Making It

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By Margaret Webb Pressler
Sunday, July 22, 2007

For years, John Swartz wasn't sure what he wanted. Devoted to good design, he had trained at one of the nation's best art schools, Cranbrook in Michigan. He spent his early professional life, at first in New York, then in the District, building an admirable -- though not especially profitable -- career as a woodworker making custom furniture for an elite clientele.

But something was missing. "I knew it wasn't right, and I couldn't figure out why," he recalls. "People loved what I did, but I was totally not happy."

He found the answer working not in natural materials, but in a man-made one: neoprene. A wine bag he created with a friend out of the spongy, insulating material met with instant success. It is now the centerpiece of BuiltNY, a company with sales expected to reach $20 million this year.

What John wanted, it turns out, was to spread the appreciation of good design to others for the purpose of making life more enjoyable. It was a philosophy he acquired as an art student in Italy, where the culture valued everyday objects that were "aesthetically powerful."

John co-founded BuiltNY in 2003 while living with his wife, then a photography teacher, and young son in a tiny townhouse at 13th and S streets NW, which he had renovated himself. By day he was making furniture at a studio in Northeast, but in the evenings he would share with family and friends his desire to do something -- what? -- that was bigger, and had more impact in the world of design. His good friend in New York, Aaron Lown, was designing handbags for Kate Spade and shared the same frustration. They decided to design a product together and began looking for something that needed a makeover. They soon realized that a wine bag was a good niche, because the only competition around "was a burlap bag with grapes printed on it."

In 2001, they began faxing their design ideas back and forth between Washington and New York. The result was a practical bag with an elegantly simple appearance. On Google, they found a neoprene manufacturer in Taiwan. They got advice from a friend in finance, who is now a partner in the company. With their credit cards maxed out, they borrowed $30,000 from friends and placed an order for 10,000 totes, which arrived in July 2003.

Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art store was their first customer, providing instant credibility. In 2004, the company sold several hundred thousand bags and had $3.5 million in revenue. Journalists would call to ask if the $16 tote was available in this or that city, and John would start calling stores -- often with his 3-year-old in the background -- to set up accounts. Then he'd tell the journalist "yes."

John and his wife, then pregnant with twins, moved to New York in mid-2004. BuiltNY now makes neoprene lunch bags and baby bibs, too. Its first non-neoprene items, a corkscrew, ice bucket and kids' plastic lunch bags -- also both practical and sleekly designed -- debut next month.

"I feel like this is what I was always meant to do. I just didn't know it," John says.

Have you also created a product with an innovative design -- and made a profit? E-mail presslerm@washpost.com.


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