Neil Ferrier Of Discommon Goods Is Inspired By Automotive Design
Photography by Ted Gushue
Design geeks like I am (and we are at Petrolicious) will undoubtedly be familiar with the concept of Wabi Sabi, the Japanese practice of accepting imperfections in design and embracing flaws. It creates beautiful, warm, almost glowing objects that have organic curves and intricate incorporation of materials.
When I first picked up one of Neil Ferrier’s products that he’d designed with his team I immediately had this sense that he’d cracked the code on how to take Wabi Sabi into the 21st, and in some cases 22nd century. His machined products are almost exclusively made out of rare or high performance metals, extruded or shaped or carved by futuristic robots, and generally have this look about them that says they aren’t messing around.
But when I held his straight razor in my hand, I was immediately drawn back to that warmth I felt picking up something hand made. While there may have been a computer model in between, you are still quite literally feeling something hand, err, brain made.
When I asked him how he found inspiration to build all of these intricately designed products, his answer was simple: It all ties back to automotive design.
I’m incredibly proud to have gotten to know Neil over these last few months, and even more excited to share this conversation with you below.
Ted Gushue: What was the first point in your life when you realized you had an affinity for automotive design?
Neil Ferrier: It was Gone in 60 Seconds with Nicolas Cage because I was probably only like 15 at the time. It’s so cliché, but Eleanor did it. I lived in Scotland. We had no American muscle cars at all. Never been exposed to them. I was exposed to the European, 1.2 liter scene. The first time I saw that car, my brain melted. My grandma had a Triumph GT6 and my Dad’s first fun car was an Alfa Romeo GTV 2.0 Twin Spark. I think that was a car that never came to the U.S. but it was a relatively modern Alfa.
Then I became like the devil’s voice in my Dad’s head and kept pushing him to more and more car stuff. When I was 16, my Dad brought the 2nd or 3rd Z3 M Coupe into the UK. My mom thought it was the ugliest thing that had ever been made.
TG: The clown shoe.
NF: Yeah. My Dad and I both were gaga. We remember seeing the first print commercial where it was being propelled by a tennis racket. It was a full page in the Sunday Times. We were on holiday in the north of Scotland. My Dad just went silent and turned the page around at me, and I was like yes, yes. We weren’t a car family, but that hooked my dad on M cars.
TG: When did you first start designing things? When did you first start tinkering with things? That’s usually the predecessor to designing.
NF: Haha, not early on, tinkering is the anti-version of my Dad. My father was a businessman. He worked in the golf business, he didn’t tinker at home.
TG: The golf business?
NF: Yeah, he was in a very creative business, his firm basically managed the design and development of golf courses. We lived at Gleneagles—I grew up in golf. We had one drill in the house. That was it. It was like a 1970s Black and Decker drill, and nothing else. Carpenters and plumbers all came to our house to fix things, we didn’t really attempt things! I, therefore, became fascinated with how this stuff worked, because I never learned it growing up. I almost went to art school, but ended up at University for Mechanical Engineering. That’s really where I started being like, “I’ll try that. I’ll try and make this thing.”
Oh man, that was where I got involved in the first thing I thought about selling. I called it N1 Enterprises. We CAD designed a tube frame for a car race seat to make it like a lounge chair in our dorm room. We had exhaust tubing chopped, mandrel bent, welded and powdercoated, and I decided I was going to be massive enterprise. We sold like one frame.
TG: I like that you had the audacity to call it N1 Enterprises.
NF: It sounded big.
TG: Star Trek.
NF: It’s so accepted now that you should or could be an entrepreneur or try things when you’re in university that I’m frustrated looking back. We had such a density of talent in once place, it could have been a breeding ground for awesome products. Now in the real world, it’s so hard to find great talent that has time to work on things.
TG: You made a chair that nobody bought, and then you’re like, I’m hooked on this.
NF: Haha, I painted sneakers in college. I painted Nike Air Force 1s and sold them to athletes to try and make drinking money. That was kind of fun, and I wasn’t even very good at painting.
TG: So much of what I imagine you able to do today is the result of being able to prototype rapidly, where maybe 30 years ago you would have been the victim of a very lengthy design and production process. Whereas in the last 15 years it’s much more instant gratification. What would have been different if you were starting out decades prior?
NF: Gosh, I’d probably be sitting around waiting for 3D printers to be developed. One of the things that allows my company to exist is the fact that we execute things quickly. I was extremely, extremely fortunate to start in Oakley at 23 in the deep end, essentially, in the design and development team. We probably had $3 million worth of the world’s most cutting edge rapid prototyping machines there. I didn’t know that it was unique or a privilege at the time. I just thought you were supposed to be able make things quick and fast and iterate. Now I’ve just chosen to have to try and do things that way or I wouldn’t have even survived as a company. We’re small. We have to be able to prove concepts and iterate fast.
TG: Yeah, and it’s also something to do with your temperament. Because you were raised, and because you were coming of age in an era where Facebook was somewhat of a thing, you quickly become someone who is dependent on rapid interaction. You become dependent on quick satisfaction. It’s a marriage that allows you to kind of turbocharge your growth I would imagine?
NF: What’s funny about that statement is that Discommon Goods, the product, is born from my anger toward instant gratification. You can do and create things so quickly now that I vehemently wanted to stay away from flash-in-the-pan-type items. When you look at the type of things we make, I hope they all have the ability to be around for a second generation. They’re pretty basic items, but we take the time and effort to make them “right.”
TG: How much of that philosophy came from your time at Oakley?
NF: All of it. I don’t have a single bad thing to say about the education I received at Oakley. I worked with some of the most astonishing designers in the world. They all came from automotive world and execute at the top of the game. My interactions with them secured my deep seated passion for design.
Then the whole, just do it right philosophy came from Jim Jannard and also my boss, Carlos, who was the Vice President of Research and Development and a pain in the butt to work for because there was never, ever a corner cut. I was 24, 25. I just wanted stuff done. We’re never allowed to cut a corner at Oakley. This was then married with Jim’s drive to create only what excited him. It wasn’t market studies. It wasn’t what would be the smart thing to make right now. It was like, do we dig it? Are we all passionate about it?
TG: When did you leave Oakley?
NF: Actually about a year to the day.
TG: And you immediately came up with this company?
NF: No. A number of years ago, I introduced a guy from Macallan, the whiskey company, to the CEO of Oakley, and we got slightly intoxicated and decided we were trying to make the world’s most bad-ass flask. It became my project to work on, and I had no time to do it at Oakley. I had always thought of this word, Discommon, disruptive and uncommon. I had to start a company to do this side flask work. That’s where Discommon Concepts, my consulting firm, came from. I was allowed to continue work in the whiskey industry, basically while I was still working Oakley. It’s now existed for about 5 years.
I think everybody at Oakley was sort of pushed to have this entrepreneurial type mindset because it kept you researching new things and trying stuff. We’d walk back in the CEOs office like, “…eh, you seen this kind of forged carbon fiber before? Lamborghini’s using it in a monocoque chassis for a new car. Can I go to Italy and learn about it?” That was an actual conversation that I had and it resulted in me being in Pagani and Lamborghini’s factory talking about cars.
You know what is absurd? I thought that was normal because I had grown up in Oakley since I was a kid. All of a sudden, there I was, standing in Italy.
TG: Are there any standout products that you’re responsible for?
NF: Clichéd answer, but everything was a team. But C6,which is a full carbon fiber sunglass which we machined in the UK at a facility that makes a lot of parts for all the Formula 1 teams.
TG: Explain that.
NF: This is not a smart use of carbon. This is an aesthetic use of carbon. We did parlay it into many smart uses of carbon later on where we use the flex capabilities. This one though was the concept car project—Jim saying, “you guys make what you want”. I guess I got to own that for a long part of that project. Being 24 at the time and visiting Sparco, Pagani, Lamborghini, Ducati. Learning about their carbon facilities and coming back and figuring out how to do it with our team was pretty eye-opening.
TG: I would imagine so.
NF: The nice thing is it also helped you start believe, or decide that the world was small, and that you could do anything. I didn’t need to be intimidated to do something somewhere else.
TG: That notion of not knowing enough not to do something.
NF: Right. Some people think it’s not normal to get to fly around the world and get to experience new technology? I thought it was. This was the craziest thing when we started consulting in earnest. You suddenly realize how much you were gifted by this former employer.
TG: Also how much people like waiting in line and waiting for permission to do things and an environment like Oakley sounds like it’s not an environment where people are told to just sit around and wait for their turn.
NF: No way. A great learning from my boss, Carlos: things that slow you down are just walls. A wall is not an insurmountable thing. You can go through it, you can knock it over, you can go around it, or if you’re really good, you can jump or figure out a way over it.
TG: You can machine a ladder.
NF: You can do whatever you want. You can build a motorcycle jump, but his point was always, don’t come to me and just say, “You’re stuck”. I have given you all of the tools in the world to get around or over it, so please try and do that, or come to me and tell me what tools you need. The automotive world can be pretty darn slow. They get stuck in a lot of walls. At Discommon, we now say that we’ll simply “aggregate the correct skillsets to solve the problem”.
TG: Walk me through this past year. What projects have come to you that stand out that we can talk about?
NF: The most fun part over the past year was kicking off Discommon Goods. I was really scared of leaving Oakley, becoming a bespoke design and development firm, and realizing that I was always referring back to Oakley projects and/or never getting to talk about new cool stuff. My partner and I decided we were going to start this line of what we call excessively engineered men’s goods to basically be our exercise to learn new skills. When you see things like a forged carbon piston keychain that we made, when you see the way that we’re machining aluminums or working with leathers, these are all to try and learn new skill sets. They’re almost concept cars all parlayed into the consulting work.
As far as actual consulting projects that are not under NDA, we have a lot of fun in the whiskey world. Macallan and Highland Park Whiskey have been very good clients of ours, and there are numerous projects with them that we’ll release within the next year or two have been great. We are getting to play in the watch world a lot more. Working with Autodromo on their Group B watch was excellent.
NF: Bradley Price (Autodromo Founder) and I have become friends, and we really liked this particular machining style. We have a few other watch projects, and they’re starting to be some automotive stuff that we’re getting involved in. Unfortunately the rest of it’s not all exciting. Some of it is pay the bills work. There’s also some stuff that we just don’t like to go near.
TG: At what point does Discommon become a funnel for bespoke design? They see a product and they’re like, wow, this guy can do this. I bet he can make me a ________.
NF: Every time.
TG: Your products become the ultimate business card.
NF: Here’s a funny example. Our beer bottle opener is, to me, one of my favorite things we’ve ever made. It has not sold a ton. It’s very hard to photograph, so it’s hard to tell the story of it, however, the lead designer of a very large brand happened to buy one, and we then went into a year long consulting retainer with them, thanks to a beer bottle opener. I don’t really mind if it doesn’t sell that well because it’s done its job. It’s been our calling card.
We really do like to think we can make anything if given the appropriate budget, time, and freedom. At Pebble Beach, I met a lovely family over a glass of whiskey. It turned into him seeing a bottle we designed and then asking me if we thought we could make a bar like it for his house. I thought 5 or 6 feet long, yeah, we could probably figure that out. The bar was 18 feet long. All aluminum. I’m putting in a kitchen table for them now that’s 12 feet long.
Somewhere in there I happened to see this guy post on Instagram some carbon fiber Timothy Oulton chairs that he bought, and again, the mischievous side of me came out. I decided to comment on his picture. “Do you have the balls to make table for those chairs?” He wrote back and said, “do you have the skills to back up that statement?” I put my hands on my head and thought, “oh Neil, what have you done?” Yup, we’re in. He actually came up with the idea for stealth bomber table, and then we just ran with it.
Our main drive is from automotive design, this desk now lives in a garage space. All of the product designers we work with are automotive industrial designers.
TG: Also the inverse is true, all automotive designers are product designers. You’d be hard pressed to find that are in one that aren’t interested in the other.
NF: I totally agree on the interest, but for me, when I see great automotive designers working on a smaller product, it’s really exciting. Their automotive tendencies of using bone lines and pinch lines (complex curves that interact with each other in a very subtle manner) creates things that are just so damn sexy.
If you or I designed something like our razor, there could be really nice curves and even ergonomics, but then probably the top would be flat or it would have a generic bevel to it, however we had the pleasure of working with Nick Garfias, an astonishing industrial designer from Art Center in Pasadena. The complex curves he produced blew me away. My partner, Jeremy, who does all the 3D modeling, poor guy, I think he was 200 hours into the handle while trying to figure out how to create all the surfaces that Nick had designed.
TG: What are you most excited about working on in the immediate future?
NF: I’m most excited about duffle bag. A weekender bag that we are basing off of the interior of the 2.7 RS, loosely but it’s the inspiration.
TG: That will be Discommon Goods?
NF: Yeah. Because I don’t understand leather very well, I’ve been learning a lot and I want there to be subtle tie-ins to automotive but not like a weird theme bag but also we’re not just jumping on the weekender bandwagon.
TG: Everyone’s got one.
NF: This had to be different for us so we’re very, very excited about using this really cool material called D3O which is impact absorbing foam, that saves things from shock. We’ve very subtly integrating that into the bag and nobody will be able to tell, but the sleeves will have impact protection and we’ll also be hiding watch storage and car key storage into the bag, like hidden in pockets. I don’t want to go near, if it does, no mischief, right?
I have to learn something, and I have to be proud to be able to say that it’s a bit different. We’re always going to get criticized for the price. I understand that. I just honestly never think about price. I just want to do the thing right.
You can follow Neil’s work at Discommon Goods online and on Instagram.