Remember how Facebook was supposed to usurp the Internet? Few things occasion me such unadulterated schadenfreude as the failure of that scheme. Especially when I find platforms built for goals far less lofty taking precedence over even Facebook’s primary uses. Instagram, for instance, which has led me to not just new friends but chance meetings with old ones, work collaborations, couches to sleep on, new favorites in music, coffee, and cocktails, and now…and now…
Oh, and this…
If you haven’t already, meet Carved.
They are a woodworking outfit based in Elkhart, Indiana, a modest little burg of about 51,000 souls, situated near the Michigan border, named for a Shawnee Indian chief who was cousin of Tecumseh.
They make smartphone skins and cases out of sustainably sourced wood, hand-finished and souped up with precision laser cut graphics.
I stumbled across them through Instagram; seduced by the goods, charmed by their hometown pride, I sent them an admiring email and heard back almost right away from Alex, who was the company’s very first hire (back in 2011) and now gets to draw and doodle for a living. (He also handles retail and wholesale sales.)
Alex studied art a little in high school and college, but his hustle to get married dictated his career choice toward the most expedient option:
“I made dentures before this. I had heard that dentures was a good job for artists, that there’s a lot of art involved.” [diplomatic pause] “There’s…some? Not a lot of room for creativity.”
Three years into his oral beautification career, Alex was attending a friend’s bachelor party and fell into conversation with the bride-to-be’s brother, a guy named Grant Sassaman. They hit it off over their taste in music, and started hanging out. Then Grant got involved with Elkhart native and inveterate entrepreneur John Webber, to start this business making solid wood smartphone cases…at that point, a market with very little competition. They approached Alex to join them; to his father-in-law’s chagrin, he said yes.
That was three years ago. Since then, Alex’s father-in-law has fully embraced the career change, which Alex speaks of with a certain dazed bliss in his voice:
“It’s a huge change: from stress to the can’t-wait-to-come-in-on-Monday-morning kind of idea.”
Though, he adds, the best days are Friday, when the company goes out for lunch or takes the opportunity afforded by the approaching weekend to play pranks on each other.
“One of my favorite pranks: we were going to start recycling cardboard…and to launch that, we were going to pull a prank on Bryan. He’s really nice, soft-spoken, keeps to himself. So we were going to have him take out the cardboard–he didn’t know about the switchover. I was waiting in the dumpster, and of course, you can kind of fill in the blank. He throws it in, I pop up, and I say ‘Recycle!’ I just yell it really loud. He freaks out a little bit. The next punch line…there’s two…I point him over to the next bin, ‘you recycle over there,’ he walks over there, and there’s another guy hiding in the cardboard container and he jumps out and says ‘Thanks for recycling!‘”
Not all the pranks, he adds, are that creative. A chestnut was putting tape over the water faucet, in anticipation of Grant’s entrance:”He eats oatmeal on his way in, every morning, and rinses his bowl in the sink. We were all just hiding out in the building, like little girls. He doesn’t react very much, but we started busting up really hardcore.
“More recently, we’ve gotten into long-range rubber band shooting.”
Along with designs by resident artists among the company’s 9 full-time employees, Carved combines forces with independent artists to offer cases with a wider range of art and story. One of these artists is Alex’s wife, the lovely Emily Jane, who reworks modern technology into old-fashioned objets d’art as sweet and stylish as her vintage name:
In its three short years, Carved has been assailed with press, from indie blogger types to bands to Esquire, Gizmodo, and others of that ilk. As you might expect, it’s brought the big money calling.
“We’ve had some opportunities to grow the business really big, really fast,” Alex acknowledges. “But they were a little too demanding. If we decide to go that route, we’d have to lose a lot of personal touch with our customers. We want to be smaller, sort of local, that niche product that’s really something special.”
Something really special like, say, a bespoke design inspired by life on the road. Mm hm–that’s happening. I sent Carved a whole heap o’ thoughts and ideas today, and I’ll keep you posted on its progress. And, you better believe, will brag like hell when it’s finished.
(In reality, I’m not that special…you can have a custom Carved case, too. All you have to do is ask for one.)
Along with being sleek, streamlined, and remarkably durable (Alex says they’ve had multiple reports of phones dropped on concrete and picked up with both phone and case intact…including his own phone dropping out of his bike caddy), the artistry on a Carved case is attracting the attention of veteran woodworkers, who stop by to peruse the merchandise and talk shop.
“The age range of our audience is really big. People that don’t even know how to use computers are into our stuff. It’s not just teenagers trying to dress up their phone; it’s a lot of wood enthusiasts. And just people who want something unique.”
Alex comes originally from Goshen, one town over, notable mainly as one of the first towns in the region that buffed out the suburban corporate culture of the ’90s, and made an effort to “bring downtown back,” as he puts it.
“Downtowns are so cool. I really like them,” he muses, smiling audibly. “I feel like with this business, it’s pushing Elkhart in that similar direction. It’s just been incredible, working here.”
Carved makes solid wood skins and cases for all manner of smartphones and other devices.