Nathanael Balon, Designer-Builder, Woodsmithe
The Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles
Interview by Laura Piety
For some reason I thought it appropriate to make the drive from Venice to the Arts District in Los Angeles the day before Thanksgiving; essentially traversing west to east of the city on the day everyone leaves town. For those of you unacquainted with the perils of LA traffic, I will say only this: It was hell. I was stuck on the 10 Freeway, waiting for a fateful fender bender and running late for the day's interview. It was also pretty smoggy which meant I didn’t have a view of the Hollywood sign reminding me how fortunate I was to be in the City of Angels. Luckily, the traffic cleared up somewhere around Hoover and I was on my merry way with my road rage slowly relenting. When you travel across LA, you’re generally heading to Hollywood proper, passing through Downtown or headed west to the beach. Today, I continued east, towards an oft- forgotten/ overlooked industrial strip nestled somewhere between the Arts District and Boyle Heights, two spots increasingly being given an injection of cool with the concentrated onset of artisan businesses, community workspaces and creative entrepreneurs being stamped across its geography. A stones throw away from the infamous Skid Row, the area is undoubtedly being re-generated by a new class that blends visionary hipsters, local entrepreneurs, genuine artistic talent and coffee aficionados. (Visit Handsome and Stumptown.) Nathanael Balon is certainly a main catalyst in the renewal of this once undeveloped and, still at points, industrial area.
Walking into his workspace took me back to my childhood, having grown up around my Dad’s construction sites. It smelt of fresh wood shavings and sawdust. Some machine was whirring in the background. Men were milling about, building and packing in the larger workshop out back. Noisy trucks rolled down the narrow potholed street outside. People were popping in and out of the large wrought iron gates to say hi. The black Woodsmithe van sat patiently in the driveway space, ready for its next delivery. True to the community DNA, a fashion label had commandeered some space and cornered off one area to rack their collection. After a walk around of the premises, it was time to start the conversation:
Softly spoken, eloquent and perfectly measured, Nathanael Balon sits in the Woodsmithe workshop beneath a wall that has their iconic tagline, ‘Together We Build’ emblazoned on it. Indeed, it’s this adage, along with their complementary ‘Do Good Work’ directional, that consistently permeates the company’s business and design methodologies. From quality and workmanship, to community and relationship, Woodsmithe utilizes these sensibilities to help other brands tell their story by elevating the brick and mortar experience. In addition to helping noted companies such as TOMS Shoes, Converse and Levis XX bring their story to life in the physical, Woodsmithe has also worked with the likes of Handsome Coffee, Wurstkuche and Summit Series to nail their branded spaces through multi-dimensional fits outs and furniture, shelving, display panels and anything and everything else. I chatted to Nathanael about the evolution of Woodsmithe, doing good business- as well as work- and the priority of engaging a healthy work/life balance. Clearly a deep thinker with a high value system, Balon entertained with some honest thoughts that buck traditional notions of corporate company competition.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Nathanael Balon, the Founder of Woodsmithe, a design-build firm located in DTLA that exists to elevate the brick and mortar retail space by working with brands focussed on the goal of creating community through those spaces, in addition to selling product.
Talk about some of your key experiences and formative years leading up to the conception of Woodsmithe?
The work we do at Woodsmithe is half design, half build. My journey began in building. I spent my years after high school in an environment where I was mentored by skilled individuals and learnt how to build high-end housing from the ground up. I worked with different media and learnt the systems of constructing a dwelling. That led to some classified government work and building with materials and processes I’d never seen before.
Life then led me to my other love, music. I spent a few years exploring what it meant to be a professional drummer, both on and off the road. When I was on the road I concluded that for me personally, a rich life was a rooted life. This meant having relationships and consistency… relationships that enriched me, and hopefully those I could enrich as well. This observation led me to lay down professional drumming, and it become a second passion. It afforded me space to build again.
The build work started as an observation that merged to a reactive process and then need-fulfilment. Essentially, it began with a non-profit that had a set of needs: building something beautiful, telling a story and helping sell a product, all at the same time. This set of challenges created new boundaries and parameters for how I would go about working. It meant I’d be building outside the systems I knew, and would require a level of design I hadn't spent much time exercising. It incorporated a connection to people and community in a more direct way than I’d ever done before.
What started as a single project for a non-profit grew, and sparked a desire to pursue a career path focussed on these areas. Some of the work landed in public spaces and was noticed by future clients. They liked the work in those settings, loved the aesthetic and wanted to further explore the process of interacting with community through the built environment. I responded to that need and the company was formed.
You help brands tell their stories better. How did the Woodsmithe brand evolve?
I’m a firm believer in surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you! This was a new journey for me. I hadn't seen myself as an entrepreneur but when I had a company, I had a brand!
I talked with a few friends who had businesses themselves. We talked about who I am, and how much the company would really be an extension of myself. Being the funny Canadians they are, they said, ‘Well, you’re like a Woodsmithe!’ We then had enough context to put together the idea. The ideologies and values that have girded the foundations of the company have come along in the process.
You mentioned to some degree, you’re the personification of the brand. How do you separate work and life?
Recently I’ve had a great, healthy season of understanding. I’ve realised that although the story of the company is an interesting one, and it often helps people understand the business through a single entity like myself, the work we do is related to many more individuals than just me. The quality of what we stand for is actually a reflection of others’ work as well.
This summer, I came to a realisation that I’d been using the company as a way to validate my ability as a designer. It was hindering the process of growing the business and making smart decisions because I believed what people thought about the business was what they thought about me. A necessary break and change was needed. I decided to go to work at 7am and leave at 5pm. A friend told me if I couldn’t get my work done within those times then I’d need to become more efficient or hire more people. The answer wasn't working more hours. I committed to that and made space for the rest of my life.
In choosing not to let the company be a sole extension of my creative self, not to have do work that was just the coolest, and not allowing the company to have a place inside of me that created anxiety and stress afforded me more emotional energy to engage in the rest of life after work hours that had initially been consumed by the day-to-day at Woodsmithe.
How would you describe the client experience?
It’s interesting. There are a lot of factors that lead to a great work experience. Personality-wise, we’ve been big fans of everyone we’ve worked with to date. We want to work with people we like, believe in and are inspired by; people who are making an impact or are elevating the brick and mortar experience.
However, there are many different factors that lead to a job being great from timing and budget to expectations, that’s the business of having a really good experience. There’s also going through a project and having a product outcome at a certain time and price. To be really candid, some of those don’t always go exactly to plan, sometimes due to us not doing as well as we could, and sometimes due in part to shifting expectations. Life throws a lot of curveballs and so we’re trying to learn how to navigate them in a way that really serves the project, so our clients get the maximum value and experience.
You’ve been really lucky to help some great social enterprises build their brand. Is there any advice you would give other non profits looking to craft their story?
There’s a very natural process that leads us towards those individuals. That being said, those non profits are selling a product and we’re helping them dothat. When you take on the responsibility of selling a product it means you have to interest people in it. You’ve got to work hard at telling a story, investing energy in- and creatively crafting- how people know about you. By default, we deal with non profits that put out products, and as a result choose to do the hard work of examining how they are perceived. They give weight to the story, the product and the cause. This means you have to be aware of culture, where it’s going and how you can advance it. If you’re hoping to change culture, you need to be ahead of it.
Other non profits wanting to make an impact have to take on those same responsibilities. It’s about having a strong point of view and learning to communicate it in a way that is well received.
There’s something about dovetailing a product with a cause that gives you an instant gauge on how you are being received… perhaps more than if you’re creating educational tools or if your primary goal is advocacy. In these instances it can be hard to quantify the results of your labor. With a product you seem to get an instant response. There’s also something interesting about a cause or a set of ideas being embodied in an object and a person being able to take ownership of that object and thus the cause, in a symbolic way. Purchasing a product is a step towards caring about something new.
You’ve mentioned friendships, community and mentoring. That speaks to the quality of relationships you’ve surrounded yourself with. There’s also a lot of talk about The Arts District [where both Woodsmithe and Nathanael reside] being very community-focussed. Can you comment on how community, work and geography interweave?
My personal belief is that a legacy amongst people is the most powerful thing you can leave. The role you play in someone’s life has exponential impact, over your ability to leave them something or make yourself look good. In my value system people are stacked above design. They are stacked above art, or anything I put my hands to. Relationships are just more important.
It’s tricky to manage relationships and business, especially in a fairly tight-knit neighbourhood like the Arts District. It takes a lot of work. I think you need a strong vision for relationships that allows you to navigate this, and the curveballs that arise. For example, how do you interact with and uplift the local business that feels a lot like yours? You could feel like you’re competing with them, but how do you support them in what they’re doing, while also maintaining your business? Those are the things I strive for because I think it’s more important. Community takes work. It’s not the path of least resistance. It takes intentionally and focus, a willingness to shoulder life with people. Ultimately those are the experiences that enrich us: the moments we didn't plan, we don’t have control over, or when we walk with someone through something that adds a new perspective that we couldn’t have welcomed into our life on our own.
As a designer, community and relationships are the most amazing and dynamic things to design and insert thought and intentionality into. And yes, in this neighborhood I also have a business to run, but I don't think you have to pit one against the other, you just have to figure out how they run on parallel tracks.
You mentioned the word curveball a couple of times. With the benefit of hindsight, what have been the most difficult times running Woodsmithe, and what have you learnt as a result?
I don’t come from a business background and I’m not trained in it. I’m a classic creative entrepreneur: I know how to make something that people want, it’s just getting it to them that’s the hard part! Creative entrepreneurs often think making the thing is the hard part, it’s not, it’s the easy part! Alternatively, when you come into an equation with a business mindset getting the thing can be the hard part, but you can sell it all day long! Holding that tension has been a challenging path.
‘Context’ is in my top Strength Finders ranking. This means I love to follow direction, learn a system and execute it efficiently. Creating the system is not my forte. But I had to for Woodsmithe, and it’s been hard. I had a lot of help from key people and as time went on I got more of a handle on the nuances of the business, how systems worked, about the market we’re in and how to position us correctly. Part of this learning meant I had to make some very difficult personnel decisions. I had to lay off friends for the sake of the business staying alive. Those people are in my community. It wasn’t an easy thing to do and the work it takes to rebuild those relationships is long and slow.
I’ve come to understand that designing how you grow a business is a challenging and complex system I’m crafting from the ground up, and it changes. Losing some of our clients, for example, to overseas work is tough, as it is in any business, but it happens. So you have to adjust. It causes you to pause and reassess why you’re doing something. Are there good reasons to it? Do you want to keep going, or do something else? As a Creative, we’re an emotional group. That’s part of the conversation. And I think it’s important to come back and reassess things. But at Woodsmithe, we’re up to that challenge.
What would be your dream project?
That’s a really good question. If I had unlimited capital and some mentorship in this area, I would love to be part of a team that created deployable housing solutions for citizens in the third world… Housing that is smarter than what we have in the States, that can shake the systems of old and be beautiful, highly functional and technologically superior… but then to give them as a gift to those in the third world. To design, build, help manage logistics and deploy those would be the dream.