One of our mottos here at Bay Area Made, and something we strongly believe in, is “What We Make Makes Us”. As designers and makers, creating products that not only improve the lives of their users, but the wellbeing of society and our planet, should be our ultimate goal. Granted, this is easier said than done. Here Shujan Bertrand of Aplat tells us about her inspiring journey from industrial designer to creating her own line of cut and sewn products that embody this ultimate goal.
Hi Shujan. You have a background in industrial design. Where did you study? Who have you worked for and what types of products did you design?
I have dreamt of becoming an artist craft-maker since I was in grade school. I studied Fine Art at Cal Poly and Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design. During university I had a design internship at Designworks (BMW) in Los Angeles, and at Design Continuum in Milan, Italy. Both were amazing experiences where I met wonderful design mentors.
“Sustainability and zero waste living is a global concern we need to focus on if we want to continue to live well on the planet.”
After graduation I worked for Astro Studios in San Francisco (voted by Fast Company a Top 10 design firm in 2018). The founder, Brett Lovelady, is still my greatest mentor and role model for being a great leader and founder. I enjoyed many years at Astro working for clients including Nike, Disney, Mattel, Herman Miller, Microsoft and Samsung. In 2002 I moved to Milan and worked for LG, Panasonic and Siemens. Returning back to San Francisco, I became Design Director of Incase bags. Then I moved on to design office furniture for Coalesse (a division of Steelcase) leading design research and strategy.
What compelled you to strike out on your own and start Aplat?
It started with a plastic cellophane wrapped bouquet of flowers from a local San Francisco neighborhood store. You could say that the bouquet literally hit me over the head with an idea! At that moment in the store I had an insight to create the first sustainable and reusable garden tote for flowers. The first thing I did that night was research design patents for the designs I had in mind. With my experience in soft goods product development, I was able to design and sew the entire four category collection of totes in less than a few days.
At the time I was in my third year at Coalesse designing furniture, and was very busy traveling for work and had very little time, while also raising two toddlers. But I was so inspired by the idea of a culinary collection that I stayed up many nights and weekends, took evening classes on manufacturing, and used my lunch breaks to visit local factories.
When I shared the collection with my dear friend Cathy Bailey at Heath Ceramics, she immediately gave me my first Purchase Order for the Plat Culinary Totes. After two months of sales at Heath, I couldn’t keep up both my corporate job and Aplat, so I decided to leave corporate and give Aplat my full attention.
For me, your products bring to mind origami, as well as the art of traditional Japanese packaging – the humble yet beautiful simplicity captured in the classic book “How to Wrap Five Eggs”. Were these an influence in developing your tote bags?
I draw inspiration from my Korean heritage and paper folding, “Jong-i jeobgi” which translates to “origami“. Since I was young I’ve always had an appreciation for paper folding art. I learned how to sew at an early age and made things from scraps of fabric. But I started to understand zero waste manufacturing after my first production with Aplat.
“As a designer we have to look at the entire lifecycle of what we create and start to shift our mindset to consider every aspect of the business.”
Aplat’s Zero Waste Design and Manufacturing was a result of my initial budget constraints and the fabric seeming like precious sheets of gold. Thus, I had to create a pattern that was going to use 100% of the material without waste. So I designed a collection that was made from one single sheet that created four different tote products. These were the first pieces that helped launch the Aplat Design Collection. My material and cost saving constraints became my inspiration and design principle – to always design for zero waste and manufacturing while engineering textile folds to create new volume.
When we think of sustainable design, the use of environmentally friendly renewal materials, and re-usable products that are made-to-last typically garner the most attention. Equally as important, but often getting less attention, is waste reduction. Tell us about your zero waste design and manufacturing principles for zero waste living.
Sustainability and zero waste living is a global concern we need to focus on if we want to continue to live well on the planet. Aplat’s mission is to design with people and the planet. Aplat is here to inspire us to come together through food, wine, and garden.
My design process is unique in that I start with the mindset and goal to reduce material waste in production and that in turn helps inform my final design. I design and CAD my own patterns to calculate each yard/yield for each production and I sew all my own samples at least 50 times to ensure that it’s easy to make. To really achieve zero waste design and manufacturing, I spend a lot of time working closely with the factory cutter and sewers. Collaborating with the factory always improves the product and together we get closer to zero waste. Working closely with the factory is key to my design process and brings inspiration to new ideas.
Aplat started with zero waste design as a core principle driver (zero hardware – no zippers or buttons, zero plastic, and zero use of toxic elastic) to create functional and beautiful design while working to maintain a healthy and safe planet.
What advice would you give to aspiring makers and designers who want to create ethical and environmentally sustainable products?
As a designer we have to look at the entire lifecycle of what we create and start to shift our mindset to consider every aspect of the business. It’s also important to share sustainable methods so that we can inspire our partners, vendors, clients and customers to align with the same values of zero waste living.
Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, has really been my business bible and I am committed to being authentic about how we grow Aplat as a company and brand leader in design for zero waste.
Being a sustainable company doesn’t have to be all or nothing – it’s baby steps and knowing how to make better sustainable business-life choices little by little for the company and our customers.