Our trip odometer is approaching 2,000 miles. With nothing but sky and open fields in front of me, my mind begins firing questions with the tempo of a gatling gun. What the heck are we doing?! Why exactly are we doing this? What and who are we actually trying to discover? Why am I driving through southern Ohio? Ohio?!
Indianapolis slips below the horizon in the rearview and Cleveland crests before me within the neverending vanishing point of black asphalt punctuated by yellow and white color blocks. It’s hypnotic. I am alone with my thoughts while Jen is in New York for the week. She is my center of gravity and without her I might be spinning out of orbit, hurtling toward an existential crisis at 70 miles per hour.
After winding my way through Cleveland as dusk gave over to night, I settle in with old friends, Anthony and Hannah, to enjoy a vegan meal and an ice cold beer on their back deck. We catch up and reminisce our many New York adventures. I hear of their European tour and Italian summer with extended family — envy overwhelms. The son of Italian immigrants, Anthony grew up in Cleveland. Once he could drive a car, his desire was to leave, seeking more in life than his childhood home was able to offer. Anthony’s persistence is not to be underestimated. He was rejected by his school of choice — a premiere New York institution — not just once, but twice. He was also rejected by three other New York schools. Not one to be deterred, he locked himself in the basement of his grandmother’s home for 40 days and 40 nights practicing his future craft — percussion. Not only was Anthony finally accepted by The New School for Jazz, he excelled as a thriving jazz percussionist in New York City.
After many years in New York, a short European tour, a summer in Italy which almost became an indefinite stay, and a world of infinite opportunity, Anthony and Hannah returned home to Cleveland. These two make for a dynamic, powerhouse creative couple. Hannah is also a Cleveland native, a twin (which makes her awesome) and a brilliant illustrator, designer and animator. Hannah honed her craft at the Cleveland Institute of Art, ranked one of the top institutions in the nation and top in the midwest. She has transformed her rigorous training in Biomedical Illustration into beautiful renderings of the biological world. In collaboration with her twin sister Rebecca, a passionate print maker, the two have recently started a new stationery company called Bicycle Prints. It is a fledgling endeavor with its own little corner shop on Etsy. Creativity and a desire for authentic community is an inherent part of their DNA, Hannah and Anthony traveled halfway around the world seeking heritage, creative inspiration and a supportive community. They found this back home.
The next morning I head out. Winding through an old industrial area on the east side of downtown Cleveland, I pass one amazing building after another, after another — all stunning turn-of-the-century brick warehouses and manufacturing facilities. I’m finding my way slowly through this maze of glorious memorials of wartime industry. To my surprise, there is a bustle of activity. What was once rust has been refurbished, repurposed, as part of a city undergoing a post-industrial renaissance with impressive potential. I park. Searching for the entrance to my next meeting, I wait for Sam who was kind enough to welcome a total stranger meandering across the U.S.
2nd Shift Design Co. is a studio-workshop combo that specializes in contemporary product design. Ultimately, it is a collaborative experiment to develop a dynamic, flexible, modern-day design studio. Sam Cahill and Chris Comella, two of the founding members (originally seven), are continuing to refine the hypothesis. The design of their product is striking: minimal, iconic, functional, modern and yet with a touch of embellishment, much like Cleveland, it is timeless. No small feat for any designer to accomplish. With a rich education in industrial design from the Cleveland Institute of Art, Sam has several years of experience working as a designer for a well known product brand. In his tenure he discovered that while most products advertised were brutally minimalistic, the vast majority of Americans still buy more traditional products. Sam’s goal is to design an item — an heirloom — that is boldly simple in its design yet with modest embellishment reminiscent of historic elements. 2nd Shift Design Co. embodies the desire to design, create and produce products with lasting value.
“We’re constantly experimenting with new design and product ideas. Our goal is to create heirlooms – something that is truly timeless.” – Sam Cahill
When Sam talks of Cleveland, his genuine excitement in the transformation taking place is evident. And he’s proud to be an active participant investing in the community, the city and the regional economy. His goal is to work and collaborate locally and beyond. He partners with Amish furniture builders to mass produce various wood components, and connects with other designers and retailers across the north east. Sam’s vision for his city is simple: a collaborative, creative restoration.
Time is tight—my next meeting starts at 2pm, sharp. Street parking in downtown Cleveland should be a breeze, but I couldn’t be more wrong! If I paid more attention to sports I would know that Lebron is home. Downtown is crawling with people. No street parking and the lots only accept cash. Who carries cash?! (I do now.) After circling countless blocks, fanning out farther with each lap, a car pulls away from the curb. My Manhattan driving skills jump full force as I cut across multiple lanes of traffic to a screeching halt at a red light — one foot on the brake, the other hovering a hair over the accelerator. This forthcoming u-turn into a parallel spot has to resolve before the cars opposite make it through the intersection.
After commandeering my parking spot and a few blocks walk, I arrive at my appointment with Christopher Ferranti, Co-founder and CEO of flourish. I escape the sporting chaos, stepping from the sidewalk directly into a welcoming, inspired environment — prime retail space in the heart of downtown. We head up to a loft above the kitchen, a conference room and scenic overlook of the space. It’s not often a creative agency offices in prime retail space. Christopher explains with a bit of jest, “It used to be us and the tumbleweeds down here when we first started. Not anymore! We love being a part of this thriving city.” A lot has changed in the last decade. Not only has Lebron left and come home, so have many others. Cleveland is on the rise.
Flourish started out in the photography business, and quickly grew into a creative services agency. Today they lead with strategy through a talented team of multi-disciplinary thinkers and doers. With an acute focus on delivering effective outcomes for their clients, flourish also partners with other talented, local collaborators when needed. The agency has continued to steadily and organically grow over the last fifteen years, providing award-winning service to clients in Cleveland and beyond. Recently they renewed on a thirteen year lease with the option to expand, all to double-down on downtown Cleveland. They are locked in and committed to the area and to building a thriving business.
“It used to be us and the tumbleweeds down here when we first started. Not anymore! We love being a part of this thriving city.” – Christopher Ferranti
Reemerging into the sporting chaos — a quick search and a few unnecessary blocks walked — I find the car. It’s time for tacos with Anthony and Hannah. Over dinner Anthony talks of the changing neighborhoods, the opportunities and potential of the city, and all that’s happening. He’s an articulate tour guide of sorts. His excitement for the city and the creative community is infectious! And while noshing on tacos, it hits me, the pattern is blatantly apparent. Why did I not see this earlier?! Kansas City, Indy, and now Cleveland. Everyone that we meet is genuinely excited for the larger community and see themselves as a integral piece — an individual of a greater ecosystem. The focus is “our” potential, “our” opportunity, “our” challenges. The conversations are not self focused; not “my” potential, nor “my” opportunity. This ethos is exceptionally refreshing. While it is still early in our trip, the pattern throughout these cities is present.
The next morning before heading to Pittsburgh to pick up Jen from the airport, I stop by Zygote Press to meet Liz Maugans, Co-founder and Executive Director. Zygote was birthed from the need for the arts community to have workspace, to pursue their artistic endeavors. Founded in 1996, at a time when many studios and universities were moving to digital production, Zygote worked to inherit and purchase the traditional (and dated) equipment needed to build a world class print shop. They offer a variety of memberships, studio rentals, educational classes, residency programs, exhibitions and more.
Liz is an entrepreneur with an artist’s heart, and she quickly realized another opportunity – the artistic community was scattered. There were many artists working in parallel, but not really working together to build a strong and connected artistic community to create even greater value for both the artists and the city. It started with a publication. They founded the Collective Arts Network (CAN), a members network of regional arts institutions and galleries that produces a quarterly journal, a dynamic website and regular events around the city. The goal is to highlight artists in the region and demonstrate the inherent value of a vibrant, flourishing arts community. Liz has also been instrumental in a variety of additional initiatives and endeavors to further this movement. She is very much an artistic, serial entrepreneur.
It is readily apparent the creative community in Cleveland is generating a significant impact, and is an important player in the city’s current renaissance. The collective power and influence of a tight-knit collaborative is a force to be reckoned. Those daring greatly, co-laboring together for a cause greater than themseves will generate meaningful and postitive change. This ideal has held true throughout the course of history, and will prevail in the future.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Today, software companies are banking on such concepts, working to develop platforms that better connect individuals, create more efficiencies and accountability structures, and eliminate the silos of typical organizational structures. And while software can create such scalable efficiencies, it cannot replace vulnerability, empathy and the ingredients needed to develop deep relationships. We each have the opportunity in our midst to connect, to invest and to contribute to our communities in order to build the collective future. It is this responsibility — this privilege — that we seek to explore in detail and to greater depths.
We are on the east coast after more than a month in south Florida. Driving from Key West up through Atlanta, veering north by northwest toward St. Louis, and then making a sharp left as we head to the west coast. We’ll follow a straight line through Kansas, meander through Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and then spend a week in San Francisco. We plan to take five or more days down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles for a week. Then we’ll head east through the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, more of the southwest to Albuquerque, and down to Marfa, Texas, then over to Austin and New Orleans. If we’re heading your way, we’d be thrilled to connect in person! Please reach out directly and let’s enjoy a coffee as we dream of the future.
Neil & Jen Baker Brown are design futurists, navigating the adventure that is life for the last 12 years in marriage and partnership across a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors and experiments. They have collaborated with others on projects ranging from an arts and event space in Manhattan, to a grassroots film festival; they have taught leadership development in Vietnam, coached young entrepreneurs, and built an agency to partner with early stage companies. You can consistently find them on the road and online. www.bakerbrownco.com @bakerbrownco
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