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In the Toy Box: Ot/tra by Zimmerman Workshop

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Brooklyn-based Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design debuted its new furniture company Ot/tra by Zimmerman Workshop at the Architectural Digest Design Show last March. Named after co-founder Sofia and Adam Zimmerman’s two children, Ot/tra designs and handcrafts furniture for workplace, hospitality, and residential interiors.

Catenary, the brand’s first collection, includes two barstool styles, a table in three sizes, two coffee tables, as well as a chair, side table, and bench inspired by Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch and George Nelson’s Platform Bench. All of the handcrafted pieces are available in four wood finishes (white ash, natural oak, walnut, and blackened oak). According to Sofia, the company is also focusing on custom fabrication, with recent pieces including a 30′-long bench/table, a bar cabinet with integrated refrigerator, and a jewelry armoire piece.

Architect’s Toybox asked the Zimmermans about their new company and the logistics of officially branching out from architectural projects into product design.

Architect’s Toybox: Ot/tra is named after your two children. How did you two meet?

Sofia: It is! Otto is 6 and Petra will be 3 in a few weeks. As much as the blending of their names made for a neat name, it’s also pretty fitting because we learn so much from them. Watching them play, listening to their stories…it’s all a reminder that kids are full of imagination and creativity. We can learn a lot from channeling that childlike curiosity. We also have a sweet Westie, Dolly June, and she’s by our side at work every day. The next venture we’ll name after her…or at least a line of dog beds!

Adam: We met over a cup of coffee to see if we’d be compatible roommates. Sofia had a lead on an amazing place in Brooklyn. I was three hours off the plane after moving to New York City in 2007 with nothing more than a suitcase in desperate need of a place to live. Sofia was forward enough to say what we both were thinking…that we’d be better off dating instead. Two years later we were married, and not long after that, we started Zimmerman Workshop.

ATB: Who are some of your favorite furniture designers?

Adam: As an architect, I gravitate towards architect designed pieces. Maybe that’s a result of my education and training. Then again, I don’t like all architect designed furniture so it could be the result of shared tendencies with the ones I do enjoy. The work on Noguchi, Nakashima, Eames, and Mies are all wonderful and very influential to me. Each have at least one piece that I define as a masterpiece, but as much as anything I love hearing their stories. I love hearing about their failures as much as their successes and the associated timelines around their life’s works. I love understanding what they designed when as much as the piece itself. The what and when tells an entire backstory about what was going on when they did it. I also love that they branched out into something slightly different by putting their “widget on a shelf” for anyone to purchase and enjoy.

I could go on for quite a while here including Nelson, Thonet, Breuer, Alto, Wegner, Paulin. Seems like every time I open another magazine there’s something inside that blows me away. We have a library of furniture and design books at the office and the reality is that there’s so much great design everywhere, it becomes infectious and inspiring. It also makes me want to get back to work.

Most recently, I discovered the work of Robert Stadler in an exhibition at the Noguchi Museum in Queens. His Anywhere Lights and Tephra Formations are genius.

ATB: How many employees do you have?

Adam: Our current team is five people including Sofia and I. We’re technically two companies, but it’s all the same place, at least for the time being. We also have a few consultants we call upon, as well as a sales rep. This is where having the architecture firm first really helped us…we’ve built up a pretty good rolodex of smart, savvy people over the years!

ATB: What percentage of time is spent on the architecture practice vs. the product design/fabrication?

Adam: For a period of about a year we spent quite a bit of time on Ot/tra. I am the ever optimist and totally underestimated how much time it would take to do it right. I would say during that year was almost 50/50. Zimmerman Workshop has always been our primary focus. Our clients come first, so under no circumstances would we short our efforts with any project, so we had had to double time it, even working a lot of weekends. We also treated Ot/tra as a project in and of itself which meant we did not solicit as much new work for Zimmerman Workshop during that period. We’ve now gotten to a great position where we have the right people working with us.

ATB: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the premiere collection?

Adam: It really happened by accident. We designed an island for our friend’s kitchen in Connecticut several years ago. A year or so later I wanted to re-design the concept into our conference table, and we had a local artisan build it for us. Immediately after we started fielding quite a few questions from vendors, contractors, and clients during meetings asking where they could get one. At that point we thought we were on to something and got excited. We honestly had no intentions at first of developing a furniture collection, at least at that point in time. After playing with it a little, the table transitioned nicely into the bench, then the coffee table. We discovered how we could manipulate the geometry, so we added the lounge chair, barstools, and the chairs. Now we’re still making subtle modifications into new pieces. Soon we’re excited to show a new leg concept for shorter benches and a console table.

The original island in Connecticut came as an almost whimsical sketch inspired by the Nelson Bench and the St. Louis Arch but with a more contemporary yet soft feeling. The entire concept of that project was a livable modern for a house in the woods.

ATB: What materials do you enjoy working with the most?

Adam: We love the idea of ‘forever pieces.’ The ones made with timeless, high-quality materials that will last for generations, and only get better with age. For now, the obvious choice is wood, but we’re open to exploring other materials. At some point we would love to find ways to work with natural textiles like wool and leather, and even more complex materials like marble and other stones.

ATB: Can you briefly walk us through the logistics of setting up a furniture studio?

Adam: Wow, it’s been a lot of work! There was a point last summer that I sat the team down and put a line in the sand. We were going to launch in September 2016. Little did I know…we just barely made it in time for the AD Show in March 2017. The product design phase was relatively quick, at least given our existing Architecture Studio and resources. But then we had trouble finding a manufacturer so we decided to make everything ourselves. That meant creating a new wood shop from scratch…getting tools, equipment, sourcing materials, and managing a new team. It meant payroll, insurance, rent, utilities and more. We had to build a brand worthy of our standards. We had to develop graphic design, strategy and planning, a new website, and marketing materials. There were a lot of moving parts, and thankfully Sofia and I brought different skill sets to the table. We’re also thankful nobody warned us how hard it would be…maybe we wouldn’t have done it! We’re still doing all of those things, but we kind of realized nothing has to happen overnight. We’re still building Zimmerman Workshop after seven and a half years. The key is not getting ahead of yourself and ensuring quality standards with everything you do. If that means going slower, then so be it.

ATB: What has been the most challenging aspect of product design? Fabrication? Distribution? Do you use the same muscles for product design as you do project design?

Adam: Fabrication has really been tougher than the design for us entirely because we were building our operations while simultaneously building the designs. And, of course, we had very little idea of how to do either at the time!

We do use the same muscles during product design vs. building design, but the mechanisms to build the creation is entirely different. At Zimmerman Workshop we are creating the drawings that someone else must take and execute. At Ot/tra we are building the product and not just once. We have to design with an eye towards repeatable results.

ATB: What are the advantages/disadvantages in working on both project and product design?

Sofia: I think the primary advantage is that there’s relatively instant gratification that comes our way. For a project, we can wait months, even years, to see our work materialize, and it’s dependent on so many factors. With products, we can hunker down in the shop for a week and have something exciting to share, even if it’s just a rough prototype. That’s very satisfying. The disadvantage is more on the business side: providing a service and selling a product, even though they are in some way related, are two very different things. Thankfully, we’ve been specifying furniture for years now and know what makes for a great product, positive experience and repeat business. As we built up Ot/tra, we kept all that in mind. But there was a lot to learn when it came to manufacturing, logistics, even securely packing up a chair to travel down to Texas for a show! Thankfully the design industry overall is so kind…it blows me away how generous and supportive people can be.

ATB: Finally, what advice would you give another small firm looking to break into product design?

Adam: Keep in mind, product design is not a service. In other words, you cannot put out a sign on opening day and start billing against a fee. You have to do the work, develop the product, develop the brand, and market your design before you can start selling. All of that is direct out of pocket cost and it will take you time to get there. Brace yourself for a period of high costs with no return. As an architect, if you can find someone to hire you, you can start billing on day one with relatively little overhead. As a product designer, you need to develop a product first.

It also helps to be excited about whatever it is you’re producing and make sure you believe in what you’re doing. Do it for yourself and because you love it. If nobody else likes it or wants to buy your product then at least you had fun. And try to develop a brand consistent with your firm so you can leverage skills and resources and do it because it’s natural.

Also, find a designer you like to study their story, see how they made it work. I find the stories of others to be inspiring during moments of doubt. And look beyond furniture and related products. Lately I’ve found myself binge watching How It’s Made on the Science Channel.

 Studio shots and headshots by Michelle Guanca. Product shots by Kronus Studio.

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