meet alex witko & courtney hunt

Organelle portrait

photos courtesy Organelle Design

While Alex and Courtney of Organelle Design are not the first to transform waste into design objects, they may be the first to actually make these objects cool — to create something you’d be proud to feature in your home. Just take a peek at their lovely hangeliers, which turn lowly closet hangers and discarded bike rims into a series of inspired lighting fixtures. But that’s not all you can expect from this talented duo. They’ve got serious technical pedigrees and have built a practice that moves seamlessly between architecture and both interior and industrial design.

Courtney earned an honors degree in environmental design from the University of British Columbia, while Alex holds architectural degrees from the University of Maryland and UBC and has studied, practiced, and taught architecture for the past 10 years. They launched their partnership in 2006 and have quickly built both buzz and respect (not an easy combination) within the creative community.

When they’re not salvaging scrap materials (such as colanders and ironing boards) to create innovative pieces, Courtney and Alex work on architectural commissions, offer design and educational consulting, and provide contract building work. They’ve also got a strong social conscience and often collaborate on projects with non-profit groups in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, including a custom bench design and hangelier installation at Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women.

When asked how they handle the not-so-creative side of running a business (think paperwork, accounting, development and other less-than-glam tasks), Alex and Courtney gamely argue that business IS creative. I couldn’t agree more — and I do stand corrected. Read on for some great insights on design, marketing, and the challenges of creativity from the principals of Organelle Design.

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1. What fuels your work?

Our work is fueled by a simple ethos – waste is the most abundant local resource our cities have to offer.  This provides not only a limitless and ever-changing surplus of material possibilities but also a well of creative inspiration.  We often say that one piece of waste is usually just that – garbage, but once you start to have multiples of one thing, potential uses can be unlocked.  We also work from different positions simultaneously.  On one end creatively testing uses for found materials, and on the other hand, sourcing materials for current projects.  We apply this way of thinking to all scales of work, from buildings to furniture.

2. How do you organize the less creative parts of your business so you still have time, energy and focus to practice your craft?

While we agree that it’s time consuming, we would disagree that running a business isn’t creative.  Design and business are both based on problem solving and you can be creative about it or take a cookie cutter approach.  It isn’t always our favorite topic, but we have been more successful because of integrating it into our design methodology.  As a nascent design firm you can’t afford not to.  The minute you see [business] as part of the design parameters, it becomes an inspirational challenge rather than a nuisance.

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3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

We have been inspired by some really successful social enterprise non-profits.  We recently worked with one who had shifted to this model and increased their income by tenfold.  This is inspiring because while technically a non-profit, they aren’t at the mercy of donations and are in a much better position to actually help others.  Our work is helped by a lot of people in our community but you can’t overstep your bounds.  We have seen that people are more likely jump on board with something if you have a solid base.

Can you tell us more about the social enterprise non-profit model?

The idea of a social enterprise is somewhere between non-profit and for-profit in that it follows the rules of a non-profit (having a board, donation and tax requirements, etc.) but it is focused on making a profit through some kind of enterprise.  That profit is then put back in or redirected to internal projects without funding.

An inspiring social enterprise is Vancouver’s Potluck Cafe and Catering. They are now 90% self sufficient with catering/cafe sales, all while employing a variety of people within the Downtown Eastside. Any external funding allows them to do special projects (renovate or expand, for instance) and a lot of their donations come in the form of food from local stores who need to get rid of, say, 50 pumpkins because they have no capacity to use them on short notice.  Potluck, in turn, made a bunch of pumpkin- and squash-based goods for the holidays at little cost to them and then were able to pass savings on and turn a profit.

That profit goes back into the business to keep it going and doing more great things for the community.  The cafe, being a relatively small group, also teams up with others with similar interests and models to share and provide better purchasing power in the market — something that has also been working for us.  It’s not design per se, but it is an interesting and well-thought out model and I think there is design in that.

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4. How many revenue streams do you have in your business?

Five.  Fixed-fee contract design work, fixed fee contract build work, hourly consultant work, educational consultant work, and retail sales.  There might be more… diverse incomes have kept us afloat and allowed for exploration and experimentation.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Contract architecture work.  This pays the bills.  But if we did this all the time we couldn’t explore other avenues, so the other sources of income go back into our business.

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6. Do you have a passive income stream?

We have some found objects — furniture and lighting that bring in some retail sales.  Some small investments as well.

7. What tools or money-making opportunities & ideas do you think most artists don’t fully exploit?

It’s always amazing to us the number of young design entrepreneurs who don’t have business cards and websites.  This combo will bring you the most bang for your buck, even if you’re just starting out.  As far as physical tools go, try to share and exchange services and overhead as much as possible.  Good relationships will come out of this.  Most importantly, you have to allow for some experimentation and exploration with your own time and money.  Clients aren’t always willing to give you so much flexibility, but you don’t procure commissions without having a built body of work.  Most designers can’t get by on a resume — even if it’s spectacular.  You have to put a lot of time upfront to show that you’re capable and so the early processes of making is extremely important.  We believe strongly in compensated work, but you have to put yourself out there first — then the opportunities will open up.

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8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Though diverse in practice, our approach and ethos is very clear and distinct — we have set ourselves apart and this has been the best thing for us. It brings us closer to those who share similar passions, while providing a guiding light for our work.  It’s a lot better than some marketing strategy, because the branding is built-in.  People see it for what it is.  Some may decide it’s not for them, but those that do will seek you out rather than just say “oh, that’s kind of nice.”

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9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career? What has been the biggest waste of time and / or money?

Making things has been the best investment.  You have to be creating — constantly.  Ideas are great, but we’ve found that people really relate to things in a more visceral way.  This may be the crux of a young architect’s struggles, because it’s hard to build a lot in your young career and even if you do, it’s probably not a prominent structure with lots of exposure.  Our secret may be that the small scale stuff has led to larger scale commissions because it is relatable, accessible and conveys our larger vision.

The biggest waste of time is directly related — not making things.  If you spend too much time in your head or even in a computer design program, then you’re missing key opportunities to move forward.  We find that it’s always different in reality, so to speak.  Those differences are not barriers, but will expedite the process by providing key sparks of inspiration and information you couldn’t possibly foresee without the materials in hand.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? Do you believe it’s possible to sell out?

Because we believe business and design are quite intimately linked, I’m not sure one could truly sell out. Some might think that being true to your craft means you aren’t making money, but for us, being true to our vision has brought us income and business.  We think that (reasonable) profit is in part a sign of a well designed business.  It’s more like “selling-in” and believing that your craft is worth something — to you and to others.

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Thanks, Alex & Courtney!

posted 8 Dec 09 in: business, design, interviews. This post currently has 2 responses.

2 Responses so far. Add Your Own.

I will never look at a colander the same way again. Thanks for this inspiring piece…must tape this to my forehead..”diverse incomes have kept us afloat and allowed for exploration and experimentation.”

 

Thanks, Lissa. I’ve certainly been eyeing my clothes hangers with new appreciation!

cheri / 17 Jan 10
 

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