Who makes our cool products look so hot? 5 minutes with photographer Dean Van Dis

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The start of DVDP (Dean Van Dis Photography): When I finished college, I worked freelance in other studios as a shooter. That was the process. Essentially I worked for myself. I like the freedom, the diversity of work, meeting different people all the time (including furniture designer Patricia Urquiola) and working in different settings.

Working with izzy+: When I moved back from Portland (Oregon) to Grand Rapids, I started an izzy project working out of a studio through a local creative firm. When I quoted an 8-day project for izzy, I rented my own space. That was the first 100% Dean Van Dis Photo (DVDP) project.

Long-term relationships: It’s cool I still work with izzy. Some of my success is based on that kind of repeat client business. DVDP has an easy way of doing things. It’s honest. It’s a good experience. It’s our West Michigan work ethic.

I wanted to be… An architect. I am completely inspired by architecture and furniture design. It’s amazing to be in my hometown and be in these amazing places and take photos of these amazing products.

What I don’t want to do: Not be active. Not be stimulated. Not be inspired.

Seeing the world: Photography has allowed me to travel and experience different cultures. When I went to China, I was able to do the normal tourist things like see the Great Wall. I also went to rural areas, where we met local people. I saw that the joy of a child is the same no matter where they live in the world.

Photography has… Changed my life. I’m excited because it started from nothing and it’s so successful now. I love that I’m quoting and billing projects, shooting in studio and on location, and mentoring talented people. Every aspect of it is awesome. Photography allows me to work with so many people. It’s a natural thing. It’s what I am.

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Distance makes the mind grow broader

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Photo by lindyi

It’s summer—the time of year most synonymous with travel. As soon as the weather begins warming up, we start feeling that itch to get away. Travel is something most of us crave so much that we set aside precious time and money for it, and we often enjoy the planning and anticipation almost as much as journey itself.

There are obvious, almost universal benefits of travel, like the freedom of leaving our inbox, yard work, and the daily grind behind. Other benefits are more personal, depending on whether we’re seeking relaxation or adventure, natural beauty or urban stimulation, a complete change of scene or a chance to revisit a family tradition.

But no matter what kind of getaway you prefer, scientists confirm what people have innately known for hundreds of years: The psychological benefits of setting out for a new destination are multiple and impactful. In fact, “getting away” is essential to effective thinking—it actually opens up neuropathways in the brain, because it puts distance between us and all the problems that feel “close” when we’re at work and home.

When we get geographic distance from our own problems + feel more relaxed due to being on vacation, we’re more likely to see new ways of dealing with problems at home,” writes Psychology Today reporter Alice Boyes in “5 Reasons Why Travel is Good For You: The Positive Psychology of Travel.”

Yep. The first benefit of travel, according to Boyes, is that “Geographic distance leads to improved problem solving” that’s “more creative and expansive.” Brandon Reame, Market Development Strategist at izzy+, has seen that happen first hand—not just as a result of his own travels, but also when he led a group of interior designers on an izzy+ trip to Nicaragua last fall.

“There’s something about a change of scene that gives you a different perspective,” says Reame. “It’s almost like at home you’ve been stuck attacking problems from the same angle, over and over again, and as soon as you get away you can see the whole situation differently. I loved watching how being in Nicaragua opened up the minds of the designers we took on our trip.”

Joy Eling, izzy+ Product and Brand Manager, agrees: Travel is inspiring—even when it’s just a family vacation to the beach.

“What I love most about travel is stepping outside the norm of daily life, and the flexibility and experiences that come with it,” says Eling. “That comes from creating my own schedule, which is usually no schedule at all, and being able to explore new places and experiences. It all helps me feel relaxed and inspired.”

In the “5 Reason Why Travel is Good for You” article, Boyes shares four other key benefits of travel: being more open to new experiences, which builds new skills to take home with us; developing a more expanded sense of self and what we’re capable of; being able to fully relax (a given benefit!); and returning home with more curiosity and a broader sense of meaning in life.

Reame adds another benefit: Travel impacts how we see others, which in turn impacts our ability to be Better Together.

“There are really great people everywhere in this world, from Abu Dhabi, to Cologne, to Birmingham. Traveling has allowed me meet and form great relationships in many corners of the country and world,” Reame says. “Getting out of the office is also the best way to really see what other people are dealing with. It’s hard to create a relevant brand without spending time out in the world.”

While all those benefits of travel sound wonderful, the reality is that we have to stay home and take care of business before we can afford the time and money travel requires. So does that mean our problem-solving, creativity, and relationships are destined to remain stuck when we’re stuck in the office?

Not necessarily. Especially if you’re in an environment that’s been designed with multiple “inspired destinations”—places that compel you to get away from your desk, interact with different people, and enjoy a change of scene. The impact won’t be as powerful as traveling with izzy+ to Nicaragua or Norway, but even these mini “getaways” can do you plenty of good (and you don’t have to worry about airport delays!). We’ll explore how in Part II of this blog series, as well as in our NeoCon 2013 showroom. (Now there’s an inspired destination—hope to see you there!)

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The group of designers that traveled to Nicaragua with izzy+ in November 2012.

Two companies learning & growing together, across the miles

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What does dog sledding have to do with seating ergonomics?

Or what does a manufacturing plant have in common with a herd of reindeer?

And why would two furniture companies based more than 4,000 miles apart decide that a partnership is a great idea?

For more than eight years, izzy+ has been making treks to visit the Norwegian side of its family and uncover answers to those questions and more, firsthand.

Most recently, in March, it was a group of 11 izzy+ sales representatives who traveled to Norway, where HAG has been based since it began designing and making workplace seating in 1943. izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor met HAG leaders in early 2004, when izzy+ was just three years old, and the two companies announced alliance at NeoCon that June.

“The corporate culture and beliefs at izzy+ and HAG are so much alike,” says seating product manager Nick Fernandez, who has visited HAG twice since starting at izzy+ in 2012. “When you’re at HAG you hear the same types of stories, and see the same passion for the same things. It’s also laid back like izzy+—they don’t take themselves too seriously on a day-to-day basis, but they take what they do really seriously, just like izzy+ does.”

While the commonalities of the two companies sparked the partnership, it’s their differences that inspire such a vibrant collaboration—and make these regular treks to Norway so important—according to Rune Akselberg, a native of Norway and Vice President of Sales and Market Development at izzy+.

“The culture in Norway is quite different than in the U.S., especially when it comes to caring for the environment and general health and wellbeing,” says Akselberg. “It’s a much stronger lesson when you can experience it for yourself—when you see the elk and the reindeer drinking from the stream right outside the HAG plant, you understand that everything is connected. The choices a company makes have a broad impact, well outside its doors.”

The Norway trips, which include time in Oslo, where HAG is headquartered, and Roros, the small mountain village where HAG’s main plant is located, are all about learning through active participation in the culture, not passive observation.

For instance, at the Oslo Opera House, izzy+ groups see another type of Scandinavian design, experiencing how form, function, and people come together. When they visit a dog sled camp, they learn basic dog sledding techniques, then harness the dogs on sleds and go on a thrilling ride into the mountains. After dog sledding, the group convenes around a big fire in a teepee, where they eat, drink, and share stories—perfect object lessons in HAG’s focus on movement and izzy+’s Better Together philosophy.

“Dog sledding is an experience like no other, and it perfectly demonstrates the HAG philosophy around balance, movement, and the environment,” says Akselberg.

Laura Connell, who is based at the Chicago izzy+ showroom, says immersing yourself in Norwegian culture really makes a difference. She uses the word “profound” to describe her experience in Norway this past March.

“Norway is the healthiest country I’ve ever been to. The culture is all about balance and movement, and how our bodies are supposed to function,” says Connell. “Everything we did on the trip tied into something we were learning about HAG. At HAG they have a very holistic approach to everything—the environment, corporate responsibility, ergonomics, design—it’s all there in every chair. It was great to see it all in action, both in how they work and how they live.”

Seeing HAG’s beliefs in action has really stuck with Fernandez, who says, “No decisions are made randomly or by accident at HAG. Every decision is held up against their brand standards. It doesn’t matter how cool something is or how easy it would be to sell. If it’s not up to all their standards, they won’t make it.”

More than anything, Akselberg loves seeing groups of izzy+ travelers return home with stories to tell and a deeper, more passionate understanding of HAG, their Norwegian family.

“I think this relationship with HAG has played a huge role in how we understand and talk about important issues like the environment, and health and wellbeing at izzy+,” Akselberg says. “Learning together, experiencing something new together, is a really powerful experience. izzy+ and HAG have so much in common, but also so much to learn from each other because of our different perspectives and cultures.”

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Pictured at the top of the post is the izzy+ group that traveled to Norway in March (photo by Stacy Marcus). Below are photos of the izzy+ group preparing to go dog sledding; people congregating and walking on the new Oslo Opera House (both photos also by Stacy Marcus); and a recent outcome of the izzy+-HAG collaboration: HAG Capisco Puls seating, pictured with Dewey 6-Top tables.

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A design industry give-away that gives back

As everyone in the Architecture and Design world knows, swag and give-aways are fool-proof ways to catch your market’s eye. But what would happen if the give-away was also a give-back?

This was a question izzy+ started asking a year ago as we made plans for our annual Valentine’s Day promotion, which introduces a new izzy+ product to nearly 5,000 interior designers each February. Sure, the event should include colorful izzy+ bags and custom-made chocolates (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), but what if instead of doing a drawing for something flashy, like plane tickets to anywhere in the world or the newest Apple gear, we gave away something that would support our corporate values around giving back?

“The big prizes we had done the last couple of years were flashy, but there’s no substance,” says Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and learning expert. “We wanted to promote the ideas we care about most, like giving back, supporting relationships, and offering opportunities for unexpected learning.”

So, during February of 2012, members of the interior design community were given not just chocolate and other goodies, but also a chance to go on an izzy+-sponsored trip to Nicaragua. Over 1,700 designers indicated interest in the promotion, 80 of whom later followed up by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their interest in the trip. On November 1, six interior designers from around the U.S. flew to Nicaragua, joining Brandon and Jill Horning of the izzy+ team, along with two members of the Grand Valley State University Applied Global Innovation Initiative, which played a key role in planning and laying the groundwork for the trip. The group just returned from their giving-back adventure on November 6.

The main goal in Nicaragua, Brandon says, was helping a group of teachers in the North Central town of Esteli design and build learning toolkits for young students. The izzy+ group had to think through the interior and exterior designs of the kits and how the curriculum could best be organized.

“We’re trying to make the learning experience more inspiring and engaging for the students,” Brandon says. “Designers have great skills and an understanding for what sparks people’s curiosity and engagement. Watching these designers work side-by-side with elementary teachers who make one or two dollars a day—it was just amazing to see everyone work together to really make a difference in such a short amount of time.”

The available resources for most teachers in Nicaragua are so limited, Brandon adds, saying that many schools are little more than metal shacks with dirt floors. Students often have to bring their own chairs from home.

The izzy+ group also contributed to the design of a building that is being converted into a new learning center in Esteli. Leveraging the skills of the designers, Brandon says they reviewed architects’ construction plans then focused on providing recommendations for one aspect of the interior—creating an entrance that would be welcoming and inspiring.

In addition to the design work they did, the izzy+ group toured other schools, visited local markets and a sustainable coffee farming community, experienced cultural traditions like the holiday known as Day of the Saints, and shared meals with many local business people, leaders, teachers and university administrators.

Karin Dax, a designer from Boston, said the trip was an “amazing experience.”

“As soon as I heard about the trip I thought ‘I definitely want to do that,’” says Karin, who is an avid traveler and a fluent Spanish speaker. Helping to design the learning kits was a highlight, she says. “Once we started to understand our role and our goals, and we began talking to the teachers more about what they needed, it was really easy to contribute—we just had to dive in and use our skills to help make their vision a reality.”

And the positive effects of this trip will continue to ripple out—not only for the communities in Nicaragua the izzy+ team visited, but also for the designers back home.

“I think a trip like this puts our everyday lives into perspective,” Karin says. “In Nicaragua, the questions are, ‘Do they have running water and food? Are they able to learn what they need to learn to have a sustainable future?’ Then you come home and a client is upset about a paint color not being quite right. It makes you take a step back and realize all that we have. You reevaluate what’s important, what matters most, and what kind of work you want to be doing.”

As far as izzy+ is concerned, these types of giving-back trips are definitely a part of the company’s future.

“Giving back is a core value that runs deep at izzy+—all the way to our parent company, JSJ,” says Brandon. “And this trip reminded me of an important lesson: Bringing together a creative group of people to help support meaningful causes is extremely addicting. I cannot wait to host a similar trip again.”

Technology and human interaction: better blended together

It happens every day: We’re working through a problem or wondering about a fact, and mere seconds later we have answers. Learning today is easier than ever. Information is at your fingertips when you’re holding nothing more than a smart phone in your hand, and even university classes (like the new offerings recently announced through MIT and Harvard) are readily available.

But as some things about learning become more simple, other aspects become more complex. What do we lose when we replace face-to-face interactions with face-to-computer-screen time? Is information valuable on its own, or are conversation and collaboration required to fully leverage it? How can we make the most of all that technology offers without losing the important interactions that have always shaped working and learning experiences?

“Blended Learning” is an educational approach that strives to answer those very questions—it’s all about finding the right balance between human interaction and technology. In education, the Blended Learning equation looks like this: Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment (see the Edutopia link at the end of the post for more on that). In other words, online and face-to-face interactions are stronger when blended together than they are apart.

Not surprisingly, many Blended Learning principles apply to the workplace and to life in general (after all, we never stop learning). At izzy+, we care a lot about this because we’re big fans of learning and technology, and even bigger fans of people. Finding the right balance—one that makes the most of available tech innovations and also makes the most of what it means for people to be Better Together—plays a big part in how we think about designing for the future of work and learning.

izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor says that making the most of available technology and knowledge requires making the time and space to interact with people.

“I love all the ways technology helps us enrich our learning experiences, but I’m not sure the transfer of knowledge and information on the Internet can ever be as powerful as two people sitting down together,” Saylor says. “When people are interacting, they’re compounding all that knowledge by layering in their own experiences and life stories.”

And even though technology makes it possible for us to work and learn anywhere—we are no longer confined to desks, offices and classrooms—at the same time we need to be somewhere. Saylor says we should be more concerned than ever about our spaces. They should inspire creativity, learning, and connection with others, as well as support technology.

“The right spaces are so important when it comes to reaching this Blended Learning balance,” Saylor says. “Spaces that support both technology and dialogue help you maintain that balance—the ability to layer and enrich information and ideas. It’s a powerful learning combination.”

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Want to learn more? Of course you do! (And then you’ll want to sit down with someone to talk about it over coffee, right?)

– For a great overview of Blended Learning in the education environment, check out this Edutopia post.

– For more about the recent announcement of edX, the new nonprofit partnership to offer free online courses from M.I.T. and Harvard, read this New York Times article.

– Here’s a great book to read about how places and spaces affect us: The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, by Winifred Gallagher.

– And if you want to learn more about our line of Dewey products (pictured above), visit the “learning” section of our website. Dewey was designed specifically to support human connection and technology in all types of learning environments.

Chocolate, love, and…learning?

Roses, chocolates, romantic candle-lit dinners—sounds like the perfect setting for a business to stay out of, right?

Well, it depends how you frame Valentine’s Day.

While the romantic take on February 14 is still plenty popular, many others—especially younger couples and singles—are opting to simply ignore what’s often thought of as a “Hallmark holiday.” But what if we thought of Valentine’s Day, instead, as an opportunity to celebrate relationships of all kinds—a day that’s all about not being an island, but being Better Together?

At izzy+, we’ve been working to reframe Valentine’s Day since 2006, when Harter began its annual February promotional. What we’ve discovered along the way is that the traditional aspect of giving at this time of year is still essential—we like to substitute the roses with the giving of time and ideas, but some of the other goodies stay (especially the chocolate!). We also think it’s important to add a second component to the giving: learning.

So Valentine’s Day can be about giving, sharing, and learning? Yes!

Learning and sharing, after all, go hand-in-hand. Learning to share is one of the first social skills we develop as children. As adults, we tend to be good at sharing things, but we often overlook how important it is to share ideas, stories, and our time.

When you flip the sentence—sharing to learn—you get to the heart of why sharing can be so powerful. When someone else shares their perspective, it stretches us outside of our comfort zones, helping us see a problem from a new angle and learn in ways we couldn’t have on our own. It’s what being Better Together is all about.

Let’s take all of that sharing and learning to another country!

Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about how, as a company, we can facilitate even more giving, sharing and learning, and tie it all into Valentine’s Day. Our annual holiday event traditionally involves giving back. This year, not only are we sharing the love by making donations to the children’s literacy organization RIF, we’re also giving our customers an opportunity to join members of the izzy+ team on the ultimate learning and giving adventure—in Nicaragua! In addition to learning about another culture together, we’ll spend some time giving to others in need, through service-oriented work. It’s just one more way to bring people together to share and learn.

What are your thoughts about reframing Valentine’s Day and demonstrating Better Together in new ways? However you go about it, we’re glad you’re out there sharing the love! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Why we celebrate (besides for the cake)

A decade of commitment to anything is a big deal in our culture—for good reason! A tenth birthday takes a child into double-digits—a time of life that begins the transition from little kid to big kid and eventually into the adult they will become. Ten years of marriage is an accomplishment, marking a decade that has no doubt been filled with a mixture of trials, hard work, growth, dreams and joys. And a decade in business—particularly in the midst of a recession and much change—is well worth celebrating.

But why, exactly, do we mark these milestones? And how should we mark them, learn from them, and move forward? 

On the occasion of izzy+’s tenth birthday, our writer, Kristin Tennant, asks izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor about milestones, reflection, celebration and the future.

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– How does it feel to be 10?

It’s a great age to be. When you’re 10, you’re not thinking back on how well you’ve done. You’re just excited about the future—what’s next. That’s definitely how it feels for izzy+.

When you’re 10, the future is still wide open, but it’s beginning to be more defined. At my granddaughters’ tenth birthdays, I saw the emergence of their personalities—their passions, how they think. I could begin to imagine where they’re going, what path they’re on.

– Even though you’re focused on what’s ahead, does reflection still play a part in a milestone like this?

Reflection is so important, but I often wonder why we wait for a milestone—a big wedding anniversary or retirement—before we reflect on our lives. If you wait too long to reflect, for fear of not liking what you will see, you end up on the “safe” side of that equation—you don’t learn or grow. We grow when we’re willing to be wrong and take some risks.

The more we reflect, the more we become OK with the possibility of being wrong. It allows us to learn more, grow and pass it along to others.

– You mentioned passing along what we’ve learned to others. Is that izzy+’s “Better Together” mantra in action?

Yes! That’s the good thing about gathering together to celebrate something—it’s so much more meaningful to reflect with others. Going off into the woods to reflect on my own turns that active verb into more of a noun. There’s a lack of dialogue and conversation. We miss out on those opportunities to share what we’ve learned and make everyone better.

For me, it’s reflecting and learning together that helps create a path for the future—a better understanding and vision for going forward.

– So ultimately, this 10th birthday is more about what’s ahead than what’s already happened.

Exactly. I don’t look back and how small we were and think about how much bigger we are now—that’s so immaterial. I look out over the organization and see a group that’s growing, contributing, taking risks, being open, constructive, kind and creative.

The people at izzy+ are a reflection of where we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re going. And the hopes I have for izzy+ are very connected to the hopes I have for my family and all the people I love: I hope izzy+ continues to grow and create a place where people can be transparent, follow their dreams, add value, and make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

When you look back, there will always be negatives, but I always err on the side of positive. I like to focus on what’s inspiring, meaningful and adds value, and then figure out how to communicate those things, so everyone can be inspired moving forward.