David Hamlin Interview

16 March 2020 |

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.