From everyday to extraordinary
Bart Haney has gone five days without leaving the building where he works. The fidgety industrial designer has stayed up for 20 hours, slept for four, but he’s not dragging. His feet are in constant motion, his shoulders squirm up and down, and his hands fly around his face as he explains that his group’s latest project, PixelBlocks, released just two weeks ago, are colorful Lego-like pieces that form pictures like a TV screen.
A half-empty can of Coke is by his side, but Haney, 28, is not powered by caffeine. “Social buzz” -- he says the two words so fast they sound like one hiss -- has him rolling along. He’s greeting hundreds of people streaming into his design studio’s open house at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artists’ colony off Los Angeles’ Main Street.
Haney has no reason to leave his two-story building where pallets of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer once were stacked. He lives in the loft above his studio, which is boxed in by a restaurant and other cavernous warehouse spaces made hospitable by the architects, graphic designers and other creative types who occupy them. As an industrial designer who cooks up surprising solutions to everyday needs, like self-heating cans of soup and inflatable chairs, Haney has a renegade, entrepreneurial lifestyle that fits right in.
“I’ve got a fridge upstairs, a bar next door and lots of neighbors for group art therapy,” says Haney, while wearing a look that implies, “What more do you need?”
The monthly rent for his 2,500-square-foot studio is $1,500, “cheaper than most apartments,” he says. “And no matter what I do here, I’ll probably get my deposit back. This place can be totally trashed one minute and cleaned up the next. Unlike when I rented a lady’s basement in Pasadena and I did charcoal renderings and clay models over white Berber carpeting.”
While still attending Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Haney opened his first studio in another Brewery building, then moved into this larger space five years ago with two roommates who were also design students.
A handful of PCs, a few thousand dollars in software, a drive to make “orchestrated sensations,” and the creative team that calls itself SuperHappyBunny (yes, one word) was born. They hope to become the next Philippe Starck, Michael Graves or James Dyson, who converted mundane objects -- lemon juicers, teakettles and vacuum cleaners -- into efficient yet fun must-haves.
The company is more like a loose collective than a traditional operation with a boss and underlings. The number of Bunnies fluctuates from two to 12, says Haney, depending on the project. Most are Art Center grads specializing in product design and graphics. When they’re not working on a team project, they’re freelancing for others or going solo. But there’s always a Bunny around to help out in a crunch.
Most of the group’s witty furniture, lighting, posters and toys furnish Haney’s space. There’s the Neo Amish chair, which doesn’t use nails, screws or glue; the birch pieces slot into each other. Haney designed the $200 chair while applying to Art Center. He’s sold a few hundred, Frank Gehry signed one, and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York has one on display through Jan. 25 in its triennial exhibit of contemporary architecture and objects.
Also in Haney’s space is a milky-white table that resembles a Chinese takeout container. Special #8, as it’s called, was conceived by Art Center grad Dino Alzadon, but Haney redesigned and fabricated it, then sold copies. It’s made of the same polycarbonate used for bulletproof glass. “It’s extra durable,” Haney says, “but I don’t know if you can hold off a gang fight with it.”
Posters, instruction manuals and sketched dreams of what could be are pinned to the walls.
Although Haney now lives alone, he’s never alone. The front door is open, inviting neighbors and strangers to wander inside. There’s a spiral staircase leading upstairs with a sign chained across it that states: Absolutely No Visitors. Yet friends glide up and down the steps all day long.
He rolls out of bed some mornings, sits at his kitchen table, a chrome number out of the 1940s, and eats cereal while the rest of the team works in the studio downstairs. “I have that live-at-home comfort, but sometimes I cross the line,” he says.
Haney, in absent-minded designer style, might be naked and visible to those below.
On the first day of the Brewery’s Art Walk last weekend, Haney was stepping out of the shower when he heard banging on the front door. People were peering into the 18-foot factory windows, hoping to be let in an hour before the official start of the open house.
“If the company gets bigger and we get employees who aren’t my friends from college, I’ll have to move out.”
In between dreaming up new products, the SuperHappyBunny crew consults with other inventors and investors, like the man who wants them to come up with a new way to apply suntan lotion. And PixelBlocks creator Jay Simmons, an engineer who wanted to duplicate the way a TV or computer lines up pixels -- dots -- to form a picture on screen. He decided on making colorful plastic pieces that snap together and can also be joined on their sides, creating hinges and bendable joints for three-dimensional creations.
After sitting on the idea for 18 years, Simmons got the Bunnies involved. They enlarged the pieces so they can lock onto Legos, chose the 20 translucent colors and built hundreds of models and photo mosaics to show how to play with the blocks. They hired illustrators, who also live in the Brewery, to create the packaging, and they put together a logo, media kit, stationery, Web site (www.pixelblocks.com) and instruction manual, which is “an additional piece of frivolity,” says Bunny partner Edwin Roses. He lives a few studios away from Haney, and Roses’ roommate, Aaron Rincover, brought the toy idea to the group to refine.
Haney -- in a black T-shirt and Levis, the last clean clothes in his suitcase, which serves as a close-and-go dresser -- says he never wanted to be the guy with the clipboard who kept inventory over the widgets, but part of the team that got that guy’s company up and running.
“I graduated from Art Center in 2000 after the economy crashed and the corporate jobs disappeared. I was poor but debt-free, so I was able to live on the skinny,” says Haney, who guest-lectures at Art Center and USC on how to run a design studio. “The economy turned out to be a benefit because I realized I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”
Although PixelBlocks are new, children entering Haney’s studio instantly know what to do with them. “They sit down at the table and start making things,” Haney says with a satisfied grin. “They’re having so much fun, it’s sad to see kids and sometimes their dads being pulled away from the table, kicking and screaming.”
He shrugs it off as if such a scene happens in everyone’s living space.