Meet the Maker: Honest Union
Written By Rachel Hunt
Photography By Breanna Kulkin
3D printing, also known as rapid prototyping using a layering technique, is not a brand new innovation. Alas, three separate engineers from Japan, France, and the United States were working to perfect a patent for the process as early as the mid-1980’s. However, once the patent for Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM entered the public domain in 2009, people all over the world helped the inexpensive technique transition from its beginning application as medical wunderkind (yes, you can 3D print a working kidney) to more everyday uses like toy fabrication and furniture design.
Jason Cooper was one such designer coming of age at the same time the technology was becoming accessible. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Jason has spent the past 11 years creating mass produced products for consumer, industrial, and commercial spaces. He has worked on products ranging from Dell Computers to the IRobot Roomba Vacuum. After living in Boston for 8 years, Jason moved back to Cleveland with his wife Ashlee and began working for Balance Inc., a product design consultancy firm founded by Rene Polin, another CIA grad.
It was there that Jason was first exposed to additive manufacturing while working on a project. “After witnessing the endless possibilities this printing offered, Jason designed a computer monitor stand for himself that alleviated poor work posture,” says Ashlee. Soon after, the couple decided to invest in their own printer to experiment more at home, which now doubles as a workspace for their year-old start-up, Honest Union.
“I’ve always fit the ‘run with the idea’ role, so it was only a matter of the right project coming along,” Ashlee, a freelance photographer and designer herself, says. “When Jason got excited about the 3D printed products he was creating, I saw the buzz around the pieces and wondered if it could be something more.” Their collaboration strikes the perfect balance for the company, a synergy of Jason’s familiarity with 3D printing, and Ashlee’s grasp of marketing and sales.
“While what I do [full-time] is very rewarding, it’s refreshing to design objects for myself in small quantities and share them directly with the consumer,” Jason chimes in, reflecting back on this past year of in-person selling at design shows and events like Night Market Cleveland. “We’re learning which products are seasonal and that certain shows are better for different items. For instance, Night Market Cleveland is perfect to showcase our lighting,” observes Ashlee.
Honest Union carries a wide collection of household wares, though their variety of desktop and standing lamps are especially illuminated during Night Market Cleveland’s evening events. Their plant holders, which come in a slew of sizes, also do well in the open-air marketplace. All of their products are made by physically and visually unifying locally harvested and manufactured hardwood from Eastern Ohio and PLA plastic, a non-toxic and robust renewable resource, derived from cornstarch, tapioca roots, and sugarcane (it sounds tasty, but it’s not edible).
While they have outgrown their home 3D printer, the design process still begins at the kitchen table or Jason’s workspace where he ideates each piece. “There is a significant overlap between what designers and engineers do,” Ashlee explains. “We both have to be continuously thinking ahead to how our ideas will be produced in regards to manufacturing methods, cost, assembly and environmental impact.”
The original prototypes are created in their home office, taking anywhere from 3 to 12 hours to ‘grow’. “The visible layers on each plastic component speak to the time it takes to create each part. Each line represents a single layer of plastic that takes anywhere from 2 to 12 hours to complete,” she points out. The creative duo embrace the natural color and finish of the materials they work with, and so does Maker Gear, the 3D printing company that Honest Union has collaborated with to efficiently and cost-effectively produce the quantity of parts that they need to reach a wider audience.
One of the couple’s favorite quotes comes from Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, well known for his work at Muji USA and his own company, Plus Minus Zero: “Design needs to be a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” Their products have an international feel, drawing inspiration from designers all over the world, including Fukasawa, Massimo Vignelli, George Nelson and Aero Saarian. “We’re greatly inspired by Japanese minimalism, in that by carefully selecting what items you bring into your home allows you focus on what’s most important in life.”