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Sunday Best Put To the Test: Designers Breathe New Life Into Old Industry

Jaime Salm, one half of the duo behind Philadelphia design firm, MIO Culture, kept noticing the hats in the window of the little shop at 12th and Vine that he'd pass most days on his way to lunch. Hats "for churchgoing ladies," as he describes them, aren't exactly his style. Salm designs modern, eco-friendly furniture, lighting, and accessories that have been written up in urbane publications including Metropolis and Elle Décor Italy. Still, the creations spoke to Salm, even more so when he discovered they were made in Philadelphia at a millinery called S&S Hat Company that's been producing church-lady toppers since 1923.

Salm contacted S&S, and the production manager (who doubles as a hat designer) gave him a tour that included original wooden hat blocks dating back to the 1800s. The MIO designer was immediately inspired to collaborate with the factory on a project making use of those blocks and of felt, the milliner's staple. After considering the material and realizing how rarely it's recognized for its translucence, he designed two lights: the Capsule Light, a two-toned pendant lamp that resembles a gel capsule; and the Shroom Light, a tabletop lamp with organic flair.

The lights were launched to great acclaim, garnering attention from design magazines and blogs. The collaboration with one of the last remaining working millineries on the East Coast was a sexy story that bolstered the products' success. For Salm, though, the partnership was more intuitive than remarkable. "There are a lot of good manufacturers out there," he says. "It's just a matter of finding the people who specialize and developing a project that fits their strengths." MIO and S&S followed up with SoftBowls, three styles of molded-wool bowls that are essentially upside-down hats. Salm got the idea when he spied a hat holding sequins during a factory visit.

This unlikely marriage of a young, cutting-edge firm known for smart, economically produced design and a factory specializing in "Sunday" hats with giant bows and sequins is one that could've only happened in this particular time and place. Salm may not have gone on to work with S&S if they weren't his neighbors in the city's Loft District. During much of Philadelphia's "workshop of the world" era from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, this northern swathe of the city was swarming with factories and mills. Of course many of these industrial buildings have long since been converted into lofts, studios, and gallery space, but today's up and coming designers are sniffing out the operational ones. Yesterday's gritty factory is today's diamond in the rough for a designer eager to fulfill the "locally made" criterion that ranks high on his sustainability checklist.

Blue Red Yellow is another firm working with an industrial partner that dates back to Philadelphia's "workshop" days. A small group of University of the Arts students and graduates launched the company this summer with the help of a $2,700 start-up grant from the university's Corzo Center Creative Incubator. Blue Red Yellow produces clothing made with locally sourced fabric that's dyed naturally using locally grown plants-- the colors in the company's name refer to dyes made from indigo, madder root and marigolds.

Elissa Meyers, one of Blue's founders, heard about Fessler USA from a friend at ASK Apparel in Nashville. She reached out to the Deer Lake, Schuylkill County--based textile manufacturer that was founded in 1900 to make cotton underwear and today makes knit cotton fabric and clothes for private labels. For their first few batches of shirts, Blue Red Yellow will use backstock of Fessler's organic cotton made in North Carolina. While researching Fessler, Meyers found out about other textile mills in the area that have been operating since the late 1800s. In time, Meyers hopes to approach Woolrich, another venerable Pennsylvania manufacturer.

The trend of industry partnering with design works both ways. A few local manufacturers have sought out partnerships with contemporary designers to change their image and resuscitate their brand. Emeco, a company founded in 1944 to produce lightweight, indestructible chairs for Navy ships and submarines has reinvented itself as a kind of atelier-manufacturer for the modernism-minded. The company, based in Hanover, York County, has collaborated on chairs and other furniture with design superstars including Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Ettore Sottsass. The owner's decision to take the company down this path rescued it from certain death, allowing for the reinstatement of a second shift at the factory and a swift climb in revenue.

Monroe Systems for Business, the Levittown, Bucks County company that introduced the first commercial calculator in 1912, is another example. The desktop printing calculator, a boring black box that's ubiquitous in accountants' offices, is the company's bread and butter. A few years ago CEO Dick Roberts decided it needed a makeover. He tapped former Philadelphia industrial designer Josh Owen, the man behind such clever products as lamps shaped like bowling pins, a magnetic fly swatter, and a versatile stool that's in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou, to rethink a product that hadn't been rethought since, well, 1912. The resulting model, the 8125, reduced the desktop footprint of the machine by thirty percent, enlarged the viewing screen, clarified the keytop graphics, and provides the consumer the choice of a translucent green or smoky grey paper-roll cover. The response at trade shows was overwhelming, and Monroe's revenue increased by 10 percent in the year after the launch.

At last May's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, a giant trade show in New York that attracts all the big names in design, MIO launched its fourth collaboration with S&S. The 2,000+ Hat Collection allows the consumer to customize a hat with 2,000+ variations. After working with S&S on lighting, bowls, and laptop cases, Salm decided he wanted to see all those beautiful blocks being used for their original intent. "Hats are hot," he says, "and S&S was just selling to the churchgoing ladies." The customizable collection exploits the many shapes made available by the blocks plus the extensive rainbow of felt colors, but it also highlights the benefits of manufacturing right here in our backyard. "Being able to create custom is the advantage of working in the U.S.," says Salm. "You're not going to get that from China."

CAROLINE TIGER is a Philadelphia-based freelance author and journalist who writes often about design. Read more of her work here. Send feedback here.


Jaime Salm, creative director at Mio

Salm in the Mio showroom

Jaime Salm

Mio's Softbowl caps

Mio's Tyvek reusable tote

Salm doing his thing in the company workshop

Products for sale in the Mio showroom

Mio designers Steve Benchovk and Julie Conrad

Mio's Softbowls

All Photographs by Michael Persico

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