Designer Aaron Lown and his dog Starlite
All photographs are the property of Aaron Lown of VUFF
We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Aaron Lown on July 17, 2019. We will forever be grateful for his contributions to the New York State maker movement over the years. This story was written just before his untimely death. It serves as a tribute to the brilliant work he left behind.
Aaron Lown lived products and breathed design, due to a mix, most likely, of nurture and nature.
He was raised in Bangor, Maine by a father who ran the Lown Shoe Co. and Penobscot Shoe Co. His mother, a modern dancer who eschewed television for creative play, would tell him growing up, “Don’t buy it if you can make it.”
As a boy, he said that he “spent time playing with shoe prototypes and leather swatches,” and learning how to “weave magic” out of little more than a scrap of this and a bit of that.
His parents took notice of his inherent passion for handiwork, and enrolled him in Appel Farm Arts summer camp in New Jersey, devoted to woodworking and pottery. (Jonathan Adler was there, too). After high school, he enrolled in Parsons School of Design and focused on industrial design, studied in Germany at Villeroy & Boch, and began honing highly rigorous aesthetic criteria.
“My informal design mantra is that everything I create should have four attributes,” Lown told us. “It should be effortless to use, distinctive, delightful, and ingenious. E.D.D.I.”
After graduating in 1990, he lived in New York City and began a series of enviable design gigs for IDEO, the MoMA, Bergdorf Goodman, Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, but his family’s entrepreneurial streak eventually won the day. He launched what became a wildly successful design venture BUILT in 2003, starting with wine-bottle products at the New York International Gift Fair which garnered $100,000 in orders in two days.
But after a whirlwind 10 years of expansion and success (BUILT created lunch totes, laptop sleeves, and more, and their designs are sold in 50+ countries around the world), he was ready for a re-set. He sold off his portion of BUILT (he had co-founded it with his classmate from grad school John Swartz) and moved to Newburgh.
“I craved space, and I needed a change,” Lown said. He and his wife (they met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art) Elizabeth Grubagh, their daughter Vivian, and their son Gus, decamped to the charming steam-punk city-town of Newburgh.
And that’s where things went to the dogs.
“Soon after moving to Newburgh, we adopted a dog, whom my daughter named Starlite,” Lown recalled. A rescue dog, Starlite is a mix of predominantly Coon Hound and Weimaraner, and she loves to run and scamper and sniff. And roll in gross things.
“About six months after adopting her and having her roll in dead animals and mud and absolutely everything you can think of, I noticed a problem,” Lown said. “There’s really only one kind of leash and collar available, and it’s either leather or canvas.”
None that he found lived up to E.D.D.I. None were easy to clean, fun to be around, a pleasure to hold, novel.
In 2015, Lown began experimenting with a light, durable, braided plastic material that is not only a “joy” to hold and play with, he says, but is breathable, reduces fur matting, comfort and moisture issues that can be caused by conventional collars, and it is a snap to clean. The leash, made from the same material, is equally light and springy, and provides an essential safety harness between dog and person, without creating the friction and rigidity found with typical leashes.
“Can you imagine going to a store and just have one option for sneakers?” he asked incredulously. “I’m excited to be able to offer dog owners something beyond the standard collar and leash, and instead something that gives pleasure, and offers beauty. There’s form and function.”
Not that there weren’t a few design kinks.
“Because it’s such an unusual, soft material, a typical buckle design wouldn’t work,” Lown said. “So we had to create an entirely new kind of buckle that could adjust and lock into itself.”
Once he sorted out the design kinks, Lown felt ready to launch to the larger market. But this time, he wanted to do things differently.
“With BUILT, we had factories manufacturing our line in China,” he said. “I wanted to keep everything local and contribute to the economy here. We put all of the leashes and collars together here, through one full-time staffer and a network of freelancers.”
Lown launched VUFF CollarLess with a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign and, in the process, not only contributed extra doses of aesthetic joy to the prosaic stroll around the block, but also did his part to help keep the Empire State’s economy humming. Beautiful, playful, useful, different. E.D.D.I.
Aaron Lowe will be greatly missed. Please consider donating to The Grubaugh-Lown Family; click here.