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Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
I’ve long been a fan of Gantri, the brand making beautiful, sustainable, and unique 3D-printed lamps from independent studios and designers across the world. Created to minimize production waste and connect small designers with the means to bring their visions to life, Gantri’s mission statement sits at the compelling intersection of sustainability and style. I had the opportunity to pick the brain of the man behind the brand – and we cover it all, from spinning sugarcane into lamps to the Gantri light he loves most. Read on for my conversation with Gantri’s Ian Yang.
I’d love to begin by learning more about your personal background, and how that led to the beginnings of Gantri.
Ian Yang: I’m really fortunate to have been exposed to a wide variety of cultures and professions throughout my life. I spent my childhood in Shanghai during China’s export boom, where I toured factories with my parents and learned the importance of manufacturing. I lived in England during my adolescent years, where I studied everything from economics to textiles, and met people from all around the world.
About 10 years ago, I moved to San Francisco. I learned to code, worked in software startups and eventually found my way to the SF TechShop, where I got my hands dirty learning how to make things and build 3D printers. That hot, steamy building full of passionate makers was also where I started Gantri.
These diverse experiences helped me discover my true passions for design and technology, for making physical things instead of pushing pixels, and for empowering people instead of replacing them. The idea of Gantri came to me surprisingly quickly while I was working out of the TechShop. It seemed like an unattainable pipe dream to many people, but for me it felt like I was destined for it.
And what inspired your design mind growing up?
IY: Fashion has always been an inspiration for me. I remember watching a replay of Alexander McQueen’s robotic paint splatter fashion show on TV as a teenager and just felt goose bumps all over. As a boy who was still trying to figure out his identity and his place in the world, it gave me hope and showed me endless possibilities.
Where do you find inspiration and excitement now, in the design world or elsewhere?
IY: These days I still follow fashion shows, but I’ve also added Drag Race to my mix.
Can you speak to the myriad ways in which Gantri’s business model is paving the way for a less wasteful, more sustainable future, especially as it pertains to the notion of scale within design and production? I love thinking about how Gantri is reimagining ideas of scale – preserving the unique vision of small, independent designers and studios while simultaneously bringing those designs to life in homes across the globe.
IY: I love this question because you really nailed how our vision of design is connected to the way we’ve built our business.
Design is personal. Every designer has a unique story to tell and design consumers want one-of-a-kind items that reflect their own taste and space. However, barriers in product development and manufacturing mean that a product has to sell at a certain volume to make economic sense. This leads to the phenomenon where 1) there aren’t enough new product opportunities, 2) mass-market designs, in an effort to appeal to as many people as possible, lose their characters, and 3) design uniqueness becomes synonymous with luxury.
Our goal is to break this status quo by building a new way for designers to develop and sell designs using digital manufacturing technologies. Digital manufacturing lowers the cost of bringing a new product to market, so a product doesn’t have to sell tens of thousands of units to breakeven. This creates an opportunity for designers to cater their designs to a smaller number of people, allowing them to retain their unique vision and stories. More designers can participate in the market, and consumers get a large variety of designs at accessible prices.
And you’re not just innovating with Gantri’s business model. Every part of the production of Gantri lights seems to be oriented towards functionality and sustainability. Can you briefly touch on Gantri’s distinct plant-based polymers and 3D-printing process, and how both contribute to a more sustainable manufacturing process?
IY: Thank you! The plant polymers are a big deal because when we decided to invest in it five years ago, sustainability was nowhere near as buzzy as it is today. But we knew it would be critical to our vision of the future. Plastic is a fundamental material pillar of human civilization, but unfortunately it contributes to a wide range of environmental issues – from greenhouse gasses to toxic waste. If we could replace it with a more environmentally-friendly alternative without sacrificing all of its benefits, it would be huge. Thanks to the collaborative hard work of the Gantri team and our partners at ColorFabb, we developed two plant-based polymers that are 100% biodegradable and capable of being used in durable goods.
Have you been pushed to iterate with materials in response to new design concepts?
IY: Since then, we’ve made several iterations on them to make them more sustainable. We switched the raw materials to sustainably-farmed, non-GMO sugarcane. We also increased the percentage of bio-based content in these materials. We’re continuing to iterate on them with a goal of achieving 100% bio-based and 100% biodegradable in the next few years. In addition to plant-based polymers, we’re also working on other exciting materials that are beautiful, durable and sustainable.
Can you speak to some of the greatest challenges of building Gantri, both at the initial stages and in the present day? I imagine there’s a significant learning curve in aligning designers from across the globe within this digital manufacturing framework, and honing the meeting point between beautiful design and thoughtful engineering.
IY: Balancing manufacturability and design has been a huge challenge from day one. Even though we created strict design guidelines for our designers, 3D printing (and in particular the process that we developed around it) is so new that we sometimes couldn’t predict all its intricate limitations. On top of that, we of course often work with ambitious designers who like to push boundaries.
For example, we worked with Louis Filosa a few years back to launch the Cantilever Table Light, which features a deceptively simple globe. To be able to overcome the overhang challenges of printing a sphere, our engineers had to hand-write g-codes, line by line, to achieve a smooth, single-shell construction. In 2021, we worked on a task lighting project with Smart Design, who were real experts in ergonomics and pushed us to engineer products that could pivot and rotate - something that was extremely difficult to achieve. Every time we did something like this, while the process was often painful, we learned a ton along the way and made great products. The Cantilever Table Light is now a best-seller and is being sold at the MoMA store, and the Smart Design collection won many awards. It’s all worth the work.
As a founder, how do you take care of yourself and prevent burnout? Do you have any self-care products or practices that are an essential part of your day or week?
IY: Mental health for me is extremely important. When things get stressful, the easiest thing to do is to squeeze your “me-time” to maximize work hours. I learned that that’s a mistake, because it leads to worse decision-making – which is the most important function of a founder. So I like to make sure I schedule time for meditations, therapy, self-reflection and journaling. These tools help me clear my thoughts, and reset my mind so I can more effectively lead my team.
Can you share any DTC brands or smaller companies you love? Are there any start-ups you’re particularly excited about?
IY: I love brands that offer a more sustainable packaging experience - those that opt for paper, glass or aluminum instead of plastic. We all know that plastic recycling is a sham, so the less we use the better. I’m a huge fan of Necessaire for their re-fillable body washes. I love Grove for their metal-tinned detergent pods. On a non-DTC side note, I’m really looking forward to more fashion brands starting to use plant-based leather, like the ones from Bolt Threads.
I have a few Gantri lights myself, and they’re the centerpieces of my apartment – they genuinely are works of art. I have to ask: do you have a favorite Gantri light of all time?
IY: Haha I don’t think I can say if any are my “favorites” per se [author’s note: he cannot pick a favorite child], but I am drawn personally to more sleek, minimal designs. The light I use at home the most is the Carve Floor Light by Ammunition.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.