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Brooklyn fabricator Paul Choate and a collective question a design industry driven by personality.

In 2009, just a year out of RISD's furniture design program, while working part time for the now-defunct website Style Factory, Paul Choate kept hearing the buzzword "mass-customization," which both irritated and intrigued him. The startup, which aimed to crowd-source furniture, was part of what the 30-year-old fabricator describes as "a huge explosion of these flash-sale sites." The concept didn't gain financial traction, however, and Choate left the company after a year.

What he took with him was the idea of mass-customization. "I asked myself, 'What does this word even mean?"' he says. "And that's when I started thinking I just need a shop that can do this." With the rapid technological advances of the past 10 years, he realized, he could gain a competitive advantage by simply building a computer numerical control (CNC) machine and using the latest fabrication software to make things. This would both remove middlemen and speed up the design process. "As a designer, I wanted more control," Choate says. "I wanted to look at design more as a business pursuit than as an artistic pursuit. I knew I needed to be able to make my stuff more efficiently. I said, 'There has gotta be a faster way,' and I started building."

Over the next six months, Choate took out work space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and created his first CNC unit. Within a year, he used it to produce a watch and sunglasses, the latter of which debuted under the label Whitetail at the New York International Gift Fair in January. This May, in collaboration with Wanted Design, he will present the debut line of furniture made with the machine, under the label Maker Anonymous, at the Industry City complex in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood.

Maker Anonymous came about when Choate approached his friend, an established New York-based designer, and told him what he had been doing over the past year: "I said, 'Look, I've made this machine, I want to do something really cool with it. Blow my mind with a design, and we'll make it." Choate was hoping the project would turn into a "small art-gallery thing that I would do with whatever pennies I could scrap together," he says. What ended up happening was that the designer--along with three others--came back to Choate with much bigger plans. They wanted to present an exhibition during New York Design Week and feature a one-off piece by each of them. (The collection will include a desk, a side table, and two chairs.) "I guess it's kind of an underdog story," Choate says.

The four designers also gave Choate a distinct request: "Make us anonymous."

One of the designers--let's call him Designer No. 1--describes the concept this way: "The design industry has established itself by putting the designer first, and the media has followed suit. Being anonymous allows for an actual conversation around the work and the process Paul is demonstrating."

Designer No. 2 adds: "We want to draw attention to the process of being a maker, to take our names and identities off of it."

Says No. 1: "A designer these days has to work toward a sort of filter and answer: 'Is this something that comes from me ? Does this look like I did it?' Maker Anonymous is an opportunity to have the designer take a different role and come up with something they're not used to doing."

Choate, with his fabrication capabilities and technological know-how, provided an ideal outlet for such a project, and as a trained designer himself, he was completely on board with the Maker Anonymous concept. "Paul is this guy who's sort of like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain and pulling all these strings," No. 2 says. "There are so many great designers who don't have local outlets for manufacturing, and we saw him as a vital tool and resource. We wanted to put him out there for his expertise and to see what he's doing grow. It could give a stronger voice to the whole New York design community."

Throughout his career and studies--two years at Lamar University in Texas, then four at RISD--Choate, who grew up in Port Neches, Texas, has shifted his focus between art, engineering, technology, designing, and making. His current role is a sort of amalgamation of all of those fields. As he puts it, "I'm a maker of machines that are makers of products."

Choate admits he's not sure what the next step of his business will be; for now, his commissions are "mostly walk-ins, just people who need stuff done, little pieces, parts, signage, whatever pays the bills." But he knows opportunities lie ahead. He sees the business potential in expanding beyond producing sunglasses and side tables, perhaps even mass-producing CNC machines. "In the next generation," he says, "every dad in America, instead of a table saw, is going to have a CNC machine."

Paul Choate at his Williamsburg workshop with two members of the Maker Anonymous design team.
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Title Annotation:ENDORSEMENT
Author:Bailey, Spencer
Publication:Surface
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2014
Words:827
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