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The Alternative Entrepreneurs
What do a flea-market ringleader, a popsicle maker, and an architecture nerd have in common? They—and five others—have built successful careers doing something truly novel: exactly what they want.
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Name: Sonja Rasula
Project: Unique L.A.
Years at it: Two
Many people didn’t get what Sonja Rasula was talking about when she floated plans in 2008 to put on a massive, 90,000-square-foot design show of independent, made-in-America products. She knew Los Angeles shoppers were ready for such an event; the designers, though, weren’t convinced at first. “I literally got emails back where people said, ‘And who are you?'" she says.
Eventually, Rasula amassed 225 mostly local clothing and gift designers for her first two-day event, which she refused to launch on a smaller scale. “There’s probably a book out there that says not to do this,” the 34-year-old says. “I just did it by myself, and I used my retirement savings, which is I think is a little ballsy.”
Now she’s trying to turn the biannual event—it expands next year to New York and Atlanta—into a serious alternative to the big-box store or the mall. She wants soccer moms to think about how their consumption counts in supporting sustainable products and local jobs. In bringing them together with other conscious shoppers, Rasula thinks of herself as a “community curator” rather than an event planner. "People will consciously go to farmers’ markets on the weekend to buy fresh produce and organics, and support local farmers,” she says. “It’s really translating that same idea into not just produce and flowers, but everything else you can purchase in your life.”
Art by Olimpia Zagnoli
Name: Eric Demby
Project: The Brooklyn Flea
Years at it: Two and a half
Eric Demby has always been the kind of guy who did a lot of different things, but he did not particularly envision that he would end up the ringleader of a flea market. And yet two and a half years ago, Demby co-founded the Brooklyn Flea, which quickly became New York’s best outdoor emporium of antique saucepans, bicycle paintings, handmade jewelry, and food-truck food. “It’s not like I was a junior flea-market operator,” he says, “and then I graduated to running my own flea market.”
Demby and Jonathan Butler held the first Flea in April, 2008, filling a void created by the disappearance of the city’s best markets due to physical encroachment by real-estate development and virtual encroachment by the internet. Today, they hold a 150-vendor, one-acre outdoor market on Saturdays, and an indoor Sunday market in the historic Williamsburgh Savings Bank.
Demby, 38, came to the experiment from gigs in music journalism, event production, and speechwriting—all of which acquainted him with the community that would help form the city’s best flea market. “In a way, it’s like I had been gearing up for this the first 18 years that I lived in the city,” he says.
The Brooklyn Flea has along the way become a community meet-up for a neighborhood with no obvious center. “Brooklyn doesn’t really have a downtown, it doesn’t have a central plaza,” Demby says. “Some cities have natural places where people just sort of go.” And some cities have people who just know how to create them.
Art by Jeffery Middleton
Name: Jim Coudal
Project: Coudal Partners
Years at it: Fifteen
“Someone once accused us of doing nothing but following our whims to their every logical and illogical conclusion,” Jim Coudal says. That is, more or less, exactly right. His Chicago-based studio, Coudal Partners, is behind creations as random as the online ad network the Deck, the classic memo books called Field Notes, and the Museum of Online Museums.
Coudal makes physical products, internet tools, and other oddities, any number of which will suck up an entire afternoon if you stumble upon coudal.com. That is perhaps the best way to describe the 50-year-old: He’s a master of the type of ephemera you would probably be playing with if you didn’t have to do your own job. Some of his ideas produce business, others only laughs. Some move from one category to the next. The studio once did traditional client work, designing brands and marketing for restaurants, sports teams, and financial firms. When Coudal Partners started to execute its own ideas, the firm became its own favorite client. “The way we describe what we are now,” Coudal says, “is we are a creative-design and advertising firm with no clients.
“We’re of the school that if you have an idea that you think might work, the answer is not to talk about it for four weeks. The answer is to try it and see what happens,” he says. “If it goes down in flames, that’s fun too.”
Art by Mark Todd.
Name: Emily Pilloton
Project: Project H Design
Years at it: Two and a half
Tired of designing meaningless stuff, the budding designer and architect Emily Pilloton, 28, launched Project H Design with only a vague idea—the “H” stands for humanity, habitats, health, and happiness—and a clear sense of what she didn’t want. Her nonprofit organization has since evolved into an imaginative firm designing systems (not stuff) for people in need.
An early project, Learning Landscapes, crafted playgrounds out of reclaimed tires. “A fourth-grader is a totally different kind of design client,” says Pilloton, who has also put out a book, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. “When we built the Learning Landscape, tons of kids were like, ‘It’s stupid, I hate pink.’ You never get feedback like that from professional clients. It’s a very direct reward: Put something in a classroom, and kids’ faces either light up or they don’t. There’s something very honest about it.”
Pilloton and her partner, Matthew Miller, built a Learning Landscape for every elementary school in Bertie County, North Carolina, then they moved on to the computer labs. Not wanting to be merely drive-by designers, they settled in as high school teachers. The 13 juniors in their college-level design program will eventually build their community public chicken coops and a farmers’ market.
The class is the culmination of what Pilloton quit her design day job to do: Create things with people, not for them, leaving behind an impact more than a product, especially in places that are not normally the focus of designers. “These are the kinds of places where not only do they need design,” she says, “they just have the most to potentially benefit from it.”
Art by Luci Gutiérrez
Name: Geoff Manaugh
Years at it: Six
In 2004, Geoff Manaugh tapped out a list of architecture topics he wanted to cover in a blog, most of which had seemingly little to do with architecture: the British sci-fi novelist J. G. Ballard, Chernobyl, bunker archeology, the International Space Station, refugee camps, and traffic studies.
He wanted to blog about architecture the way most people experience it but few industry publications were capturing: as it exists all around us, in the urban spaces where we live, in videogames, in literature. The result was BLDGBLOG, a well-curated catchall accessible to nonarchitects precisely because of its unpredictability. Today, it gets about 250,000 visitors a month.
“It’s kind of like playing six degrees of separation with architecture—the idea that you can pretty much start anywhere and find a way it will connect back to architecture,” Manaugh, 34, says. Typical architecture geeks ponder Rem Koolhaas, not Franz Kafka. But Manaugh’s wandering eye even includes architecture in 20th century absurdist literature. Kafka’s The Trial “is full of scenes of weird buildings that don’t make any sense,” he says, “law offices that open onto private homes, courtyards that lead to courtyards.”
The site is a labor of love, not really a living. But Manaugh’s other projects—writing for Wired U.K. and teaching at the University of Southern California—all came about because of the blog, a passion project that led to real work.
Art by Victor Kerlow.
Name: Folkert Gorter
Project: Cargo Collective
Years at it: Two
Folkert Gorter, a Dutchman who lives in Los Angeles, calls himself an “interaction designer.” That seems to be the best way to capture the artistry of design and the technical skill of engineering—two worlds that are converging to increasingly ambitious effect online.
“In the old days, even during the Renaissance, artists and engineers worked together,” Gorter, 34, says. “Da Vinci and those guys were all really technical and really artistic at the same time. And that was always the promise of the web for me: a platform for that kind of resurgence of technical design.”
He and his partner, Rene Daalder, released the Cargo platform in beta last January as a web publishing platform for Gorter’s vision of the “artist-engineer.” It is Tumblr to the extreme, a multimedia-rich platform for creative portfolios and interactive communities. The project grew out of the network Gorter and Daalder built for SpaceCollective, an online refuge of sci-fi enthusiasts that corrals dialogue, images, and video around what they describe as the “the future of everything.”
“We figured, let’s make these tools available for everyone,” Gorter (who has worked for GOOD in the past) says, “because we believe there’s so much creativity around that’s not on the web, and clearly the web needs to be visually a lot richer.”
Art by Brian Rea
Name: Nathalie Jordi
Project: People's Pops
Years at it: Two
Nathalie Jordi had never made a popsicle when she volunteered to prepare and sell hundreds of them in 2008 for the opening of a new artisanal food market in New York City. “How hard can it be?” she thought at the time, especially if she made them with the most basic ingredients: simple syrup and seasonal fruit from the local farmers’ market.
Jordi teamed up with a couple of friends, and her one-off weekend experiment has since grown into a serious business, with a seasonal shop in the Chelsea Market and regular sales to Whole Foods. Each partner put in $2,000 when no bank would give them a line of credit. Now they make thousands of pops a week, in creative combinations like rhubarb jasmine, raspberry basil, and watermelon lemongrass.
“I studied anthropology in college. I was so ill-equipped,” Jordi, 28, says. Of the name’s inspiration, she says, “They’re just made by us, they’re not made by some corporation. I liked the way it sounded. I liked the fact that it had vaguely revolutionary roots. It felt like this whole movement I was taking part in—local food, sustainable food—was such a radical departure from conventional food and agribusiness.” And a radical departure from a world in which (seriously) “Popsicle” is the trademark of a multinational conglomerate.
Art by Lauren Tamaki
Name: Alexis Madrigal
Project: Longshot Magazine
Years at it: Six months
New technology often gets the rap for killing old media. But Alexis Madrigal and his friends overturned this meme, harnessing the tech tools supposedly pushing print publications out of existence to produce, of all things, a glossy 60-page magazine—in 48 hours, with no capital.
“The fact that you can do something for nothing is amazing,” he says. “That straight up was not possible ten years ago.” Along with the journalists Mat Honan and Sarah Rich, he set out to conceive, create, and print an entire magazine in one weekend this past spring. They received 1,500 submissions around the apt theme “hustle,” assembled an army of volunteers, and then produced a magazine through a print-on-demand service.
“Part of the fun of this is it plays with the idea of what work actually is,” Madrigal says. “It’s a functioning publication, and on the editorial side, that’s what we all do for a living. But on the other hand, you give yourself new context for the work you do, and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel like work anymore.”
The second issue (which was put together in GOOD's Los Angeles office) was completed this August, and Madrigal hopes to continue reprising the concept. It gives truth to his optimistic take on the medium: that paper is still a relevant platform for expression, and that, combined with new tools, it’s more flexible than you think.
Art by Zela Lobb