An Interview With Ken Tomita: Co-Founder Of Grove

In a sea of smartphone case mediocrity, a search for something that doesn't make your phone look worse is a perilous one that rarely ends in a solution.  The end-product results fall into one of two categorys: a case with such a sheer determination for protection that the look and feel of materials isn't taken into consideration whatsoever, or an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible, which inevitably backfires due to a subpar design ethic.

That is where Grove comes in.

Founded in 2009 after a chance meeting two years before, between co-founders Joe Mansfield and the aforementioned Ken Tomita, the mission to create an iPhone case out of bamboo came at a somewhat inopportune time for them, as a prototype for the 3GS was completed by the time the iPhone 4 was mysteriously left in a bar.  But as they pushed out a new design based off the new size specifications of the device, the news coverage received was a testament to the ideals that have been missing from many-a-case available from the shops.

Thoughtful design, craftsmanship, and people.  Three paradigms that seem to be absent from the phone case market.

We spoke to Ken about the culmination of these.

NRM: For those who don't know about you guys, tell us a little bit about what Grove is.

Ken: Grove is a team of passionate creators changing the way you think about products.  We do everything ourselves with pride and actually care about what we do.  That leads to a better product.  Pretty simple!

We have already told the story of how you and Joe came to form Grove, so my first question is pretty simple: Why bamboo?

I designed and made custom furniture before Grove (www.tomitadesigns.com). My signature material was bamboo.  Previous to that, I worked with Gerard Minakawa of Bamboo DNA, building huge sculptures in bamboo.  It's just a beautiful material to work with.

Were there any stresses, problems or compromises that came with using this material?

Bamboo is difficult because it is splintery.  Its hard to CNC mill it really thin like we do without it chipping.  Also, the usual challenges of working with a natural material are there.  It shrinks and expands relative to the weather and is not always regular.  Much easier to make things in plastic!

With strong backgrounds in product design, what were your inspirations in creating these products?

We design our products by starting with the device itself and studying its ergonomics and possible uses.  Its important to note that our designs arent based on a gimmick where it looks like something.  We truly build from the ground up

Where do you find the fantastic designs that are engraved on the back?

The designs are provided from prominent illustrators worldwide.  They work on a royalty contract.  We are lucky to work with such talented artists

Looking into the future, do you all at Grove have any ideas for future products and designs you can talk to us about?

Someday Grove will be making products that aren't necessarily Apple accessories.  We are a design company, not a case company so we are capable of reaching outside our current niche.

And finally, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring designer, or someone who'd like to start a company with the same homemade values as your own?  

Simple Advice: the harder you work, the luckier you get. 

Jason England