Interview – Michael DiTullo x Alon Karpman – Brooklyn Workshop - ConceptKicks
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Interview – Michael DiTullo x Alon Karpman – Brooklyn Workshop

Former Converse design director, Frog Design Creative Director & current  Chief Design Officer at DEI Holdings, Michael DiTullo certainly has had his fingers in many pies. Michael’s been a huge influence for myself over the years, and is responsible for some of the nicest sneaks to have come out of the Nike/Converse camp. A super creative designer, we managed to catch up with him to see what he’s up to, how he got started, and what he’s working on with Alon Karpman over at Brooklyn Workshop. Check out the in-depth interview below.

 

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[highlight] CK – Can you tell us a little about yourself?  [/highlight]

MD – I grew up in upstate New York, about two hours North of New York City in the 80′s and 90′s. It was an interesting place to be. Kind of country, but I could feel the gravitational pull of this amazing place close by and I knew the world had a lot to offer. As a kid growing up in that time period there was a tremendous explosion in youth culture, from hip hop to grunge, basketball to skateboarding, graffiti to garage bands. I think growing up in a pretty x-urban environment, I became accustomed to being a student of all of these cultural swells and waves. I’ve spent a lot of my career observing what is going on out there and trying to play with it, push and pull it, and hopefully add something positive back to it.

[highlight] CK – How did you first get into footwear design? [/highlight]


MD – I’ve always been infatuated with things. Where do they come from? Who thought of them? How are they made? Why are some things loved and cherished forever and why are other things just a flash in the pan, a fad? As a kid I was always trying to imagine what the products of the future would be like. I was constantly drawing what those things might be, and I think I was the most attracted to the kinds of objects we use everyday. Certain things have a set function, like shoes, watches, headphones and so on. They do a specific task for us. Yet these types of objects, these tools for everyday life, have a certain deeper meaning for us than merely satisfying a functional niche for us. They become talismans for how we see ourselves, our aspirations, our hopes and dreams, our priorities. They are avatars for our psyches.
Footwear has been an example of this kind of tribal indicator since before the industrial revolution. If you rock retro J’s, flip skippy Chucks, slip on some penny loafers, or lace up a pair of proper brogues, it says something. As a designer, it is fun to play with that, to try to help people express themselves and even to mix it up and help them blur the lines. I had been drawing shoes since I was about 13. Like every kid in the 80′s, infatuated with MJ, I wanted those shoes so bad. Coming from pretty modest means, I never had a pair until I actually worked there! Going home and imaging what the next ones would look like, what they would be made out of, what functional innovations they might have, that was an outlet for me.
In college, while I was getting my BFA in Industrial Design from RISD, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work on a sponsored project for Nike, and I got to spend some time on the campus there. After college I worked for a design firm on the East Coast called Evo Design (www.evodesign.com). Nike happened to be a key client as were many large consumer electronics, housewares, toy, and accessories companies. We worked on a series of project for the Innovation Kitchen focused on the future of footwear manufacturing and new running techniques. From here I went to Nike full time, eventually working in Nike Sportswear, Jordan, and Converse. I experienced designing and developing as many product types as I could, from high performance basketball shoes for NBA athletes to Chuck Taylors.
After about 8 years I left Nike Inc to go to frog design, a 40 year old innovation consultancy that had worked on everything from the original Apple Macintosh to motorcycles for Yamaha. I wanted to take what I learned from Nike about designing for real people, tapping into an emotional resonance, and delivering joyful  experiences through carefully curating brand positions and pushing iconic, industry leading product design and innovation, and apply that to as many other product types as I could. In my time at frog I got to do this for smart phones, automotive interiors, headphones, home audio, retail environments, tons of other consumer electronics, and even for other footwear brands.
It was a short jump to my current role as Chief Design Officer for DEI Holdings, which is a lleading designer of consumer branded audio and vehicle security/remote start products under the Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, BOOM Audio, and Viper brand names. In this position I am building a design culture within an organization. In essence, I am helping to design the process and environment for design to take place… and I’m still designing things too.
I’ve always felt it was important for a designer to have a few things that he or she can work on for the pure joy of it. These are called passion projects. My work with Jonathan Ward at Icon (www.Icon4x4.com) and Alon Karpman at Brooklyn Workshop (www.brooklynworkshop.com) fall into that category for me.

[highlight]CK – What do you know now that you wished you knew when you first started? [/highlight]

MD – It is hard to say. If I knew some of the things I know now when I was just ramping up, I probably wouldn’t know what to make of it. A lot of the most important aspects of being a designer are best learned organically, by practicing the profession in a real world scenario. So my biggest advice would be to do whatever you can to put yourself in those situations. Get out into the world. Identify people you can learn from, collect mentors, and surround yourself with people who are better than you who will school you daily. It is hard to get better in isolation. Always know there is probably someone better than you at something out there! Find that person and work with them.

[highlight] CK – What inspires your designs? [/highlight]

MD – Literally everything and anything, but mostly people. Watching people, how they live, that always leads to interesting things for me. I travel a lot, I like to just sit in the airport and observe. In the airport no one is really trying to put on a front. Maybe they just spent the entire day traveling, maybe they had a four hour delay. You get to see who people really are in the airport. What they choose to wear, what they bring with them. You learn what is essential to their person.

[highlight]CK – What are your favorite pair of shoes you’ve designed and why? [/highlight]

MD – That is impossible to say! Each one has a story. Each one has lessons learned, experiences with athletes, travels with colleagues for research or to factories for development. I simultaneously love each of them, yet there isn’t one I wouldn’t design differently today if I had the chance. That is important to me, if I ever become too satisfied with what I’ve done, I feel like that is an indication that I might be done… fortunately, no signs of satisfaction just yet.

[highlight]CK – Can you tell us more about the new line of footwear for Brooklyn Workshop? [/highlight]

MD – Alon at Brooklyn Workshop reached out to me about a year ago. He had been following my work, and ironically I had been following his! The Skatecycle had been winning awards and getting a lot of press and I was actually a little obsessed with it, and thrilled that there was a mutual respect between our work. Like all good collaborations, it started by building a relationship. This was going to be journey for the both of us, and we had to make sure that we aligned on principles, ethics, philosophy, and style to make it through together. The more we worked together, the more we realized how close that alignment was, and the end result feels like the natural extension of both of us. I’m excited, the product plays off of staples in footwear, we wanted to create something that was almost as easy to wear as a tee shirt. On closer inspection though, there are many functional innovations, the way a rubber overlay wraps in a specific high wear area, the extra overlay over the pinkie toe that grabs the first lace, a waterproof coating over the canvas, even the specific compound and durometer of the rubber outsole… every detail was painstakingly considered. Working with Alon was fantastic because he is as much of a perfectionist as I am, we push each other to make the best product possible.

 

[highlight] CK – Alon, how did you hear about Michael? [/highlight]

AK – I have several design blogs that I check out on a daily basis.  One of them is Core77.  I enjoyed Michael’s posts as contributing editor and started keeping an eye out for his contributions.  His designs and commitment to the design community was impressive.  A few years earlier, I started really getting into the new wave of Converse shoes that where coming out, like the Varvatos lines, and I realized that my newly acquired taste for Converse coincided with Michael’s time at the brand.
For Brooklyn Workshop I developed a product line that we call “4, 3, 2, NONE” which corresponds to the number of wheels each product has.  After the Skatecycle,  the product next in the pipeline was the “4″;  a longboard.  Our original plan was to introduce the longboard first and after that to introduce a Skate shoe geared for longboard riders (the “NONE” product).  There are a lot of skate shoes on the market but they are built for shortboard riders.  Riding a longer board tends to wear out the shoe in a different way but the riders are not catered to because the shortboard market is so much larger.  I decided to reach out to Michael and see if he was at least interested in just giving some advice on construction.  The response I got back from him was a real surprise.  Although we weren’t quite ready for it, I came home that night and told my wife that we are making the shoes with Michael Ditullo!  It worked out better than I imagined.  When Michael and I started getting into the collaboration we realized that our sensibilities were in line so designing the shoe was a great experience.  There’s nothing like working with an absolute professional that has an eye for detail and an understanding that every detail counts.

[highlight] CK – Whats the next step for Brooklyn Workshop? [/highlight]

AK – The Skatecycle was the the product that launched the brand and it really brought a lot of attention to us. Our company tagline is “Forged from Imagination,” and  I believe that we are able to push the boundaries of the markets with our products.   I hope people continue to enjoy what we create.  I don’t do market research when designing and producing a product, and I don’t believe you can please everyone.  So we just work on ideas that we crave to see in reality. I’ve been riding my longboard for about 7 years now and use it to get to work and for fun.  The shoe idea came from my own desire to have something I can wear on my commutes that also has a classic look you can wear anytime.  I believe we will see this segment of the skate market grow exponentially, as people start to realize how riding a longboard differs form riding a Short board.    I don’t think many people think of a longboard when you say “Skateboard.”  The shoe will evolve over time and we hope to introduce new lines that serve even smaller niches like downhill speed boarding.  The longboard itself should be introduced sometime this year.

[highlight] CK – Do you have any advice to young designers? [/highlight]

MD – Be a designer, everyday, all day. This isn’t a job, this is who we are. It is a challenging field, but if you dedicate yourself to it, you will find others out there like you who will welcome you into the global design culture with open arms. Also, remember, you are designing stuff for a living, don’t forget to have fun with that!

A big thanks to Michael & Alon for the interview, don’t forget to check out the Brooklyn Workshop website for more info, and you can pick up a pair of the shoes on Gilt.com at the end of July, they’ll also be available at boutiques like Unknown in Miami.