Eric Singer seems to be able to creatively craft everything from the very idea sparking what today has become Shwood Eyewear to the literal walls that hold the newly located Shwood headquarters in the blossoming inner southeast Portland.
In their one stop shop warehouse and showroom, Shwood produces everything (even the conference room table) in-house from marketing and sales to design and frame cuts. Eric and his concept design team sit mere feet away from production and assembly. It’s obvious to see and even feel when you walk into their building that the physical closeness among departments guides the company’s ability to find extreme efficiency and create an incredibly nuanced product; as they collaboratively problem solve, create a distinct modern product, and in between – challenge local businesses to ping pong tournaments.
What do you love most about your work?
The thing that I love most is learning a new technique or learning about a new material, and how you can play with it and use it. There wasn’t a school that showed you how to make sunglasses – I wasn’t really taught the right way to do it. So there’s this learning curve, whether it be woodworking or cutting metal, spacing or how to integrate wood and glass. All of us, the creative team here, we always play off each other to figure out how to do something – either look it up or trial and error. We spend a lot of time and effort getting things done and doing it right.
What would you call yourself?
Technically its concept designer, but we all wear so many different hats. Like I mentioned, everyone does so much collaborating here. In terms of product design or a new style of sunglasses, we like to kick ideas around. I will sketch something out and give it to our developers and they will change it a bit or even add to them, and we will go back and forth just growing ideas off of each other.
How do you name the different styles?
I grew up in a little town called Canby – which just happens to also be the name of our first sunglasses. We like to name our sunglasses after different places in Oregon that made some kind of personal impact on any one of us.
Talk about your initial sunglass creations.
I think it was 2005 – right out of high school – I was working in a movie theater, and I needed a new creative project. I loved sunglasses and had always kept a huge stash of vintage frames. I used a tree branch, Madrone, for my first pair. The wood has this beautiful orangey bark to it. I had always loved that tree and there weren’t any around except this one in my neighbor’s yard. I didn’t want them to see me, so I waited until it was dark and climbed up into the tree with a hack saw and cut one of the branches off. I figured I only had one chance so I better not mess this up.
At first it would take me an entire day just to make one pair. And to make a pair, I had to already have a pair of sunglasses so I could take the hinges and lenses out to use those components with whatever wood I had. So I was constantly going to the Dollar Store or getting vintage frames to use. I did maybe three or four years of doing it that way and trying to perfect that process. At one point I was selling sunglasses for twenty bucks on the streets of Last Thursday. In my mind, I was just selling them for enough money to make more sunglasses. I would be thinking about exciting materials I could buy and make another pair with.
What are you focused most on currently?
A lot of what I do right now is on the display side. I really like the act of building and getting my hands dirty.
What is it like to get a new line completed?
For our Stabilize collection we were taking feathers and flowers in their natural form and turning them into sunglasses. So we had to ask ourselves – okay, how do you do that? How do you make that material and pass through every single step to where you have a finished frame? There’s a lot of pulling your hair out and yelling at the guy next to you until you’ve solved the problem. The process for all of us can be stressful, but the fun part is finding the solution. It’s always the hard part, but something in that is also fun and gratifying too.
What’s the most valuable lesson learned from your growth experience?
I think one thing that has allowed us to get to where we are today is understanding that we need to let go of certain things and not have complete control over everything. For me it was difficult, because I started this ten years ago and the first five years it was just me by myself. It wasn’t this business, it was a hobby. Then it became a business, and letting people have certain kinds of control was difficult. For instance, getting another person on the production line with me and teaching them how to make these glasses was like, I don’t want to show them my secrets! But I had to. And now everyone knows how to do it, and they can do it much better than myself.
Being able to release control of certain things, knowing that that’s the best chance of being successful – is letting people who are better than you do the things that they are better at. Let those things go so that you can do the things that you are good at doing that you actually want to do. At the end of the day you have people doing the best job possible.
How has your developed efficiency lead to your larger success?
Our product has changed so many times in terms of how it is made. Getting more efficient over time has brought us to be the most efficient that we have ever been. The defect rate there for a while was really high. If our team couldn’t figure out how to solve those defect problems together on the production line we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a company. We’ve done the wooden sunglass game in-house and in the USA better than anyone probably ever will. We’ve put so much blood, sweat, and tears into this thing.
What is it like creating in your new space?
It took us two years to find this space and we love it here. We actually thought initially that we would have a lot more room than we do. We had envisioned a skate ramp and some other things – but as it is, we’re packed in here. We’ve kind of met our limit here in this space. So far, we’re selling sunglasses just as quickly as we can make the frames. We do other sunglass products and all of our wood-based products are made in-house. At this point there’s lots of places and options for us in terms of growth – but we definitely want to keep the Portland quality, the hand-crafted quality of the brand as much as we possibly can.
How do you balance creative satisfaction with this business?
Sunglasses were the one thing I never got sick of making. Now, for ten years I’ve been invested in making wood sunglasses. This business allows me to do enough different things like design glasses, make furniture, and even decorating. Our office desk I made over a weekend. I hated the table that we were using in our space before – it was so ugly. So I got this piece of wood, made a new table, and moved it in that following Monday. Fun stuff like that, I get to really do and be a part of.
Right now I’m also restoring an old Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s a giant project for me, because I’ve never done something like that before. I am very much learning as I go with the engine work and body work. For me it’s a gigantic learning curve, but I love that kind of thing. That’s where I go to after work is done.
How do you feel Shwood fits within the community?
Just two blocks down from us on Division has just blown up. Even a few years ago it was still pretty run down. But we’ve been at this southeast location for about a year and a half, and it’s cool to watch and to be a part of this growing community. It felt good when we moved in, but was a big renovation for us to use this space since no one had used it for so many years. This back of house is about ten thousand square feet – the whole thing we had to pressure wash and paint for the space to be able to house our operation.
How do you feel about Portland support or community for Shwood?
There are a few other brands who are making quality goods here in Portland, like Matt Pierce’s Wood & Faulk or Tanner Goods that we have either had over or helped with their product somehow. We know people in other businesses here in Portland where we can speak to each other about insider information or trade secrets…that kind of thing. It’s a very open community where, if you need something there’s usually someone there to help you or help you figure out how to get it. We’re definitely not alone in the do-it-yourself realm of manufacturing.
We also try to collaborate with people we know. Guys that have come here and found inspiration and gone on to do their own thing is one of the best feelings to us. They will come back and tell us that it’s because of what they saw here that inspired them to go on and do their own thing. So that’s always really cool, and we try to keep those connections.
How is Portland an inspiration for you?
You could say in that sense we’re inspired by the fashionistas of Portland. We do like to use vintage frames as inspiration then putting our own twist on them. We’re conscious of where we live, and Portland is very much a part of that. And for us, material is really what tells the story. We don’t really feel like we’re reinventing the wheel here with sunglasses. We don’t exactly tell that “green” story – we just kind of do it naturally. We use all ethically grown wood and materials, and if we find out something isn’t we stop using it. We want to make a really good product here.
What does it mean for you to be a Portland Creative?
Freedom. You can really do anything you want here. I don’t feel like people are going to judge you. Anything’s acceptable. I think wooden frames, for instance, are widely accepted by the community here. I lucked out in that department. If you don’t like doing something – don’t force yourself to do it – do something else. The earliest thing I remember creating was drawing aliens, gigantic aliens. But then I moved on to painting. And then I moved onto furniture making – and you know people were always accepting. People weren’t telling me, don’t do that – that’s stupid. I never thought I was totally talented at these things, it’s just that they liked handmade stuff. They were backing the idea of someone doing something on their own.
To find out more on Shwood collabs, newest collections, or to contact – check them out at Shwood Shop.