We had the pleasure of speaking with Geoff and Valerie Franklin, a husband and wife team that designs and manufacturers leather and wood accessories through Walnut Studiolo in Portland, Oregon. They spoke with us about their design philosophies, their manufacturing capabilities, and the robust design scene in Portland that’s rooted in cross-brand collaborations.
At a glance
- » What they make: unique leather and wood accessories
- » Ideal client: anyone from beginner to established brand
- » Response rate: 100%
- » Location: Portland, Oregon
- » Maker’s Row profile: https://makersrow.com/walnut-studiolo
- » Fun fact: architect Frank Lloyd Wright is a design inspiration for the company
Catering to City Culture
Walnut Studiolo is a brand that manufactures in-house and does private label manufacturing. They’re a husband and wife team who started off making leather bike accessories. In 2009, the Franklins moved from Oregon City to Inner Portland and were bicycle commuting to work. They began making bike accessories for themselves that they couldn’t find anywhere else. Geoff has an architecture background and is well-versed design – his first product was a leather U-Lock holster. Valerie put the product online for sale.
Craft fairs and favorable press in popular media for bicycling enthusiasts, such as Bike Portland (a writeup later roasted in Bike Snob NYC), helped the brand gain fame. Since Portland is a pioneer cycling city that the world looks to, word got out quickly. Soon, bigger news outlets like Gizmodo, were publicizing the brand.
Minimalist Design Principles
The supply chain is hyperlocal. All of the leather is sourced from Oregon Leather Company and tanned in the USA. Hardware is sourced from American suppliers as well. The brand’s design philosophy is rooted in durability and environmentalism. Although bike accessories remain their bread and butter, the company has expanded to making leather and wood drawer pulls and travel games as well. Their products are niche but all ones that the couple would want themselves – they include a hand-stitched leather blueprint holder, a leather and wood six-pack holder for bicycle frames, and a travel cribbage board they have been shipping worldwide.
Geoff is an architect by training, which he views as an umbrella design degree. He believes in minimalism – a simple and clean look without unnecessary embellishments. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and modern architecture, he applies principles of designing buildings to designing products.
Web of Community Mentorship
The design and manufacturing community in Portland is very open and growing rapidly. It’s common for larger brands or experienced designers to mentor smaller businesses. For example, Tanner Goods is the “grandaddy of leather and does terrific work” – they’ve collaborated and mentored with smaller design houses like Walnut Studiolo. Walnut Studiolo also worked with the Portland Growler Company (a Martha Stewart favorite) on a popular growler with a leather handle. These types of intracity relationships are commonplace. How did Walnut Studiolo go about seeking those relationships? “In most cases, through simple cold calls.”
On a larger level, an organization called Portland Made brings together Portland makers and small manufacturers. MadeHere PDX is a retail store featuring Portland makers. The Small Business Development Center and Portland Business Alliance are good resources for business advice.
The Urban Fabric Awakens
Have they seen changes to the city as it develops? “Oh absolutely – it’s in a state of growing pains, honestly! Everything is happening so fast.” The city is a latecomer compared to others on the Western seaboard. What makes Portland unique is a “great but stringent” urban planning system that emphasizes public transportation and controlled expansion. The city can’t build outside certain boundaries, which forced it to build upwards.
A conglomerate of previously sleepy small towns are now “being smushed together into a big city.” There are many new condos and constant construction. The Franklins’ neighborhood has an amazing strip of food called “Restaurant Row” on Division Street. People are reacting to development in different ways – some are displeased about increasing presence of cars on bike roads, for example.
What makes the city attractive to designers and manufacturers is its independent spirit. It’s undergoing a “Renaissance” as creatives from all over the country are flocking there. The Franklins enjoy a mentality of “working to live, not living to work,” and the supportiveness that derives from that. “If we had started on the East Coast, people might not have understood us. Here, there’s an acceptance of makers and dreamers.” Their one hope is that the developing city is able to incorporate space for making and manufacturing to continue. Some solutions include lower-rent basements or revised zoning laws.
A Guide to Portland
Although working as husband and wife is not for everyone, Geoff and Valerie “love it.” They have separate areas of expertise – he designs and makes; she does “everything else.” When they started, the two had full-time jobs, but an economic downturn in their respective industries (architecture and wind energy) pushed both towards venturing on their own. In retrospect, “the stars aligned.”
The two shared with some of their favorite Portland spots:
- Shopping: MadeHere PDX, across the street from Powell’s, the largest independent bookstore in the country; Union Way, a larger mall for establish Portland brands.
- Food: “There’s so much good food, we could write a book about it!” Check out the food cart pods, especially Tidbit Food and Garden on Division Street. A truck there sells bulgogi cheesesteak.
- Outdoors: Mt. Tabor Park is a volcanic cinder cone in the Southeast part of the city – it’s a nice workout to the top and a beautiful view of downtown and Hawthorne, another shopping and eating strip.
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