John Roscoe Swartz is CEO and co-founder of Built NY, Inc., a design company based in New York City known for its stylish laptop sleeves, iPad cases, lunch bags, and wine totes. Though BUILT’s bold products reflect the city that never sleeps, John hails from a farm near Chillicothe, Ohio. He received his master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied printmaking and furniture design. It’s also where he met industrial designer Aaron Lown, with whom he co-founded BUILT in 2003. Their seminal product, a two bottle wine tote made from neoprene, was an instant hit. Today their innovative designs for creative professionals are sold in more than 50 countries worldwide and also at builtny.com.
BUILT recently expanded beyond its signature neoprene designs into cases for iPad 2 and iPhone 4 made from silicone and polycarbonate. John’s five inspiring picks below also embrace a range of materials, but they’re unified by a singular philosophy: Simple, thoughtful design has the power to make life exponentially more enjoyable.
1. Blu Dot Son of a Bench
I was instantly attracted to this when I saw it at the Blu Dot store just a few blocks from our headquarters in Soho. When I told the salesperson I wanted to get it, she was a little shocked. “Really, you’re going to order it?!” I mean, it is a crazy piece of furniture. What I love is that you’re able to read the story of its poetic construction just by looking at it. First, they welded various-sized steel straps into hoops, then stacked them, and then dropped the whole thing in vat of rubber tool dip. It’s simple, elegant, and completely improbable.
2. La Cupola Espresso Maker
When I was 18, I traveled to Italy to study design in Milan and Florence during my sophomore year of college. The whole experience was mind-blowing for a kid from rural Ohio, and it also revolutionized my idea of design. I remember walking into an Alessi store and seeing the La Cupola espresso maker by Aldo Rossi. I thought, “Wow, a coffee pot can be so much more than a coffee pot.” It really transformed the way I looked at form and function, and planted the seeds of a future design career.
3. Brompton T-Model Bicycle
Because BUILT makes products for life on the go, I’m very conscious about how people get around. Both Aaron and I own Brompton bikes, and they’re just ingenious tools for commuting. Most of the week I take mine on a train from New Jersey to Penn Station, then bike to the office. It has an incredible simplicity of design, built by hand from the minimum number of parts. Yet it’s unbelievably solid and folds up like a jackknife.
4. Herters Sambar 70” Vintage Bow
I always thought archery was a beautiful sport, that it would be something fun to do with my oldest son when he turned 9. So I bought a few books on it, and discovered there was a golden age of American archery from 1960 to 1980. It was an amazing period of exploration of materials and form driven by the functional need to shoot arrows further and faster. So I began collecting vintage bows and arrows. My favorite is this Herters Sambar 70” that I keep in my office. It’s made from walnut, maple, and fiberglass. The curves and ergonomics are totally unreal—evocative of a similar vintage of electric guitar.
5. Kroops Goggles
These goggles are used by horse racing jockeys and skydivers, of which I’m neither. But I think they’re an example of really fantastic design. I love how they’re folded out of a single sheet of flexible plastic. The poetry of the materials at play here reminds me of a William Carlos Williams poem. Super-succinct, and it makes the greatest impact using the least amount of resources.