When someone thinks of cities in America that are full of makers, they typically don’t think of Los Angeles. Images of Pacific Northwest cities or small towns in the middle of nowhere enter your head, quainter places that are far from our city.
Interestingly enough there is actually a large craft movement budding in Los Angeles, specifically in and around Downtown. One of the big, furiously pumping hearts of this movement is a brand called WoodSmithe, a collective of builders and designers led by Nathanael Balon. The brand has developed looks for everyone from Handsome Coffee Roasters to Tom’s Shoes. Their work spans both coasts and is becoming wildly popular–and Nathanael is the man behind it all.
“I’m from Valparaiso, Indiana. It’s a small farming town in the shadow of the notoriously popular Gary,” he says, pulling up a seat in their sleek office area. ” I grew up in a family of six kids: I was the second youngest.”
“I’ve been interested in building since I was 6 years old.” he details. “Early projects were pretty simplistic because we simply didn’t have the tools to create anything very complex! I was stuck designing without the capability to really actualize anything. Through middle school and high school, I focused my design on visions of grandeur for the house I grew up in. I was always trying to figure out how to fit an indoor swimming pool in the backyard, needless to say it didn’t happen!”
“In the mid-west, most guys are pretty hands on. My uncles are builders and most of the guys I grew up with are blue collar electricians, framers, and plumbers. Even the white collar guys would be out building projects on the weekend: it’s just the culture out there. I started building at this level during my summer breaks in high school and really enjoyed it.”
“It was during these last years of high school that I realized I wasn’t a big fan of the classroom environment. School was a jail to me from an inspiration standpoint; brutal seventies interiors and no natural light. It was awful.”
Seemingly choosing the most natural course to pursue design, Nathanael planned to study Architecture following a year off after high school. Following graduation he started working for a small custom home builder and found the fit to be natural. “They were old school craftsmen. These guys knew how to do everything. After three months of building I knew I wasn’t headed back to the classroom. I realized my capacity to retain information had expanded with this new hands on style of learning. On the job everything was visual and tactile, a dream for me! I got hooked.”
On the crews he was typically the youngest of fellow craftsmen but very easily worked his way up. After years of working through the brutal winters of rural northwest Indiana, he decided to give city life a try and moved to West Philadelphia. There Nathanael worked as a government cleared contractor often traveling overseas and working long hours. He was doing well but couldn’t seem to escape another dream from childhood: music, specifically drumming.
With nothing to lose, Nathanael made the trek to LA living with friends and subletting an artist’s loft in the Arts District. The sublet was in a artists community that emphasized collaboration and meeting other artists. Here, Nathanael’s music career took off after meeting Sonny Moore, AKA Skrillex. They began collaborating after Moore and some fellow musicians heard him playing in his loft. “[Sonny] and his buddies were always playing and working on stuff, often till the early hours of the morning. Eventually he asked me to help on some solo stuff he was working on that required a dual drummer setup, some really heavy percussive stuff. Shortly thereafter I decided to check out his live show at the Henry Fonda, touring as a solo project. The music was wild and all over the map, from hip hop to string arrangements to electronic. He was singing, too. You could tell that he was pretty seasoned, even at a young age. I figured what the hell, joined his band and went on tour for the next six months.”
Touring and fulfilling his high school dream, Nathanael couldn’t seem to shake his childhood passion: making things. “I hadn’t been building at all. It was on tour that I realized that my drumming dream that had been tucked in my head for so long wasn’t really what I actually wanted. While I was away, all I could think about was building again in the context of community life in LA. I started to think about what really made life rich and the Arts District seemed to call me home.”
“When I got off tour, my good friend Sean Carasso asked me to help him with his non-profit, Falling Whistles. They’re a campaign for peace in the Congo. Sean is this brilliant speaker, and at the time he had all this language to describe what FW was about. The obstacles they faced were in the translation from language to form. They were in the process of creating what their cause looked like visually when I came in. They were going to have their first LA party and needed to know what type of experience they wanted to create to most successfully tell their story and get people on board. They were selling a product but they need to educate people on why they were doing it–and it needed to be fun. From a build standpoint, it was a new and interesting challenge: building stuff with a greater purpose to it.”
As additional work for Falling Whistles began to pile up, things began to take off and his work began to get recognized. At an opening for an installation at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, TOMS shoes was introduced to my work and reached out about collaborating. ”That was the beginning for what would become WoodSmithe.They ended up offering me my first paid work and the company was born.”
“That was the start. We grew really organically from there” Nathanael said. He along with his art director Nina Hans were able to plan and figure out what the WS brand stood for and who they wanted to work with. Things started to happen really quickly and soon WoodSmithe was working with a collection of fantastic brands. Nathanael explained their process and collaborative working style.
“It’s all about interaction and communication, collaboration forms the foundation of our design methodology. he says. “With Handsome Coffee, it was the owners and I in the space, pulling ideas and developing them. That space, fortunately, has gotten quite a lot of attention and now we’re getting hit up by all types of brands.”
“What we have discovered is that brands understand the need to heavily invest in graphic branding and will put a large emphasis on their language as their primary way to describe their brand identity. But the minute their brand has to become a physical space, there’s this huge translation gap between the Brand and whomever is chosen to build the space. The builder doesn’t fully understand the nuances of the brands language and design therefore creating environments that lack the communication value that’s desired for the space. The brand says “create something that defines who we are…but we don’t necessarily know what materials you should use or how it should look.” This is where WS has defined unique space as brand translators: Idea to reality, vision to physical. What we realized is that we’re creative AND we’re builders: we can have those conversations about what these brands are all about because we are at our core creatives, but we are also builders so we can help with actually making these things. We collaborate internally with Brand creative teams and more often than not we end up with a space that represents the brand accurately.”
And Los Angeles is a big inspiration for making new work. “There’s so much rad stuff going on in LA. So many people are coming here to do incredibly high quality crafts, stuff that deserves to have a platform,” Nathanael explains. “We want to be a part of building communities that are vibrant, to help make LA into a city that is flourishing. For us, that means working with brands to make things that are meaningful. We’re not going to be a part of people just selling junk. That isn’t going to cut it. Brands are looking at consumers less as buyers, but more as communities. They (brands) have a place of power, and this is an opportunity to educate. How can we make buying just as much about educating? That’s what we see in our future.”
“I’m highly influenced by my surroundings,” he continues. “The longer I’m in LA, the more I realize that my source of creativity is all around me in the people who call this town home. As a team, WS is inspired by the community that surrounds our studio, it’s a highly creative neighborhood. It has given me a vision for a life that I had never even thought about. Before moving here I hadn’t considered owning my own business. Once in the Arts District i was surrounded by individuals who were starting small businesses across the creative spectrum; friends were getting into everything from food to clothing. I would be foolish to say that everything we create isn’t in some way inspired by those around us. LA is filled with people making things, exploring creative dreams. It continually inspires me. I would say LA specifically awoke something inside of me that I didn’t know was there.”
“There isn’t a more opportune place to be then downtown,” he explains. “I want a hand in shaping its future. There’s a pioneer attitude and wild West feeling that is still alive down here that you can create your own space and reality. Every inch hasn’t been defined like other parts of LA. I think it’s such a wildly inspiring area.”
Looking to the future, Nathanael and his team are continually reshaping the capacities and capabilities of their brand. They’re currently working with bigger and bigger brands, stretching them outside of Los Angeles, too. “We’ve been forced to start thinking about our future. But, I don’t think we have a clear picture of what that is. I feel like WoodSmithes ability is growing, though. I’m interested to see how that will work in the future.”
But, this is something that will happen very organically: WoodSmithes growth will take–and deserves–time. “I would love to grow slowly and patiently,” Nathanael says. “I like being a small, nimble design company.”