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On Kickstarter, Designers’ Dreams Materialize

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Paula Patterson with her iPad and iPhone stands. More Photos »

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PAULA PATTERSON was back in her studio the other night, where she has spent nearly every weeknight and too many weekends to admit since January. From her day job as a graphic designer at an executive search firm in Midtown, she takes the subway and the fickle B61 bus to Brooklyn (“I don’t know why they print a schedule,” she said). That leaves her about two hours to build another V-Luxe, the iPad stand she designed as a birthday gift for her boyfriend last summer and soon after decided to market online. 


“If there’s one thing I failed to estimate, it was the time this project would take,” said Ms. Patterson, 41, looking exhausted but also relieved, because the last of the V-Luxes were boxed up on her work table, ready to ship.

The recipients were backers Ms. Patterson found last fall, through the Web site Kickstarter. For pledging at least $500 toward her $5,000 financing goal, they are entitled to a finished V-Luxe, which stands about 18 inches high, is made of three species of wood and looks a little like a classic Philco Predicta TV from the 1950s.

In turning to Kickstarter to finance the V-Luxe, Ms. Patterson is among a growing number of designers who are using the site to get their sketch pad ideas into production, through crowd-sourced financing. Scan Kickstarter’s design category, and there are dozens of projects in search of backing, from screen-printed glassware billed as “awesome glasses for awesome people” to a sustainable house intended for use in developing countries.

Of the various projects the site features, including film, books, musical recordings, fine art and, recently, a piano duet performance inspired by the punctuation in a work by J. D. Salinger, film remains the top category in terms of the amount of money raised since the site was started two and a half years ago. But at least half the site’s “blockbuster” projects — those that have received $100,000 or more in financing — have been design-related, said Yancey Strickler, one of Kickstarter’s founders.

In the current economy, that’s the kind of opportunity that designers, particularly those starting out, may have a hard time finding elsewhere.

“It’s been so gratifying,” said Ms. Patterson, who received a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Washington in 2009, but has yet to find work as an architect. “Especially with this job market, when you’re a designer and your field barely has a pulse.” She used the roughly $5,900 she raised on Kickstarter, she said, to pay the rent on her studio in Red Hook, and to buy tools and materials.

More established designers are also finding the site helpful. Mr. Strickler said many of the designers who use Kickstarter are midlevel employees at design firms. “They have things they want to do,” he said, “but there’s no outlet in their job.”

Take the example of Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost. Both men had degrees in environmental design and were working at design firms in Manhattan when they came up with the idea for the Glif, a plastic tripod mount and stand for the iPhone 4. They raised more than $137,000 on Kickstarter last fall, partnered with a factory in South Dakota and now sell the Glif for $20 on their Web site.

By April, Mr. Gerhardt and Mr. Provost, who are both 27, were successful enough to quit their day jobs and start their own design firm, Studio Neat. That was around the time they introduced their second Kickstarter project — a stylus for the iPad they call the Cosmonaut — for which they raised about $134,000.

They could have used Quirky.com, a social product development site that accepts ideas from inventors, handles the manufacturing and then pays them a royalty. But “for us, Kickstarter was the only option,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “A big thing was having control over the project.”

Scott Wilson already owned his own design firm, and before that had spent six years as global creative director for Nike, when he used Kickstarter to finance the TikTok, a wristband that turns an iPod Nano into a watch.

The campaign, which raised nearly a million dollars last year, was the most successful Kickstarter project to date. And “the single most amazing free P.R. in the history of design firms,” said Mr. Wilson, 42, who runs a Chicago firm called Minimal.

When his project received $80,000 in financing the first day, he said, “the visibility gave everyone in the supply chain confidence” and enabled him to get preferential treatment from his manufacturer.

It also inspired other designers. Dario Antonioni, who runs Orange22, a design consultancy in Los Angeles, said he decided to try Kickstarter after seeing Mr. Wilson’s success, which sent “shock waves” through the design community, empowering designers.

Mr. Antonioni, 38, turned to Kickstarter in July to finance the Botanist Minimal bench, a bentwood seat he designed. In the past, he said, his firm would have risked its own money, hired a manufacturer and hoped for enough retailer and consumer interest to turn a profit, or at least break even.  

“The beauty of Kickstarter is it does away with that whole model,” he said.  

The appeal for backers, particularly those who finance design projects, is what they get in return: a gift like a T-shirt for smaller contributions, and for larger ones, a well-designed product at a substantial savings. Mr. Antonioni’s backers, for example, could get the Botanist bench by pledging $299; it will eventually retail for around $800, he said.

Mr. Antonioni has raised more than $36,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding his $20,000 goal and enabling him to place an order with an Asian manufacturer. And in the process, he said, he received valuable feedback from “a global audience” without doing costly market research or renting a booth at a trade show. “We don’t need a business plan,” he said. “We don’t even have to leave our studio.”

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