“If you want to contribute to the world, you have to think of a unique way.” So says designer and maker Justin Crasi. Born into a creative family – his father, a carpenter; his grandmother, an artist; and his great-grandfather, a German engineer – Justin has tapped into his creative roots and an innate desire to make a positive impact by founding Vex Decor, a lighting and furniture design company with sustainability at its core.
From chandeliers made out of recycled wine and beer bottles to sconces featuring vinyl record shades, Vex Decor is a testament to creative thinking and a willingness to experiment. “We are creating something new, but at the same time, it was there already,” Justin says. “That’s what amazing about design – these products already exist, they just aren’t really here yet. They’re waiting to be made.”
We got in touch with Justin – who works with long-time friend Joe Watt in their Cleveland-based studio – to learn more about how Vex Decor got started, recycling scratched-up vinyl records into light fixtures, and what they plan to do with old car dashboards. Read on for more.
How did Vex Decor start?
I was working in architecture, and after about a year and a half to two years, I got kind of bored sitting at a desk. I started daydreaming about design and other areas beyond just architecture. Then a friend brought Etsy up; I didn’t really take it too seriously until I actually looked more into it and saw how active the site was, and I was like, Alright, this is clearly an active platform to potentially put some unique products out there and maybe get a response. We didn’t really know if anything would come of it or not, so it was just kind of a way for us to test our idea.
There was a ton of research that went into figuring out how to start. I basically wrote down a list of things that I thought could give meaning to life beyond just building things, and one of the things that stuck out to me was recycling. That’s kind of important for humanity to be able to do, and I didn’t see it happening as much as it should be, so I thought, If there’s anything to try to do, let’s at least try to do something positive, like recycle, and incorporate that into some kind of product design. That made a lot of sense to me. So, we started building light fixtures out of pretty much whatever kind of materials we could find laying around. Being post-graduate students, there were a lot of beer bottles, along with things that our landlord left in our backyard. I picked them up and just started thinking: What can we make with this? That’s how it all started. I quit my job before having anything built, so that was kind of the hardest thing – coming up with 100 products in a month, with whatever we had. I basically had $300 and a bunch of things laying around, and that’s how we started the business.
I think it’s the only way to go about it, really, because if you start with too much, you aren’t going to be creative enough. You have to give yourself a lot of constraints to be unique. If you have too much money, you can just look around and look at things and copy them, whereas if you don’t have money at all, you have to be resourceful, you have to be creative, and you have to actually solve some problems. So, I thought it made a lot of sense, actually, and clearly it’s working – so far!
How did you go from having a bunch of materials to a full product line?
There’s a lot of interesting research that says that procrastination is actually productive. I had been thinking about the project and building light fixtures. We had been experimenting with various processes, like cutting glass. We were just kind of toying around with some of these things — we were stretching vinyl and kind of playing with that. After playing around with those ideas, there came a point in which I was overly convinced that now was the time to do it. There was an overwhelming sense of I have to do this now, otherwise I’m not going to do it at all.
What were some of your first products like?
Well, the designs themselves were really sloppy. I’m a big believer in minimum viable product, which is trying to get the idea across before you even have a fully-finished product. So a lot of the pictures were originally based on unfinished products – products that were kind of just like, barely held together, just to see if we could generate some interest. And then once they started to sell, we worked out the details of making them actually functional and high quality.
So you mentioned before stretching vinyl and melting glass. Can you walk us through some of your different processes for making your products?
Sure. With the bottles, we typically collect them from friends or restaurants, and then we de-label them. After that, we take a tile saw and glass-cutting blades and we cut them and process them to be safe. Stretching the vinyl is kind of a hard process to explain – it took a lot of figuring out to get it right. The records we use are from a thrift store where they have just stacks and stacks of scratched vinyl that are really unplayable; I buy them for a dollar. It took a while to figure out which ones worked and which ones didn’t, because there are different chemical compositions that manufacturers used to make them — so, only certain ones can be used. We are basically taking something that has almost no value at all, because it’s just sitting in a thrift store, scratched and unplayable, and turning it into something that I think is pretty interesting. We’re totally de-contextualizing it.
It’s so cool that you could look at a vinyl record and see a light fixture. How does that happen?
The design process is interesting like that. Architecture school teaches you how to get to really good ideas. And, it wasn’t like I just looked at a vinyl record one day and saw a light fixture – there was a lot more thinking in between that went into it, and various steps that created new options as we worked with it. So, originally someone showed me how to melt a vinyl record – they threw it in their oven and moved it around, and I thought that was interesting. But then I started thinking, What can we do with this process? What can be made out of this? There’s always that point in design where it just clicks. You’re always trying to search for what’s the best answer, given the conditions at hand. So for us, I think our process boils down to: We look at a material, we start with something that can be easily found that can be recyclable or renewable, and then from there, we try to figure out what that material can do most effectively to deliver value as a product for a customer. In our case, right now it’s light fixtures, but probably later will include furniture, too.
Have you always been creative? How did you tap into this side of yourself?
I come from a family of artists, engineers, and craftsmen, if that paints a picture for you. All I know is that I’m a visual person, and this is how I can express myself in the world. I’m also always trying to do better, better, better; I’m hardly ever satisfied, and that can probably be annoying to some of the people I work with. I’m constantly re-evaluating how we can make things better, and I refuse to send out anything that isn’t perfect, because if I do, I’m going to remember forever the time I sent out something that wasn’t perfect. So, it’s kind of good and bad to be like that.
What inspires you?
Building things out of nothing and seeing them grow. I think that’s really interesting, to create something from literally almost nothing. It’s almost like gardening: You plant a seed and then it can turn into something beautiful, like a plant, or a vegetable, or fruit, or a tree. Being able to do that is super exciting – being able to contribute in unique and interesting ways.
When did you first become interested in sustainability?
My father took me fishing a lot as a kid, so I kind of fell in love with nature early on. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a hippie, but I do very much appreciate our environment. And then, around the time I was in college, there was a lot of conversation going on about sustainable design that caught my attention.
What is your studio like?
We just moved into a 3,000 square-foot lofted commercial building inside downtown Cleveland. It’s a huge step for us. Before that, I was primarily working out of a garage, and we outgrew that space pretty quickly. I’m really happy, but it’s also challenging because our new space is kind of in a state of disrepair, so we’re battling between completing orders and fixing the building, and then suddenly there’s a squirrel trying to get in!
Do you have a lot of machinery that you work with? What’s your setup like?
Yes, all of the recycled materials that we use are processed using machinery. We have every tool imaginable for a small-scale operation – we even have a 3D printer, which is really fun to play with. We’re currently working on some interesting designs that use recycled car dashboard plastic. So, we are basically printing with old car dashboards to produce some interesting light fixtures. We also have a lot of woodworking tools that we’re starting to use more, but the biggest thing for us is about trying to consider our product design around the tools we have, and use them to their fullest advantage. When you have limited resources, you have to be very resourceful in what you choose to do, so if I can solve a design problem with something we already have, that’s usually my preferred approach.
What are some of your goals for the future?
What’s exciting to me is doing complex things that really set us apart from everybody else. I’m excited about our ability to do new things with recycling that are so complex it’s almost as if it’s like magic; you could never imagine it being the way it is, you look at it and you’re just like, That is amazing. We have a few things in development, like the 3D-printing that I think are going to deliver that kind of amazement. Or at least that’s what my goal is: To always to surprise and enlighten or excite somebody.
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Maker and studio photographs by Jenni Smithberger.