There are many reasons people start their own companies. Sometimes it’s because they are extremely passionate about making a difference; other times it’s because they just need to be in charge. Then there are those opportunities to make big bucks. And once in awhile, there is this crazy notion that a better life is possible. This is the story of Minglie Chen and Tyler Smutz, CEO and President/Master Craftsman of a full service design and fabrication company called Killstress Designs.
I first met Tyler and Minglie a few years ago when they moved in next door to me in the semi-suburban Bronx neighborhood known as Riverdale. It did not take long for me to notice the cool looking guy with the infectious smile who rode a bike and seemed to enjoy my son’s long diatribes about Transformers (his obsession at the time). We soon got to chatting about work and stuff, and I learned that he was involved in the theater and production, my own field. Later on, I learned that his girlfriend was an actress currently touring in a Broadway show. That would explain why I hadn’t met her yet.
Soon enough, I noticed strange sounds coming out of their garage at all hours of the night, the arrival of a vintage pick-up truck, and the periodic appearance and subsequent disappearance of large pieces of furniture on the driveway. What was going on here? By the time I finally met Minglie, I realized that these two were up to something wonderful.
Minglie Chen has a friendly, easy way about her, much like Tyler. In fact, the two often seem to exist in some kind of collective bubble of joy. I would see them engaged in some concentrated activity in their workshop at early hours in the morning, requisite cappuccinos in hand, and sometimes into the middle of the night. But always, one or the other (or both) of them had time to stop and chat about something related to theater, music, business, politics, culture – they quickly became two of my favorite people.
You’re probably thinking, that’s all very nice, but this does NOT sound like a business story. Oh, but it is. That’s just the point. Killstress Designs is founded on the principles of friendship, quality time, integration with community, passion for creativity and love, in its broadest and purest sense. As CEO, Minglie handles the business, marketing, and communications, while Tyler presides over design and fabrication. One look at their website and their blog, and you realize that this duo is operating at the highest level of craftsmanship, with a keen awareness of their many connections to the world at large.
I recently had Minglie re-tell me the story of how she and Tyler, who were at the top of their game on Broadway and its touring circuit at the time – she as an actress starring in Avenue Q, he as an established technical director, rigger, carpenter and fly man on shows ranging from The Lion King to The Producers – decided to leave that all behind and start their own business.
It all started with Tyler’s design and creation of these amazing custom road cases, designed to transport and display show merchandise in theater lobbies. These meticulously crafted, durable, multi-purpose units quickly gained a following among Broadway show managers, and that became the launching point for Killstress Designs.
Custom, handcrafted pieces of furniture made from fine woods and welded metals were not far behind. The sounds and smells of construction and fabrication continued. I began seeing sleek, modern desks and cabinets being carefully loaded into cartons and onto the back of the pick-up. Their finely crafted work was becoming more sought after.
The couple had already begun to tire of their nomadic lifestyle, and were drawn in by the meaningful exchanges they experienced with clients who were so pleased with the items they had ordered. These client engagements became an integral part of the process and motivation behind the formation of Killstress Designs. It was clear to Minglie and Tyler that their destiny was calling to them. And so they ended up moving to California, getting married and setting up shop (not necessarily in that order)…
At their workshop in Costa Mesa, CA, projects include residential and industrial furnishings, installations and other designs. Clearly the extremely high end quality of their work is being appreciated – their Nakashima-inspired chair was exhibited at the Bowers Museum in nearby Santa Ana earlier this year. Indeed, their commitment to hand crafting is a huge endorsement for creative design as well as the skilled trades. This, in turn is connected to the couple’s concern for fair labor practices and human rights as it relates to maintaining a local base of operations.
As part of their design and labor aesthetic, they make it a point to work with locally sourced goods and supplies and pay attention to issues such as deforestation, run-off in the water and off-casting of resins from formaldehydes used to create fiberboard. These things inform their choice of materials and manufacturing processes. They favor metal and high quality woods like hickory, walnut and mahogany, but have also worked with glass, plexiglass, fiberglass, leather and nylon. The only thing they don’t do is upholstery (you have to draw the line somewhere).
“It is art, it is business, it is environment, it is people, it’s all those things… to only focus on any one thing, I feel like in this day and age is a little bit dangerous. We’ve come a little bit too far in how we’ve affected people and the planet. We’ve evolved to a point where … especially in a developed country like ours, we can afford to be a little more complex in the way we approach things.”
Of course, money is more of a worry than before. Handcrafting takes time, and until Tyler grooms a team of apprentices, there is only so much that can be created. However, it is clear that Killstress Designs has set a standard for creative excellence and conscious manufacturing & business practices that seems to be its own reward.
Does Minglie have any advice for entrepreneurs who are likewise striking out on their own? “If you believe in it, then it’s gonna be good and people will believe in it and you. …and this is coming from someone who made a complete sharp left turn in her career.” Indeed, Minglie and Tyler’s story is the opposite of a cautionary tale – take it as a bit of inspiration, if you will. And if you’re still not sure, consider this: “Every day we feel thankful for what we have, we feel thankful for each other and for the people who support us, and I really can’t say that we really felt that or knew that the way that we do now in our old careers.” Sounds like a dream come true, to me…
Listen to the full interview here:
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is launching Project Mavens, a literary, editorial design collective, with partner & writer Lillian Ann Slugocki. On Twitter @projectmaven.