Were you making technical drawings like this for your BFA thesis in Stamps?
Not exactly. Although, for my thesis I was 3D modeling my illustrations in Rhino, prior to 3D printing them. My professional work has never required me to create these technical drawings. Each factory employs technicians who use a special software to create these renderings. I may send the factory a concept to start with, for example a sketch. Or I might send them a technical drawing of a frame that already exists in the collection and say, “We’re going to change the construction. We’re going to change the eye size, bridge size etc.” The factory will then implement those changes in the technical drawing and return it to me for approval. At that point, I may have some fine-tuning comments before approving the drawing for production. It’s very much an engineering job. Not much of my educational experience would have prepared me for that. When I began the job, I assumed that it was going to be far more design than engineering, but I think a good eyewear designer needs to have a good feel for both.
How did you learn all of the engineering skills on the job? Were your employers open to you asking questions?
Yeah, that’s the only way to do it. You just have to keep practicing the craft and asking lots of questions. I was very close with my co-workers, many of whom had been designing eyewear for a long time. Luckily, I could always bounce ideas off them, or get a second pair of eyes. Until after a while, I began picking up on the nuance of eyewear design myself. For example, when I started out, I would have never known that round glasses are typically produced in smaller eye sizes than square, rectangular, or other shaped glasses. That’s just how round frames best fit the human face. If you produce a round frame in the same size as you would a square frame, the glasses will end up looking oversized. There are little nuances like that. It’s impossible to know these things until you’ve spoken to people who have that knowledge, or you’ve done it over and over, OR you’ve received samples that look horrible because you didn’t know. When you’re new to something, you want to be in an environment where people care about your improvement. There was a wealth of knowledge around me at Tura, and people who wanted me to grow as a designer. I’ll always be very appreciative of those who helped me learn and grow during my time with the company.
When you walk around New York City and see people wearing glasses, do you notice that they’re wearing the wrong frame for their face or the wrong size?
It’s funny because I always notice the design, but rarely do I consider whether they’re wearing the right or wrong frame. I guess that speaks to the fact that I’ve always identified more as a designer than an engineer, but either way I’m staring and it’s a horrible habit. I am curious to see what people are wearing — the color, shape, design, brand. As a designer, it’s important to have your finger on the pulse of those things. There have been a couple really cool moments when I’d be on the subway and would see somebody wearing one of the frames I designed. That’s an awesome feeling.
As you were designing for Ted Baker, or Tura, how did your BFA thesis and your own visions for eyewear factor in?
The Stamps art school had encouraged me to think dynamically and to problem-solve abstractly. And I was excited to apply those skills to my work experience, but didn’t always have a chance to while designing for Tura. So, eventually, I decided I needed an outlet — a way to continue channeling some of that abstract thinking. Almost every night after work, I’d go home and work on creating my own eyewear brand. At the time, it was nothing more than a hobby and a creative outlet. But I did take it seriously. I developed a brand, logo, and products that I wanted to be perceived as “artform” even more so than “object.” I was very fortunate to work with some extremely bright people at Tura, who gave me the tools to, ultimately, take this hobby and make it into something real.
When did you shift from designing as a creative outlet to the very real fact of launching your own eyewear brand?
In April of 2020, Tura, along with many other businesses, faced a difficult reality in the wake of the pandemic: they could end up having to go months without sales. As a result, almost the entire design team at Tura was furloughed. When that happened, I picked up my hobby, which was my mock eyewear brand, and started to take it more seriously. I’d say “Alright, what would it cost me to start this business? What licenses do I need to apply for? Do I need to form an LLC? Which factory would I produce with?” It was thrilling to be asking myself those serious questions.
I was asked to come back to work towards the end of June 2020. But by that time, I was so inspired by the challenge of turning my hobby into a job, my heart was no longer into designing for Ted Baker. At this point, I felt like my project was in a good place and it was time to go for it. I spoke to friends and family to make sure that the people I put my trust in supported the decision. Everybody said, “Go for it.” On the surface it seemed like a risky endeavor, but there’s so much value and experience to be gained by trying something like this. It was going to be a first-rate educational experience at the minimum. So, I resigned from Tura in October 2020 and was ready to roll up my sleeves.
Were there any surprises or challenges when you started?
The first few months on my own were difficult. At my old job, I’d go into work with a list of tasks that I needed to get done in a given day; a list that was often predicated by my boss. I’d cross things off the list as I went through the day, and leave work feeling a sense of accomplishment, and productivity.
When I was on my own, that list was no longer predicated by my boss. It was incumbent on me to outline my goals and daily responsibilities. It took time to understand just how disciplined I’d have to be. I’d have to set goals by the day, by the week, by the month, and by the year. But once I did that, I was able to get into a rhythm and start feeling that sense of accomplishment again. For me, that’s a feeling I need each day to stay motivated.
What’s your design sensibility for the brand and the collection?
In addition to paying homage to my grandmother, the brand is geared towards creative individuals who add vibrance to everyday life. If you think of the world as a black-and-white coloring book, these are the people who color it in — making it a world worth living. Perhaps they write a song that moves you to tears, or design a building that changes your expectations of what a building should look like. To me, these are very important contributions to everyday life, and I wanted to create a brand that honors these contributors. Les Monts, “the mountains,” is symbolic of the uphill journey these fearless creatives — any many others — must endure as they find their footing and ultimately make their mark in the world.
From a design standpoint, I wanted to create something I was proud of. As we touched on earlier, there are limitations when you’re designing for another brand. Ted Baker already had a handful of signature details. It was my job to decide when and where to implement those details, but what I really wanted to do was to create my own set of signature details. That’s part of what makes a brand “yours.” Les Monts sunglasses have several signature details that you won’t find in any other brand.
I’ve also always wanted to work with thicker acetate. While that’s not a signature detail per say, it does give Les Monts a bit of a signature aesthetic. Thicker acetate is more expensive, but it affords you the opportunity to take a more artistic approach to design. I think of acetate in the same way I would a piece of marble. If you have a very thin slab of marble, you’re limited as to how you can sculpt it — your sculpture probably won’t have much dimension. But, if that slab is double or triple the thickness, suddenly you have more material to manipulate. The dimension of your sculpture will be more dramatic, and potentially more interesting. Acetate as it pertains to constructing a pair of glasses is similar in some respects.
You prefer to work with cellulose acetate, which sounded like a plasticky material when you first told me about it, even though you describe it as handmade. I looked it up and learned that it’s a natural compound from wood pulp and cotton.
That’s right. Cellulose acetate is regarded as the highest quality plastic you can use when it comes to producing plastic eyewear. The other option is “injection plastic,” which is exactly what it sounds like. With injection, you have a mold in the shape of a frame. Liquid plastic is injected into that mold. It comes out in a few minutes, you slap a logo on it, and it goes to the store. Injection is convenient. It can cost $5.00 or less to produce a pair of sunglasses. But there are significant drawbacks from a quality standpoint. Injection frames not adjustable and the material can’t be manipulated after it’s cooled.
I love handmade goods. I love the fact that they’re enriched by the human touch, so injection never made sense as a material for me. Cellulose acetate is a sustainable, high-quality, handmade material. Manufacturers have been working for generations to perfect these beautiful slabs of rich material, which can take several months to cure after they’re made. Producing eyewear from cellulose acetate is a far more hands-on process than injection. It’s truly a magnificent material to work with.
You also have several options when it comes to making metal frames. You can use nickel silver, stainless steel, or if you’re producing a high-end collection, you might choose to work with titanium. Titanium is completely hypoallergenic, highly flexible and extremely durable. But more than anything, it’s known for its featherweight properties which provide optimal comfort. It’s more expensive to work with titanium than it is other metals, but if we’re talking about comfort and quality — in my opinion, the price tag is warranted.
How do you start your design process?
When you’re designing a cohesive collection, many of your designs are going to have the same, or similar, details. This is important because that thread of consistency makes the collection recognizable. The frame shapes may change dramatically from one to another, but those signature details make it so each frame feels a part of the same family. So, I first studied how other brands utilize signature details, and what types of signature details they use. Then, I created my own version of signature details for Les Monts.
To give you an example. This is called the “temple tip.”