Product design. It’s been a part of Aaron Lown’s life from the get-go. Literally. Raised in Bangor, Maine, his grandfather owned the Lown Shoe Co. and Penobscot Shoe Co., which his father eventually took over. “I basically grew up around shoe prototypes and leather swatches. My dad was always bringing home pieces of leather samples saying, ‘feel this, smell this.’”
Meanwhile, his mother, a modern dancer, was telling young Aaron, “Don’t buy it if you can make it.” Which is what he did every summer at his family’s summer home in Unity, Maine, which didn’t have a TV. Sometimes it was finger weaving, other times making pillows. “I always liked working with my hands.” His mom took notice and enrolled Aaron in a summer camp devoted to woodworking and pottery (Jonathan Adler was a fellow camper). Back from camp armed with these new skills, plus his dad’s entrepreneurial sensibilities and his mother’s resourcefulness, Aaron set up a workshop in his parents’ basement and began selling his wood objects to local shops. Another summer was spent in RISD’s architecture program. “I learned that that discipline wasn’t for me. I wanted something more tangible, more immediate. Dream it up, make it, have it.”
More gratifying was a high-school printmaking class. So much so that Aaron entered Parsons School of Design thinking he’d study graphic design. But he chose industrial design instead. During his sophomore year, Villeroy & Boch sponsored a competition for Parsons students to design a tea set; the winners would spend the summer in Germany producing limited editions in the company’s factory. Aaron’s set won, and that summer was an influential one for him. “I realized then that I wanted to be involved in industrial mass production.”
Back at Parsons, he was newly rejuvenated to create. Much like those days in his parents’ basement, he made vases and mugs and sold them to New York stores like Dot Zero (its owner, Kevin Brynan, went on to open Mxyplyzyk). After graduating in 1990, Aaron worked for two designers who were Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates. By the next year, he’d begun his graduate studies at Cranbrook , and an increasing fascination with materials had taken root. Focusing on industrial design his first year, he did an internship that summer at the renowned design consultancy IDEO, which turned out to be another valuable experience.
Back at Cranbrook, he switched to designing furniture, but from a materials-exploration standpoint; his first piece was a stool made from fiberglass, leather, and cast aluminum. Back in New York after graduating, Aaron set up a workshop/studio in a TriBeCa loft. Aaron’s stint at IDEO as well as a college internship at MoMA turned out be significant. A young, new MoMA curator named Paola Antonelli was planning her first show, “Mutant Materials In Contemporary Design,” and had called IDEO president Tim Brown looking for young, new designers. He mentioned Aaron, and his Hi-Ho Stool made of fiberglass-leather-and-aluminum made it into the exhibit. Aaron was all of 25-years-old.
Soon after, he was hired to start the materials library at the Material ConneXion. Aaron was also designing and building Bergdorf Goodman window displays and teaching at Parsons, the latter sending him to Kanazawa, Japan, for two years to set-up the Product Design department at KIDI Parsons. He took his then girlfriend and now wife Elizabeth, a graphic designer at Burton he met at Cranbrook, and the two immersed themselves in the culture, studying Japanese calligraphy and traditional craftsmanship. When they returned to Manhattan, Aaron began renovating a house he’d inherited in Tuxedo Park, New York. Not too surprisingly, he also began doing work for Calvin Klein designing women’s shoes. “Designing shoes had always been in the back of my mind since I was a kid.”
Calvin Klein led to Kate Spade, and shoes led to handbags. Then a neighbor, a wine importer, asked Aaron to design a stylish leather satchel for his salespeople to carry wine in. It was exquisite—Francis Ford Coppola bought several—but at $450, expensive. A friend with whom Aaron was designing furniture, came on board to help sell it, but it still wasn’t right. However, they did see the need for a wine bag—one that was simple, functional, well designed, and, most importantly, accessibly priced. The “A-ha!” moment arrived when Aaron pulled out a swatch of neoprene from their collective box of scrap materials, and the concept for BUILT was born.
BUILT was officially launched in 2003 by Aaron and his grad school classmate John Swartz. Aaron headed up the design and marketing, and they launched the company with the One and Two Bottle Tote. In 2004 they debuted both products at the New York International Gift Fair and the response from buyers and press was overwhelming—in two days they took $100,000 in orders from retailers including the MoMA Store. Later that year the Two Bottle Tote won the prestigious Gold Award in Business Week’s annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA). By 2005 they had sold one million totes and their next product, the Lunch Tote, won the Gold IDEA award for a consecutive year.
For the next 10 years, Aaron guided the design team using principles based in the tradition of American industrial design and the belief that form is as important as function, and color is the glue that binds them together. He expanded the lunch line and designed the Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote in 2006, which would become the company’s best-selling product that continues to sell today. That same year, he created the iconic Laptop Sleeve with its proprietary hourglass design. By 2012, BUILT products were sold in more than 50 countries worldwide.
In 2014, Aaron decided it was time to move on from BUILT. He set up a creative studio in Newburgh, New York called Industrial Craft, and is currently working on a myriad of designs, both self initiated as well as client based. Some of this work can be viewed at IndustrialCraftCollection.com