Commonstudio is an emerging design practice engaging in interdisciplinary approaches to objects, systems, tools, and spaces with an emphasis on issues of urban ecology, social enterprise, and adaptive reuse.
Greenaid is an initiative that converts gumball machines into seedbomb dispensers for a more fun and accessible way to beautify the forgotten spaces of the urban environment. It started as a design idea in 2010 and has since blossomed into a full scale social enterprise with a growing line of seedbomb products and services. There are currently over 50 seedbomb dispensers deployed around the world.
Commonstudio is dedicated to a new way of doing business. Greenaid seedbombs are hand-rolled in Culver City, CA using local materials, sustainable packaging, and socially responsible labor. Working in partnership with Chrysalis, a local non-profit, Commonstudio offers employment opportunities and a living wage to formerly homeless or economically disadvantaged men and women from the Los Angeles area.
What are you working on right now?
Right now we’re focusing on developing the social enterprise aspect of Greenaid that involves training, refinement and capacity building for the spring/summer. We’ve already distributed about 75,000 seedbombs around the world within a year and all of these have been hand-rolled by us, our friends (thanks guys!). The next phase will explore how we can provide jobs and training and build a team of dedicated people from Chrysalis. The idea of social enterprise for us is a very important aspect of our growth, as it addresses two immense challenges for L.A.-Job training for the economically disadvantaged in our community (LA is the homeless capital of the U.S.), and spreading awareness about the issues of environmental justice in a city that has become infamous for it’s high levels of pollution and low levels of public open space.
What does your typical day look like?
We have the blessing and the curse of living where we work. We now refer to it as “The Bomb Shelter”-an uninsulated industrial space nestled in Culver City. It’s nice to wake up, go downstairs (just finished building our loft, which we’re excited about) and be able to dive right in. Usually the first half of the day consists of sending out dozens of email responses-the amount of correspondence we have to keep up with is dizzying sometimes. The rest of the day is spent fulfilling orders, assembling machines, and making sure production is moving forward. We make around 2000 seedbombs a day at this point. We’re constantly refining our recipe, techniques and seed mixes to maximize their effectiveness, and it’s crucial for seedbombs to be as regionally appropriate as possible. Greenaid 1.0 was focused on native grass and wildflower seeds in 7 regional mixes. Greenaid 2.0 will include other species such as trees, herbs, edibles, even dog + cat friendly mixes. So we are constantly doing germination testing, scouting for great intervention locations, and vending tests using various types of clay,etc. The downside to living in a seedbomb factory is that literally everything in our lives at this point is covered with a fine layer of red dust-I guess you get used to it after a while but sometimes I wonder if it’s lowering our life expectancy. *Cough*
3 trends that excite you?
Location aware technology – Digital tools that affect the way people interpret and navigate the built environment. We’ve started to use QR codes and open source mapping to chart the distribution of Greenaid seedbombs and build an online community around urban intervention at various scales. These technologies (4 Square, Loopt) are still at a nascent stage, but we think it’ll be amazing what can be done in the next decade. We’re just about to launch the Greenaid Iphone app as well. It will allow people to geotag where they’ve thrown seedbombs in their neighborhood, or identify opportunities for others. Stay tuned.
Crowd funding– We we’re helped out so much by Kickstarter.com at a crucial stage in our development and we’re constantly amazed at the ideas that people are able to move forward without traditional forms of financial investment. It’s really empowering at a really crucial moment in history.
Adaptive re-use – This is also one of the pillars of our design practice. Rather than starting from a blank slate, what already exists? How can either improve on or combine to new levels of utility? This of course can be applied to so many disciplines (from Architecture an Urbanism, to product design and digital media) and often it involves negotiation between multiple voices and perspective to generate unexpected and exciting results.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We feel there’s so much truth to the cliche that it’s %10 inspiration an %90 Perspiration. It’s relatively easy to develop a concept, even build a prototype. But there are so many factors that have to align and bringing any idea through to any kind of scalable reality. At the (wonderful) Ideamensch event the other night, Dan Gould’s point about embracing an iterative process really resonated with us. We’ve realized in retrospect that if we tried to anticipate and refine every aspect of the idea and consider every detail and implication, we would have been stifled and stalled by self critique. We think it’s really valuable to get projects out into the world in whatever form we’re capable of at the given moment and be open to making revisions and as the idea grows. This process continues for us. as as we’ve become accidental business owners. We’re learning as we go, and we learn much more by doing than by thinking. Of course we also can’t overstate the benefit of having such a wonderful network of family, friends, colleagues who lend us their insight, support, and encouragement at every stage.
What inspires you?
Doing more with less.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
Being too thin skinned and trying to please too many people. It’s exhausting. We’ve come to the realization that there will always be people questioning the legitimacy of your ideas, motivations, etc. Expect it, manage it, don’t take it personally.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Bicycle driven food carts during rush hour on the 405! Rem Koolhaus has written about the informal economies that emerge around traffic jams in Lagos, Nigeria. Why not here?
What do you read every day, and why?
We have a love/hate relationship with design blogs. There’s so much inspiring work happening in the world right now, and we’re constantly amazed by it and reminded that we aren’t doing more designing beyond Greenaid. Blogs like NotCot, BLDGBLOG, Landscape + Urbanism, Core 77 are really great places for Inspiration but also research tools that we know will inform the projects we’d like to pursue in the future.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
The new book called Design as Politics by Tony Fry – A really comprehensive and inspiring call to arms that challenges designers to re-examine our role in defining the future of everything.
What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?
This is a pretty lame answer but probably email at this point. We have no idea what we’d do without it.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Living: Civil Twilight- A design collective from San Francisco. Really inventive but underrated.
Dead: Bucky Fuller-Although you may need a few pages to spare as he was infamous for being long-winded.
If you could re-locate your studio anywhere, where would you go?
It’s always been our dream to move our entire operations into a self-contained boat of some kind. We’d sail the world and set up a pop-up studio in a new city every year or so. It would be similar to the mobile concert stage Louis Kahn designed. (http://vesselblog.com/tag/louis-kahn/) Too ambitious?
What keeps you motivated when things get hard?
When you’re completely immersed in a project day in and day out, often finding yourself doing things that are entirely uncreative but essential, it becomes easy to lose your sense of perspective. We started Greenaid to make guerilla gardening more accessible to the public, and we’re now using seedbombs to create alternative economies for local men and women in need. We’ve never worked this hard for anything, and we wouldn’t continue to do unless believed it can and does have a positive, measurable impact on the communities we serve. It’s not the what but the why that keeps us going, and it’s a great feeling to know that it’s blossomed into something much bigger than us as individuals.