Funk-tional Design

Crystal’s designs are the cat’s meow

by Janet Essman Franz

jed-crystal-hepper_31_hepper_brad0910_floorJed Crystal holds an ergonomic diaper bag he recently developed for Go Gaga of Boston. Crystal is the designer and principal of Jed Crystal Studio in Burlington and the founder of Hepper, an offshoot offering pet furnishings designed with mid-century modern flair.

Jed Crystal always had a knack for turning ordinary objects into attractive, useful items. As a child he sewed potholders from his mother’s fabric scraps. At 13 he built a bed frame from plumbing pipes. In high school he crafted metal jewelry, wood furniture, and a solar radio. Today, at 38, Crystal makes a living creating innovative bags, furniture, home goods, and fashion accessories.

Crystal owns Jed Crystal Studio, an industrial product design and development firm in Burlington. He creates the products his clients envision, guiding them from initial ideas through engineering, product sourcing, and merchandising.

“I take their concepts from sketch to shelf,” Crystal explains. “The ultimate goal is to create products that function well and look great.”

Crystal serves established companies such as Timberland, Case Logic, and mophie, and individuals launching new products. Recently, he developed an ergonomic diaper bag for Go GaGa of Boston and a multipurpose drink-mixing and -serving utensil called BarTule for Kit Clark of North Ferrisburgh. Crystal also designs ultramodern pet furnishings through Hepper, a company he launched in 2008.

Crystal grew up in Westminster with his mother, stepfather, and three younger half sisters. His mother, Jaye Orgera, hand-wove chenille scarves for a high-end New York designer. Crystal took interest in his mother’s work, from craftsmanship to merchandising. “There was always fabric and yarn in the house and I learned how to sew early on,” he says. “I saw behind the scenes of getting products on shelves in boutiques in New York City.”

His father, Jon Crystal, lived in Burlington. He worked at Burlington College, then the University of Vermont, and now is executive director of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center. Crystal recalls his father’s skills in construction. When he was 10, he watched with great fascination as his father built a house. “He used an old Toyota truck,” Crystal says, “and I remember being interested in it from a design perspective — how awesome machinery is.”

Crystal attended The Putney School, a private alternative high school focused on arts, leadership, and environmental sustainability. Working in the school’s wood and metal shops allowed him to explore his penchant for invention. He made shelves, furniture, lamps, and jewelry.

He discovered the industrial design field on a family trip to New York City, when they stopped to browse in a modern home-furnishings store. Fascinated by the innovative furniture and lighting, he says, “I realized I could have a career in making things. It was a good trajectory for me to be creative and be involved in materials, manufacturing, consumerism, and business.”

Crystal studied industrial design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. After his freshman year he took an academic break to travel, then moved to Burlington to be near his father. He enrolled at UVM, graduating in 1995 with a studio arts major and small-business minor.

During senior year, Crystal launched his first business: making messenger bags sold in boutiques in Burlington, New York City, and Boston. Crystal managed the entire process, from design and production to marketing and sales, gaining valuable experience in all the steps of business. He describes the bags as “plain, made from truck tarp, super durable, in lots of colors and styles.” They sold well, but not well enough for him to live on.

“I realized that to make it a full-time, viable business I’d have to get outside funding, and I wasn’t ready to incur a lot of debt and responsibility. I felt I needed more experience. I didn’t want to be beholden to another business. It was still my game,” he says.

He stopped making the bags and produced custom furniture. In 1997 he set up a studio on Burlington’s Howard Street where he and a high school friend fashioned unique pieces from metal and wood. “They had a very modern aesthetic, using ready-made and found materials,” Crystal recalls. “We made stools out of banana bicycle seats and coat racks with five-speed shifters on the end.”

Again, work was steady but not enough to make a full-time living, so Crystal did production work for Burlington goldsmith Timothy Grannis and metal artist Bruce McDonald of BRM Designs. He recalls this period as a “super valuable” experience. “I learned a ton about getting things made and physically making them myself, the materials and best ways to produce things. It made me realize I needed to go back to school and get an official industrial design degree.”

In 1999 Crystal enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he earned a master of industrial design. “I loved the city and culture and that ‘anything-is-possible’ energy in New York,” he says.

After graduate school he designed backpacks and computer bags for Samsonite in Rhode Island, then for Case Logic of Boston. He missed Vermont, though, and in 2004 he returned to Burlington to set up Jed Crystal Studio. Timberland was an early client. “For five years I was the sole designer for all their gloves, working with their local licensee, Gordini,” he explains. He simultaneously worked on projects for local and Boston-based clients. In 2007 he moved to his current location, a one-room studio in Lawson Lane, where several other designers also rent space. “This alley has the highest concentration of industrial designers in Vermont,” he says.

Crystal enjoys the Burlington region for its low-stress lifestyle and recreational opportunities. He frequently runs, bicycles, hikes, and sails out of Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, just a few blocks from his office. He lives in Burlington’s South End with his girlfriend of five years, a sculptor who creates pieces for galleries and museums. He prefers not to share her name but reveals they met in high school and she moved to Burlington so they could to be together. “We share a ton of creative interests and inspirations in art, product design, materials, and manufacturing. She’s fantastic to brainstorm with, and she keeps me on track about products,” he says.

In 2008 Crystal launched Hepper as an offshoot of Jed Crystal Studio. He was inspired by his cat, Hepper, named after Audrey Hepburn for markings resembling the actress’s hat and shawl and her elegant-but-mischievous personality. Hepper was a stray who found a ready home with Crystal. He adores cats and dogs and supports the Humane Society of Chittenden County.

Hepper the cat now shares space with two additional rescue cats, Booker and Hudson, adopted from shelters. Hepper the business was created to meet Crystal’s desire for cat gear to complement his home décor.

“I couldn’t stand looking at the ugly pet furnishings next to nice human furnishings,” says Crystal, who collects contemporary furniture. “I love mid-century modern chairs and lights, for their design history, uniqueness, and weirdness.”

He catered to the creatures he knows best. “I observed my cats and how they spent their day. They like to lie down, curl up and lean against objects and be in covered spaces raised off the ground. I went with those functional needs,” he says. “I like to be sure a product is worth having as well as beautiful.”

Hepper’s signature piece is The Pod, a raised, spherical cave where cats can rest in privacy with a view. Constructed of molded foam and lined with Sherpa fleece, the Pod comes in six bright colors. The Hepper line also includes a raised spherical bed for cats and small dogs, a micro-suede pet hammock, and a brightly colored aluminum abode for backyard birds. Products in development include feed bowls and chew toys.

Sold in pet boutiques in larger cities, Hepper products have been featured in home decor and lifestyle magazines in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. Sales are “doing well compared to the economy overall,” Crystal says. “Pet products are an area [in which] people are happy to spend money. They are not only buying something nice for their home, but also giving something nice to a loved one.”

Crystal manages both businesses independently with no employees, but collaborates with strategic partners on branding, engineering, and design development. He has worked closely with Scott Hardy of Linckia, a venture development company in Burlington, designing Ulu bags, NEOS boots, and Muck Boot Co. apparel.

“Jed is a talented designer. He’s creative, flexible, able to challenge himself, and willing to try new things,” says Hardy. “He can figure out situations that work for both his clients and himself, financially and creatively.”

Crystal typically serves three to six clients simultaneously. While many are based out-of-state, Crystal prefers to work with Vermont businesses. “It’s exciting to work with other entrepreneurial Vermonters and keep the creative energy here in this state,” he declares. “There are so many people here with strong innovative spirit, and tons of potential opportunities for growing saleable products that come out of Vermont.”

He admits attracting local clients can be a challenge. To increase awareness of his work and meet other, like-minded people, Crystal reaches out to the entrepreneurial community. He recently presented to Vermont Venture and Fresh Tracks Capital, and he worked with Middlebury College on a business development studies program.

Crystal plans to grow Hepper while increasing his clientele for Jed Crystal Design. “The balance between the two companies has been really good,” he says, “It’s nice to have one brand I’m in total control of and also get to work with other people who have their own visions for their companies.” •