I use Libby nearly everyday to listen to audiobooks borrowed from the public library. A few recent excellent reads were The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson.

5. Since starting at Submaterial, I have been amazed by the transformation of minimal designs into intricate spaces when installed at scale. I particularly enjoy this effect with Ribsy and Imprint.

5 Things // with Ashlee Powers King

5 Things this week is brought to you by Ashlee, our Sizing Team Lead. Quite simply, New Mexico native Ashlee is a beam of light here at Submaterial – she loves everything and everyone. Endlessly curious, she’s always asking questions and coming up with creative problem solving. As you’ll see, she’s also currently pregnant at 34 weeks! We’re so excited for her upcoming arrival. Enjoy her 5 Things!

1. Gratitude has been something I’ve been turning to a lot lately.  One way I practice gratitude is through my beauty routine.  I am beyond in love with local company drylands wilds and I use their deodorant, lip balm, hand balm, and soap, but I think my favorite self care treat is their beauty oil.  3-4 drops of sagebrush + snakeweed applied to a clean face and neck is pure magic to the skin and senses! I cannot get enough of what Cebastian and Robin have created and I am always trying to convert people 🙂  And if you click the workshop link on their site, you just might catch a candid pic of me at one of their workshops! I seriously love this company!!

2. I’ve been reading a lot this past year or so to prepare for the birth of my first baby (OMG!) so when I’m not devouring Ina May Gaskin or birth staples like Birthing from Within, I find poetry to be so soothing. The clarity I get from Yung Pueblo’s inward and how what I read aligns perfectly to what is going on in my life at the time really helps me feel grounded.

3. I am a huge homebody and one thing I can’t get enough of are my new favorite house slippers. Born from a tradition thousands of years old, Kyrgies are wet felted and made for cold, wet winters as well as hot summers. I love the tradition and usefulness of these skillfully made slippers. They fit so perfectly, look amazing and they practically clean themselves! Wool is such a beautiful, useful and meaningful material to so many people all over the world, and I am so happy to support a company like this.

4. I’ve always been a maker and have loved crafting things with my hands. My mother taught me to sew at a young age and both my parents always encouraged me to explore my creative side. Doing graphic design for almost 10 years before using my making skills full-time guided me into the amazing world of art and production and what design can really do for people. I’ve always known my strengths lie in how I see the world and what I can create so when I found punch needle (aka rug hooking) I knew I was onto something worthwhile. Eyes are a big theme in my work and they appear in almost all my designs.

5. Before I joined the Submaterial team I was completely blown away by not only the products created, but how something so wonderful could exist where I live and I felt a huge desire to become a part of it. Almost 100% of the products we make go through my department, so I get to inspect, process and compose so many beautiful pieces. My favorite thing to work on are the jobs that go all out with color. The wool we use is such high quality and the colors available are so rich and mesmerizing. My favorite color combos are warm and bright–yellows (like my favorite 274 Senf) oranges, and reds mixed with neutrals. You really can’t go wrong with this library of colors! I love to see these come to life in our Index Color Block and Ribsy products.

DEEP DIVE: Wool Felt!

Today we’re dipping into the world of felt and can’t wait to tell you about all the wonderful and fascinating tidbits that make felt a super choice – and super sustainable – material!

Submaterial is not a felt company, per se, but we sure do use a lot of it and have gotten very good at understanding its properties. It feels very fitting to use wool felt here in the high desert; ever since the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the 1500s with new types of livestock, sheep wool has been the primary source of fiber used, creating an incredibly rich history. Coarse spun Churro sheep wool in its undyed earth-tones set the stage for Native weaving (previously using cotton), such as the now historic Two Grey Hills style rugs. Natural dyes from the earth were made from madder root, marigolds, indigo, and cochineal beetles, the latter bringing forth the classic, vibrant red found in Navajo weavings.

Woman spinning wool by kiva fireplace, Trampas, New Mexico, 1943 (photo: John Collier, Jr.); Two Grey Hills rug by Edith George via Shiprock Santa Fe.

Natural fibers of all kinds can be used to be felted, corded, braided, or woven. In ancient times, plant fibers (such as agave or jute), dog hair and even human hair were commonly used. Artifacts from Iraq dating to around 4,000 BC suggest the origins of sheep wool in creating garments, blankets and housing by way of tents. Felting predates weaving and knitting; agitating animal fibers to create a tangled mass that holds together as fabric can be achieved by numerous methods, from pounding to piercing, rolling to rubbing. Incredibly tough and dense, thick well-made felt garments could, in fact, repel arrows – a stellar material for warriors. Its thermal properties are still some of the best insulating choices for winter clothing, and felt is naturally windbreaking, flame resistant and waterproof. In other words: felt’s pretty amazing.

Otomi women carding agave fibers on barrel cacti to create thread; Mongolian felt coat, c. 1000AD (photo: Gary Todd).

As is the case in any medium that scales from one-of-a-kind to mass manufacturing, exclusively using New Mexican wool would be impossible to sustain a successful business with. To obtain the amount of wool felt needed to fulfill orders, our partner FilzFelt sources wool from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Milled in Germany using merino wool, the process of making felt has always been, well, a process.

Felting in modern times begins as follows: wool is sheared from the sheep – it’s a bit like a haircut – then thoroughly cleaned. Willowing comes next, a process that loosens clumps and evenly distributes fibers. It is then ready to be carded, or essentially brushed, into a uniform mass that starts to take shape as a sheet of felt. Then the felting process actually begins. Moisture is added via hot steam to the wool, which helps speed the felting process (and is the reason your wool sweaters can suddenly fit small children if accidently thrown in the wash). While steamed, the felt is compressed repeatedly with hydraulic weight to matte the wool into felt. It is then sent through rollers to condense and thicken the felt, and washed yet again to prepare for dyeing.

Carding wool into felt sheets at the German mill (photo: Filzfelt).

Plant based dyes are still used to add color to the felt. A single dye vat can only hold so much felt, resulting in multiple dye lots being common for the same exact color. It’s absolutely wild how different the same two reds can appear – but that’s part and parcel in the world of handmade, even when basic machinery is involved. And while it’s sometimes frustrating to match dye lots for large jobs, there’s a beauty in the inconsistency that reveals a sort of honesty that we adore.

After the felt is dyed, it is then dried, shaved and pressed to achieve a smooth surface. Rolled up into bolts, we receive dozens of bolts in dozens of colors on a monthly basis, ready to be transformed into something new. Felt cuts beautifully, with edges that do not fray due to the aforementioned matting of fibers. It’s soft yet sturdy, and has amazing acoustic properties – perfectly suited to our commercial wall covering, and just as well suited to a handsome coaster on a glass coffee table.

Best of all is its sustainability. LEED and Oeko-Tex® certified, wool is a renewable and safe, natural material – something that we feel 100% comfortable using. Commonly used acrylic or PET felt made from plastic is cheaper, but we choose otherwise. Not only do we prefer a biodegradable material with less environmental impact, but the quality is simply unmatched.

Most importantly, however, we choose to use wool felt to connect to the innate human tradition of craft – using materials that our ancestors used, in a slightly more modern way. It’s what connects us as human beings: working with the natural world and creating with its bounty the ideas that the mind conjures. And Submaterial is a group of human beings who make things with felt: a material that has stood the test of time and still classic after literally thousands of years.

(photo: Max Woltman).

5 Things // with Damian Garduño

Back again this week with 5 Things: the biweekly sampling of various Submaterial staffers’ favorite things that they’re currently digging!

This week, Submaterial designer Damian Garduño brings you his late summer edits. Raised in Dallas, Damian moved to Albuquerque 7 years ago to study architecture at UNM. Currently a grad student, he juggles a full student/work load, which we all admire but do not envy. His Rhino skills make all our products complete with beautiful technical drawings; and his easy-going nature means we all adore him. Enjoy his picks!

machinery

1. I absolutely love homemade pasta and it’s really easy to make. I really enjoy experimenting with different shapes and colors! Using the juices from other foods, like beets and spinach, can turn the dough into different colors. Here is a great video on shapes and types of dough – this video always inspires me to stop what I’m doing and head right to the kitchen!

2. I hardly use plastic bags, but I carry around these adorable reusable bags from Baggu and I love when they come out with new styles. Though I have many from this company, heavy in my rotation right now are these two I just got in the mail: grids and cow print.

3. It’s still summer and I know we are past the equinox, but I feel like the days are still getting hotter and hotter. The only thing to cool me down is this sour beer from Ex Novo Brewing Company: Cactus Wins the Lottery. This might be one of my favorite breweries and its situated in Corrales, NM. Did you know that some sour/gose beers are made with salt water? No wonder I cling to them during the intense heat, it must remind me of the beach! If you are in the area, be sure to check them out, and remember to support your local bar/beer-tenders by picking up some growlers!

4. It finally hit me, after months of COVID, but I realized that I miss going into public spaces. I have also been really busy with school and work. So what do I listen to during this time and help me cope with the shutdown? Google 90s Mall Vaporwave Music, it is so nostalgic and great background music for when you are creating or reading! I kind of like how eerily spooky it sounds sometimes – just picture yourself in an empty mall as a kid… so relaxing.

5. Before I started working for Submaterial, I had always been obsessed with the OJO Panels, especially the gradient ones. The current retail collection has some darker neutral colors, my absolute fav. I like to stare and get lost in them, they are somewhat of an optical illusion. As I am typing this I am looking over at it and thinking, maybe today is the day I purchase one!

5 Things // with Corinne Fay

Today we’re so excited to introduce our newest feature: 5 Things! Get a peek into our worlds as we share 5 hobbies, moods, products, entertainment, bits and bobs, and whatever else that we’re currently digging.

Our very first 5 Things is brought to you by Corinne Fay, office manager. Originally from Maine, she’s the grounding Capricorn of our team, chef extraordinaire, and dog-mom to Bunny the pit bull. Enjoy her picks!

machinery

1. I’m known around Submaterial as one of our resident Astrology nerds. Every Sunday I look forward to listening to Jessica Lanyadoo’s Ghost of a Podcast. Each week she answers a listener question and provides a look at the week ahead.

2. Summer 2020 is the summer of loungewear, am I right? I can’t say I ever thought I’d be recommending pink shorts, but I love these. They are a great weight and a great length and even avowed neutral-lover like myself needs to wear color sometimes.

3. It’s summer, get thee to a body of water! Can’t recommend sticking your feet in a river (or stream or ocean or lake or heck even a kiddie pool) highly enough. Even a visit to the Rio Grande, which nearly dries up this time of year, can satisfy the urge.

Hands and Tools

4. I know everyone is sick of talking about sourdough, but I love this sourdough focaccia recipe. It requires no real shaping, which makes it very easy and satisfying. I put green olives on mine.

5. My grandparents lived most of their lives in a modern pre-fab house built in the 1950s. You would enter the front door and descend a half flight of stairs to the living room and kitchen. Right across from the stairs hung an oval mirror where you could watch yourself walking into the house. Our Wander Pill Mirror reminds me of the shape of that one, but I particularly love the Wander Circle Mirror. It’s both timeless and stylish and I’d love to hang one in my entryway as a callback to the one in my grandparents house.

The Intersection of Hands & Tools – Or, How We Remain Handmade with Machinery

Here’s a little big secret: everything at Submaterial is made by hand. If you’re here, you probably know that already. But what exactly does that consist of? And in the age of mass production, why do we still insist on working so slowly?

First things first, a backstory.

In our startup days, literally everything was cut, glued, trimmed, or formed by hand. Every strip of felt was produced with human hands and handheld razor blades. They were incredibly thrilling and dangerous times. As proof of the beauty and quality of handmade objects, popularity and demand grew; a number of new employees were hired, but more was needed. We had to forge an intersection of our handmade ethos with large scale manufacturing.

Basic machinery was eventually purchased allowing us to still remain very hands-on. The efficiency of these hand-operated beasts made it possible to increase our output – and still hold true to our values of Made-By-Hand. We are now capable of producing thousands of square feet of product in a single week.

machinery

OUR TOOLS

Currently, the only machinery and tools we use are completely operated by a fabricator – no continuous feeds and nothing automatic or programmed by a computer. We view our machinery as hand tools with more power or speed. The two most heavy-duty machines on site reside in our sizing department: the area where felt or other materials are prepped to be built into products.

Upon entering our production area, the first that catches the eye is our die cutter/click presses. These are used with dies which produce beautifully stamped out shapes, either simple or complex. Die making is a fascinating process and the dies we receive are works of art, truly, as they are all made by hand: razor sharp blades of metal carefully bent and punched, then secured by pressure-fit within wooden cradles. In conjunction with our 25,000 ton hydraulic press – handsomely designed by Italians and fashionable in army green – we can stamp out multiples of various designs such as our Figure wall tiles or Spindle Coasters all by hand, as each and every stamp is loaded, stamped, and controlled by us.

10 yards away you’ll find the workhorses of our studio: our strip cutters. Also Italian in origin with its purpose to cut belting leather, we’ve found them perfect for cutting literally thousands of linear feet of felt day in and day out. Fabricators control intake via pedal, and the circular blades slice any width strip that is manually loaded in. We now have four of these on site and use them daily.

But then there’s the humble, trusted mainstay. Not at all produced in Italy, but rather, by our own team: our glorious, beautiful jigs.

Jigs are extremely helpful tools that ensure we get repeated results for each product we make. When a new product is being developed, we run into various problem-solving issues like making sure a curve is exactly the same on every acoustical panel. Our woodshop team meets with various departments to dissect the constraints, then gets to work creating these tools that help standardize our products – and oftentimes facilitate and speed up the process of making the products. Made from wood, plastic or metal, jigs are indispensable to making our products and you’ll find them in every room of our studio, a sort of purposeful industrial studio décor with interesting shapes and markings.

Hands and Tools
Spacers
Jigs

OUR PEOPLE

The real heroes of the story, however, is our team full of resourceful human beings that possess all sorts of skills and knowledge from various fields. Woodworking, bookbinding, screenprinting, architecture, industrial design, knitting, sewing, photography, painting, and quite a few musicians (who happen to make their own instruments, too). And we depend very much on said skills for coming up with solutions to production, even if they don’t have any obvious common thread to Submaterial’s products. In fact, we prefer it that way – oftentimes we come up with incredibly useful, offbeat ideas that wouldn’t have been discovered otherwise. Skilled hands with minds that understand detail: these are far more important assets than any machine.

We may grow bigger, we may develop products that require new methods of production. While the material prep may be mechanically assisted, all products are all laid and finished by hand, and we intend to keep it that way. Why, exactly?

At the heart of Submaterial is a group of individuals with the credence of using our hands to make beautiful things – and we will always stay true to that.

Machine
Machine

David Hamlin Interview

With increasing growth for Submaterial, it’s not often that we find the time to sit down and ask each other questions about where we have been and where we want to go. Melina Bartolomei,  Submaterial Designer,  did just that with company Founder + Creative Director David Hamlin as she interviewed him in our studio in Albuquerque. Read the full story here…

 


 

Let’s start at the beginning. Where is David from, and what are snippets of your childhood that encouraged your creative upbringing?

I grew up in Colorado, in towns all along the front range: Lakewood, Wheatridge, Arvada. Junior high and high school were in Boulder, and then started my college career there at the University of Colorado. So yeah, I’m a Colorado kid.

I grew up in a family with four kids; I was the youngest. My mother is a very creative, passionate, fiery person. My dad is very scientific – and I do mean that literally, he worked for Martin Marietta during the Apollo and Gemini moon shots. I had these two very diametrically opposed parents, and I think the friction between them probably gave me a little bit of a creative perspective from an early age.

In my early childhood I created a lot of different types of puppet theatres and the puppets that went along with them – all of it with a very heavy monster theme, of course. I was also very into paper cutouts: I used to do these cutaway views of haunted houses using colored paper where you can see every room and what was going on in there.

What I’m most grateful for is that I was a child who, because of my parents’ alcoholism, was very consumed by my inner creative world; and for whatever reason, from a very early age I was supported by both the school that I went to and my friends and family to engage with that fully and disappear down that creative rabbit hole. I think that in the 70s it was much more common to ignore your children than it is now. It was a very different kind of time.

 


 

And then you ended up in Seattle.

Yes. In 1989 I took a Trailways bus to see a friend and never came back. I was so amazed by the city and wanted to change things up for myself. I had no idea what I was going to do and ended up doing so many different things. I did some lighting for Nordstrom, shop windows for several stores, magazine cover illustration. It was a great period of exploration. I used to buy pieces of vintage furniture and disassemble them in the middle of my studio apartment – I’m sure my neighbors hated me – but I needed to figure out how things were built because I didn’t have any practical application or education in furniture or design at that point. I started dissecting the world and figuring out how things came together, what people used to join different material. All of that exploration led to my very first company, Utopos, producing furnishings and furniture out of cardboard, as well as a material that is no longer available called Grid Core.

I’ve always allowed my creative spirit to push me into entrepreneurship, rather than the opposite; I think a lot of people feel the entrepreneurial spirit, and then they have the creative idea and go forth with it. I came at business form a completely backwards angle, and I came at design from a very backwards angle since my training was in fine art. My path to where I am now has often surprised me, when I look back at it.

 

Hamlin in 1989 in his first studio in the basement of a Victorian. Seattle, Washington.

 


 

That’s life’s great joy, though, the unexpected paths we take. Where on that path does Submaterial enter?

Submaterial started out of the ashes another company I had started, Construct – it was very successful and did well with a great launch at ICFF in New York, getting into the NYTimes, and everything seemed to be going great. I felt like I had the untapped abili ty to run a successful business, and I connected very well with the community of architects and designers in Seattle, but I didn’t know how to run a business properly. I went and worked for a variety of different companies in the Pacific Northwest, then took that experience and then started Submaterial.

The point of the business, originally, was that I was going to create design modules that designers could expand upon and use to incorporate designs into their own projects. For example, our Construct Wall Hanging is a situation where you basically have a standard 5” tile in different colors, but you can make it at any scale. So Submaterial really developed in the service of architects, looking for interesting pieces to put into lobbies of buildings.

I had planned to create panels and designs, then discontinue them the following year to create a sort of desirability. But what I found was that many of the designs had traction; and I learned very quickly that you don’t let go of something that’s successful, to then try something that is untested. I wanted it to be an opportunity to really clarify and express a pure visual language.

 


 

What launched a rapid growth in Submaterial’s trajectory? Was there a project that gave you the impression that you had made it?

Well, it’s a funny coincidence that during one of the lowest points in my career came one of the best and most high-profile projects that I’ve ever had. Here’s a guy who at that stage of the game didn’t even have a studio; everything I had was in storage, I was living in a 200sqft cottage with my partner, in a temporary situation outside of Denver. And who should call? Gensler.

Gensler wanted me to do this enormous wall covering project for KCET Television Station in LA – they were remodeling their entire interior. It was a project that I gave everything to, creatively, and every resource that I had, because I knew that it would be important and that it was going to make a difference in my career.

There were so many things I learned during that project. But the most critical understanding that I came to as a result was: the work that I was doing was valuable, even to a world-class architecture firm like Gensler, and that they saw enough value in what I was doing to incorporate it into one of their more high-profile projects. So if you ask when did I knew when I made it, it was really when Interior Design magazine published photographs of that project, and I saw how my work fit into the whole interior design world and that I had a place in that pecking order. That’s when I knew.

 

Submaterial’s start: Hamlin’s entire living room, occupied by a workbench taking up the space with bolts of felt. “There was no living that was happening in that house, it became the studio in response to the Gensler project.”

 


 

And you ended up in New Mexico, eventually, and started the physical company here.

I came here for a variety of reasons, a lot of which had to do with my partner, many of which had to do with my love of geology, the food, the culture and the sun. But there’s not a big community of design-oriented people. It was a huge challenge because there are no design jobs for people like me – or at least there weren’t, until I established my company here. I quickly realized that I needed to make a success of Submaterial, or I was going to end up working for a company I didn’t care about. Index Dimensional had just been introduced to the world and my very first customer for that product was Microsoft. So, again, that was very validating experience working with Olson Kundig Architects, specifying my product for this Microsoft project.

I made 150sqft of white Index Dimensional in my dusty garage, and it probably took me a week to make that small amount because I was still working out the production method. I took the money that I got from that project and a few other hospitality projects that happened right after it, and I used it to open up a 1200sqft studio in Rio Rancho – about 10 times the space I had in my garage. We worked out of that studio for about three years before we came over into Albuquerque proper and continued to grow – going from 700sqft to now 35000sqft.

 

The first official Submaterial studio garage, a mere 1200sqft.

 


 

And now you’re running a company with nearly 40 employees… what’s the most surprising thing about that? And how do you continue to foster the culture of creativity in the studio, with all this staff?

I had always pictured that when the company got to the point of 40 people, I wouldn’t know everyone’s name, I wouldn’t know their dog’s name, I wouldn’t know their partner’s name… but I do. I didn’t expect it to feel so much like a family. There’s an interconnectedness amongst our staff. I’m surprised that at this scale that you still feel it. It’s still a part of our culture.

I have always found people that I believed had potential, even if they didn’t have the education, background or skill in the field they were interested in; I see potential in them, I want to cultivate it, I want to encourage it. I try to facilitate people’s creativity by giving them the opportunities. And the opportunity to fail, because I think it’s important. Failing is one of the best skills that you can develop as a designer, because you want to continue to fail in the direction of your goal. That’s the whole iterative design process in a nutshell.

 

Submaterial’s current location in Albuquerque: 35,000sqft filled with several dozen employees.

 


 

Speaking of which, what else helps form your design process? Where do some of the better, great ideas percolate from?

I’m one of those people where my brain fires and makes weird connections between things that I’m seeing and things that I’m thinking. A lot of times that’s all very interconnected, of course, but I find that most of my best ideas come from making connections between things that don’t necessarily have a connection. For example, I have a deep and abiding interest in geology, paleontology, and anything having to do with the ancient world. I could be looking at a diagram of some Precambrian fish skull in a book, and there’s a certain line, or certain shape or certain quality in that drawing or descriptive passage that I bring to the materiality of how I work with my hands. And it’s the synthesis of those two things: a lot of influence from the natural world – much more overpowering than the influence of the technological world – combined with this desire to express myself with my hands.

I’ve always created a lot of odd objects. These objects then take on a life of their own. They become like seeds of products that are developed, ideas that continually develop. Our Murmur Trees for our home collection, for example: this is something that I made a connection between a natural form, a eucalyptus leaf, and a midcentury style where I had already seen these irregular, organic shapes transforming in. It was an opportunity to use three natural materials – metal, wood, leather – all in one object. And it’s something that I had played with, initially, on my workbench in 2005, and had sketched repeatedly.  But I didn’t create the product that would be realized from all of that until 2016. So, there’s a long, percolating period for me, where my brain is collecting information from all these different scientific, historical and design sources; and all these different things coming together being realized as a product.

 

Various sketches and notes of Hamlin’s in his multitudes of notebooks filled with ideas

 


 

During periods of creative downtime, how do you get an inspiration boost?

I go for a long walk. Sometimes it’s a lot of walks. Sometimes it’s a year’s worth of walks. I find that being out in the world and being presented with an everchanging visual landscape, whether you’re in a natural environment or an urban landscape, is clarifying and stimulating. It becomes a meditation, like you suppress your own interpretation of things and simply watch and listen. You become a sort of sponge. And I find that without being aware of it, during that kind of walking I absorb so much info that is later expressed creatively.

The hiking trails near my house are incredible, I use those quite a bit. Seattle, San Francisco, New York – those are all wonderful places to walk. I’m lucky that because of my business travel and the events that I attend, like NeoCon and sales events around the country, that I get a chance to walk in some cities that are visually very stimulating and exciting.

 


 

People, places, art, music, etc. – what specifically do you absorb that inspires so many of your ideas?

Well, that whole period of design between 1930-1960 is just fascinating to me. I was very lucky that my art history education included a lot of design as a peripheral aspect to what was happening in fine art. I love everything that came out of the Bauhaus period, the architecture that it led to, and the midcentury design developments that happened thereafter. I’m really inspired by people who can pare an idea down to its simplest form. That’s one of the things I really appreciated about all the midcentury designers, is that they got things down to some really basic shapes in a way that hadn’t really been explored before.

I find natural material of any kind – wood, stone metal, glass – to be very inspiring, and I find them much more interesting than synthetic materials. Our world is just so full of things that we don’t relate to as an organism, I think it’s important to incorporate things that people can touch and bring them back to their place in the natural environment.

I want to emphasize that I see a lot of marketing about people handcrafting things. And I feel that Submaterial is very unique and unusual because we’ve committed to large scale manufacturing and production on a handmade studio model. I’m so proud of that. I’m proud of the work that we have done to prove that you can have a successful business, that you can pay a living wage and provide benefits, all with products made by hand. I think that is the one very special thing about our company that is unlike any other company that I’ve seen, it’s just remarkable.

 


 

What does success ultimately look like in your design career? Is there a finish line?

There’s not a finish line. And if I look at what I set out to do with Submaterial, I have already succeeded beyond my expectations. I meant for this company to draw together a group of creative people around a lot of ideas that had infinite possibilities of expression, and to find a way to make a viable business that supported that group. And I did it. I’m very proud of that.

We have enormous amounts of opportunities open to us right now. We’re a strong brand, we have desirable products, we have a terrific staff. The company itself will continue to thrive, we’re still vital, still growing, still learning.

I hope that it is a memorable experience for the people who have worked here. Submaterial was always going to be something that continued to evolve and grow because of the people that were involved. This is an organization where a single personality can make a huge difference. So, we continue to be shaped, and I think that flexibility and changeability is part of what’s desirable about the company for me, and that’s why I say there’s never a finish line.