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Designing Women: The Science of Design with Melissa Moore

December 3, 2012
Melissa Moore of Nikkuu Design

Melissa Moore of Nikkuu Design

Interview by Elizabeth Heywood

It’s always a fantastic opportunity to meet with those who practice outside of our own particular realm of design. Whether that person creates shelters, adornment, clothing, media, or tools as any of the five thousand design specialties out there, we all stem from the same foundational roots. Our perspectives differ; when we allow them to cross-pollinate something truly unique can happen. The potential for something even more creative occurs when design mingles outside of the studio. This is just what happened when Melissa Moore crossed disciplines from biology to product design, recently launching Nikkuu Design.

(Editor’s Note: Nikkuu Design will be one of the studios featured in our Prize Raffle at this year’s Damsels in Design Holiday Soiree. It’s only eight days away, but fret not – we still have a few tickets left!)

Rather than having taken the traditional design school track, you have a background in biology and had been a math and science teacher for ten years. At what point did you realize that you wanted to switch gears and start Nikkuu?

Although I formally have a degree in biology and taught science for many years, I have known that I’ve wanted to be a designer since I was about 12 years old. I have been building, creating, and designing since I can remember. I used to tape together pieces of graph paper to make huge architectural drawings of home interiors (I have no idea where I learned how to do that or why I was so obsessed with it), developing my own board games, building my own toys. I often bragged about how I wanted to be a ‘toy engineer’; I think I intuitively made up that term. In the early/mid-80’s they were not really teaching girls that there was such a thing as a product designer. Even over the past decade of teaching, being a musician, and creating visual art, I see all of these interrelated disciplines as design. I have really been designing all of this time. After a decade of a fulfilling, yet exhaustive teaching career, I decided that I wanted to either apply to design school or start my own studio. After contemplating for some time, I realized that just going for it and starting my own business was what I was meant to do. It has been about a year and half since I made that decision and it was absolutely the right one.

Manifold 1.0 Pendant Lamp / Terrapod 1.0

Manifold 1.0 Pendant Lamp / Terrapod 1.0

How was the transition into the design world? What were some of the early struggles you faced starting your business? How did you work to overcome them?

I am still very much in the early stages of my business. I’ve been doing a ton and learning a ton. By educating myself and steeping myself in the design world from all angles, I’ve quickly come to learn a lot about who I want to be as a designer/entrepreneur and what I don’t want to do. I officially began the studio (prototyping, production, etc.) when I was still teaching and I would spend my breaks and weekends developing my first line of products. I had already been building things for fun so it was a natural progression to continue to develop concepts and ideas that a wider audience would be interested in. I researched the places where I thought my products could sell and took a couple of small business courses to learn the basics. I seem to have a natural tendency toward business, so much of the things that I learned were very intuitive. In many ways I had a gradual transition into the design world, but in other ways I just had to jump in. I had to make the decision that this is what I was going to do and then just do it without looking back. In certain ways I couldn’t look back.

What I had struggled with was, of course, being able to finance my own business start-up. I had to transition from a decade of having a consistent, well-paying job to doing something that I was learning from scratch on my own. I also had to quickly figure out that while I could design and build things that people thought were beautiful, that didn’t necessarily mean that people would connected with these objects strongly enough to want to buy them. So another struggle I would say was developing awareness of my ultimate goals and aligning them with my observations of what people actually wanted to own. I soon came to realize that I could maintain my own unique voice within my products while still providing something familiar, fresh, and marketable to a wider audience. Finding that balance has been a struggle, but now my buyer confidence has increased drastically. It also took a while for me to figure out who my market is. It took (and likely will continue to take) testing out a variety of selling contexts for me to understand where “I belonged”.  Not going to design school has forced me into a position of having to figure out all of these things on my own through both intuition and trial and error. I also love learning so the cycle of research/observe/learn is something that continues to be of great benefit to me. I’ve been working on being innovative and doing my own thing while having enough humility to learn from the folks who’ve ‘made it’. Having only being in business a year, money for production, tradeshow fees, prototyping etc. are still a concern. However, I try remind myself that although I have done a lot in just a year, it’s only been a year and I still need to pay my dues.

Mizuu 2

Mizuu 2 Sconce

At Damsels in Design, we’re firm believers that we all benefit from developing connections with other lady designers (no matter what field they may practice) for inspiration and support. Did you have the any groups or individuals to help you along your way?

It has been difficult to find folks to work and collaborate with but I am thirsting for it. While I’ve done a great deal on my own, I deeply understand the need for interdependency and collective effort, knowledge, skill sharing, and even profit sharing. I’m interested in alternative economies and ways of working with others (and definitely other women and people of color) to build a unique model and experience for all involved. I didn’t really have groups to help me during the process of building my studio (besides supportive and encouraging loved ones, which is very important), people are starting to connect with me and offer some of their services and skills because they are excited about my work and believe in what I’m doing. This is happening more and it is very encouraging. It makes things feel more collaborative.

You work spans furniture, lighting, jewelry, and wall art. It’s beautiful and functional, constructed both by hand and digital methods out of traditional and modern materials. How does your background in science play a role in what the development and construction of what you make? Do you think that your unique background has enriched your creative process?

I absolutely think that my background in science enhances my sense of aesthetics and idea development. I see science as problem solving and design thinking, just with a different end product. Experimentation, developing hypotheses, developing curriculum, strategizing, brainstorming, iteration, and prototyping are interdisciplinary skills that can be translated into so many fields and disciplines. Being able to think that way was invaluable in developing a design studio/business. I probably got interested in science at a very young age because there was so much of a relationship between design and science. I’ve come to realize that I likely fell in love with the aesthetics of science more then the subject itself….the equipment, the tools, and the process. They’re all related to my love of design, really. But if you look at my work it is clear that I was influenced my math and science. I’m inspired by it so much, that it’s hard to confine it. The materials themselves often “speak” to me and help me develop them into something that I feel others will love and connect with. I feel like they often communicate what it is they want to be.

Mizuu Stout 1.0  / Sky + Lavender Zag Dual Necklace / Nautical

Mizuu Stout 1.0 Table Lamp / Sky + Lavender Zag Dual Necklace / Nautical Pendant Lamp

You and your work have already been featured on Core77, Readymade, and Fab.com, and have been accepted into the Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair and the ID Pop Up Shop at Chelsea Markets. How do you see your business growing in the future?

I really love connecting with people. To build my business I would like to continue to do independent designer markets. This is also a great way to test out products in the market at pretty low risk. I would like to expand into some retail stores and a few more online marketplaces. My greater goal is to have my products picked up by interior designers and architects. I am very connected to and excited about interiors. I’m interested in how Nikkuu products can help to develop and enhance an interior space and create specific environments, both residential and commercial spaces such as bars, restaurants, and hotels.

Do you have any advice for other women who might also be interested in changing careers and delving into the creative industry? 

After working with youth for so long (and still being very much connected to them) and thinking about my process, I feel like people should think about what they loved doing when they were young. What were you drawn to as a child? What did you find yourself wanting to do? Connect with that and find a way to make it feasible, marketable, and sustainable. Try not to let fear limit your options. Fear will be there and likely won’t go away as long as you are doing something that requires some element of risk. Not letting fear be a barrier to change and authenticity is really where the work comes in. Planning is important but you can’t wait until “everything is perfect and perfectly aligned” before moving toward your dreams. A balance of planning, risk-taking, and willingness to ‘fail’ are all a healthy way to keep perspective on making your dreams a reality. Equal parts humility and confidence…it keeps you learning, growing, and doing.

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