We all strive for the destination but the journey is where the story lies. These are words I keep at the forefront of my mind on a constant basis, it’s the very reason the “People” section was created. We talk to the people behind the brands, behind the companies and get to know them and their story. Learn what makes then tick and what inspires them to do more than just work another 9 to 5.
I came across Shawn Reed the man behind Form Function Form from Jeremiah at Aheadlong Dive and I am so happy that Jeremiah introduced us. Today we release one of the most intimate People interviews yet.
A&H: How was your childhood? Did it have anything to do with inspiring you to start FFF?
Shawn Reed: I grew up all over the U.S.: New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida. My mother and I were poor—government cheese poor—and we moved a lot; I was in 13 different schools before 8th grade. I’d say that did have an effect on my mindset and inspiration, in that I always had to work and play with what I had access to: I had to figure it out, because nobody else would, and I didn’t have an easy person that was always around to ask. I see that paralleling the entrepreneurial process in general, but also my own particular design aesthetic. So much of my product line is about finding beautiful things and highlighting them above their intended use, not totally unlike finding things around the house that your imagination built into swords, laser blasters, or army fortresses. I just get to imagine brand new things now, and figure out a way to build them and have fun doing it.
A&H: Have you always worked with your hands?
SR: In a sense, yes…I’ve always been building or taking something apart: computers, VCRs, cars, stereo systems (I finally designed and installed the stereo system I’ve wanted for 10 years in my car, and it’s absolutely phenomenal. I refuse to act like a grown up). That said, I’ve also been a bit of a geeky kid at the same time. I read maniacally, and can spend a whole day immersed in anything from classics like Dickens and Austen to economics/poli-sci books to fantasy/sci-fi novels. I’ve parlayed my diverse interests into a decade-long career after undergrad as a landscape architect, and then basically taught myself economics sufficiently to get a scholarship and stipend toward a master’s degree. So, I came to a design and business venture with related (though divergent) backgrounds, but mostly a confidence that I can learn whatever I need to do to get a new product out. Going back to what I said above: I know that if something is going to be done, I’ve got to figure it out…so I’ve learned and done a lot of different things.
SR: form•function•form “doesn’t have a plan” in the sense that I imagine an MBA plans for things: with loads of charts and market research and ex-post analysis of trends and blah, blah, blah. I have the great and enviable position of getting to make things that are fun and creative, and interacting with customers and others in the industry on a daily basis. People who buy my products seem to love them, so I get all that positivity, and I’ve been honored to have some great feedback and reviews from some incredible blogs. So…my plan-that-isn’t-a-plan is to keep making things and grow in a way that makes sense to me and still allows me to maintain contact with people that I enjoy—both people in business spheres and personal spheres. If either one seems to be failing, I’ll revisit the question of what the business “is.” I’ve had enough personal things happen in my life to realize that we can’t do much more than intend, hope, pray, and react. So long as people keep finding my products worthwhile, and want to support what I’m doing, I’ll keep making unique stuff that celebrates beautiful, functional materials.
A&H: What type of material do you use when creating your hand crafted goods and how large of role does quality play?
SR: Quality is really what I’m looking for. In fact, I think I see “quality” as being the optimum interrelationship between form and function: A product that is both beautiful in form and resiliently practical in function is a quality piece. I learned a long time ago that, more often than not, whenever I use something that seems cheap-but-good-enough, I end up regretting it. Just knowing that there is a different thing that would have been just a little more useful, just a little more beautiful, just a little more durable than what I selected bothers me. So, now, I opt for fewer things that are higher quality, versus more things that are mediocre quality. That preference is not for everyone, of course, but it’s what I choose to do, and since my brand produces things that I like, my customers are people who choose to appreciate that same caliber of goods. I want people to be able to look at one of our products and say, “I’ve never had one of these before, but I know that I can trust that this particular one is not going to fall apart on me, because that’s the level of quality that form•function•form demands.”
As far as specific materials, the backbone of our leather goods is Horween leather. They have been producing leather in Chicago since 1905, and that sort of longevity is obviously deserved once you handle some of their fine product. If anyone hasn’t seen leather that is just outright remarkable, I suggest they treat themselves to some time with Horween Chromexcel. My personal favorite is the Natural. Be warned. Once you get into good leather you won’t be able to get by with department store junk and you’ll end up buying fewer things that are higher quality.
A&H: Along with you, I reside in the not-so-stylish capital of the world, Florida. Do you ever see this changing?
SR: I have an awful lot of friends in Florida, and I love them a lot. I, however, rarely love their wardrobe choices. Though to be fair, the state is basically Satan’s slightly-cooler-vacation-home for 9 months of the year, so that can put a damper on what people are willing to try, sartorially. As far as that changing…I’ll try not to put on my economist hat here, and give you a million qualifications: Yes, things can change. As long as there are intelligent people explaining what the benefits of dressing and presenting yourself well are, in a way that is tailored to the cultural and climate realities we deal with, things can absolutely get better. Honestly, just be the dude who is the best dressed in the room for a couple months, don’t be a snob about it, and other people will notice. How could that not have some effect on the margin toward them modifying their personal presentation. I’m convinced that once someone decides to step up their style game, the positive reinforcement from friends, coworkers, and even strangers is strong motivation to maintain the trend.
A&H: What are some of the ups and downs with being an entrepreneur and starting a business?
SR: The biggest “down” of starting a business in a new and relatively unexplored field is the space of time from when you have the early idea until some nebulous point in the future, where there is some viable, accurate, and valuable feedback (whether that’s an acceptable profit, good reviews, or enough of a personal sense of enjoyment to forge ahead despite not having the first two). Until you get that feedback, you don’t know whether to keep going, change course, or walk away. It’s easier, though, with less of a potential upside, to start a more typical business. If I’d used my undergrad/work experience and started a landscape architecture firm, that wouldn’t have been so nerve-racking. When you don’t follow such a traditional path—when you have a business that prompts people to respond, “Wait…you do what?” after you tell them—you’ve got to step back every once in a while and wonder if you’re just being a complete lunatic. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m incredibly self-critical, and while that always drives me to not settle for a mediocre design, it is an attitude that can beat the life out of me if I’m not careful.
Aside from my own personal struggles, the toughest thing so far has just been navigating business decisions without a mentor. I realized one day, for example, that I have to get a business license with not just the city, but the county, and register with the state, as well as deciding which sort of corporation to form, how to do that, and where to go; all while worrying that if I fill out a form wrong some government agency is going to swoop in and fine me. Not to harp on the “poor kid” aspect, but I have noticed that my friends who grew up in wealthier entrepreneurial families have a huge advantage when it comes to stepping out on their own, just because they saw it happen. They lived the life around someone who was their own boss and lived or died by their own decisions, rather than having a boss to complain about and a clock to punch. Of course, as a result of that, my friends have problems that I don’t (I absolutely know that life is not rainbows and puppies when you’re wealthy), but I think seeing a family member or good friend running a business as I grew up would have been a huge help to me now. To the degree that I can make my brain look at these logistical issues as another design question, and get to have fun figuring out an answer like I do with a new product, I succeed. If I get annoyed at having to deal with “that boring nuts and bolts stuff,” I’m dead.
A&H: What would the Shawn Reed today tell Shawn Reed 15 years ago?
SR: I’m really afraid of that idea. If I went back and told a 15-year-younger me what he was going to have to face, I don’t know that he’d be able to handle it. Deaths of loved ones, soul-quenching personal losses and betrayal, and bouts with a seeping and persistent nihilism are all too much to take preemptively. To bring it back to my design philosophy, I could not have directed the function of my life without having dealt with all of the forms that got me there, and those having been built on the experiences of my past. I’m big on this mutually-reinforcing aesthetic/experiential, design/use thing. We seem to grow organically into who we are, taking things that happen—things that could reasonably swamp us—and folding them into a new design of life that is stronger for having been tested.
Of course, then, the answer is to not tell a younger me the world-rocking stuff, but those things are what formed me, what have played such a part in making me who I am, and shaped my view of the world. It seems that Shawn and this Shawn are so different that all I could do would be to encourage him to just keep finding things to enjoy, and maybe not take every subject in school so damn seriously. Goof off a little more; don’t worry about doing so many things to build yourself a resume and figure out later that you really enjoyed almost none of them, and did nothing truly excellent in any of them, despite checking off a list of impressive credentials.
Photography by Kelian Photography