It should come as no surprise that Submaterial founder David Hamlin is fascinated with pinpointing exactly where art meets design. He established the New Mexico-based purveyor of functional decor in 2006 on the foundation of his fine art background and deep interest in fabrication and materiality. Today the company produces modular wool felt wall art that enhances acoustics, sculptural wooden room dividers for airflow and demarcation of interior space, and more for some of the world’s most skilled designers. Submaterial’s deft navigation of its market niche, somewhere between architectural outfitter and purveyor of bespoke craft has impressed heavy hitters like Apple, Gensler, Lucas Film, and the Armory Show, which have all sourced their products
As Submaterial’s profile has risen, Hamlin has stayed true to his roots. Every product is still handmade domestically, and natural fibers and textiles like leather, wool, and wood reign supreme. “Submaterial grew out of a very small studio environment focused on customization and the unique,” Hamlin says. “What I hoped for was that by emphasizing the handmade and allowing for the organized interruption of the production process, we’d be able to remain more flexible than our competitors.”
Below, Hamlin delves into how he’s preserved the “fewer, better” mindset while his products grace the interiors of the world’s biggest and most recognizable companies.
Tell me about what “handmade” means to you in the scope of Submaterial’s operations.
There’s so much scale and emphasis on efficiency in manufacturing products that there’s little room for variation within a given product’s design parameters. Handmade means that at any stage, we can move in a different direction and are not limited by the trajectory of a machine. We’ve been able to maintain our strength in this niche market because we never lost sight of the handmade model as we grew.
Why has the company continued to focus on natural materials, like wool, wood, and leather?
Natural materials ground us on a primal level and connect us to the world and each other in ways that the synthetic simply can’t. I emphasize natural materials because that’s what I want to experience in my home and the environment. Reducing chemical exposure has been very important for myself and my staff, and I hope the manufacturing trend will move much more purposefully in this direction.
What challenges do you face as a company that prioritizes more intentional manufacturing processes over a more traditional large-scale, low-cost model?
When one of the primary tenets of your business model is handcraft, it can be quite challenging to respond to the kind of large orders common in the commercial interiors industry. Our work is highly specialized, and it can be difficult to recruit and train enough craftspeople to respond to the demand for our products.
How did those challenges inform the launch of your bespoke service?
Customization was baked-in from Submaterial’s earliest business model. The ability to quickly respond to requests for changes in color, scale, and configuration has been important in both our creative approach and our success. We encourage designers to become more familiar with the flexibility of products available through our Designer Trade Services. That provides designers with tools to realize unique versions of our products. We now have more than two dozen wall art configurations that can be customized in shape, color, and scale to add a showpiece to any residential space. Our mirrors and hanging screens offer function and beauty for the modern home. We want to become a go-to resource for timeless pieces for folks prioritizing handcrafted, American-made decor.
What has been your biggest win? This can be a commission, a design award, a client shoutout, a designer endorsement, etc.
Earning a two-page editorial spread and a significant design award in 2014 for our Figure No. 1 wallcovering was an early career milestone. It was the first time I felt fully validated by the industry, and it motivated me to keep going during a very uncertain period. In 2019, our Wander mirrors also earned an award.
Our clients themselves are a huge daily win. I’m tremendously grateful for the support of major players in the architecture and commercial interiors industry that continue to specify our handmade products on their beautiful and sophisticated projects. Without their support, Submaterial would have had a much smaller impact than it has. In this highly competitive industry, we are very lucky.
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