Posted May 17, 2017
Interview by Andrew Chen
Photos by Ray Spears
When Ryden Rizzo first came up with the idea as a student to begin making and selling small handcrafted goods, he invited fellow classmates at Parsons to join him and named his new venture “Allied Makers.” Not long after, though, Ryden found that he was the only one working on the endeavor; the name was appropriately revised to its current iteration. His persistence was rewarded once he introduced his first lamp.
Today, Allied Maker conceptualizes and manufactures their signature brand of high end lighting in Sea Cliff, NY. Their simple, clean designs seem like an exercise in restraint – that is, until one discovers the obsessive effort that goes into every facet of the piece, from hardware to finish to joinery. Together with his wife and creative director, Lanette Rizzo, Ryden leads a team of almost 20 employees in hand crafting fixtures for residential, commercial and hospitality applications. Their work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Dwell, Elle Decor, and Domaine Home.
We spent an afternoon at Ryden’s design studio to chat about how he discovered his calling, what Allied Maker stands for, and where he and his family are headed.
Table of Contents
How did Allied Maker get its start?
I started the business in 2012 as an independent project while I was at the Parsons School of Design. I was pursuing a Design & Technology degree but along the way, I realized that the Product Design major would have been a better choice. I went to my professor and told him, “Listen – I just want to make things in my garage.” This was coming at a time when I was experimenting with new projects – I had become really interested in woodworking specifically. My idea was to make one new product every week and offer it at the end of the week for sale. That lasted a few weeks until I started making lighting. I made one lamp that was a block of wood with a brass socket on it and submitted it to GearPatrol. Eric wrote an article about me; next thing I knew, I had 70 orders for this lamp. I had made three of them until this point.
I told myself, I’m going to do this. I was working alone in my parents’ garage which I had taken over, as well as the living room for shipping and the basement for wiring. I pumped out 70 lamps – it was insane. Tons of late nights, and lots of sanding. But that snowballed into a few other blog posts and after that, I started gaining a ton of exposure via Pinterest.
I read somewhere that you spent time at a luthier school learning how to make a guitar. Was that the starting point for your love of woodworking?
I have it here actually. I believe that learning to make this guitar was a pivotal moment in my progression as a designer. For a long time I wanted to be a graphic designer, and that’s what I went to school for originally. Through various projects in school, though, I developed a strong interest in making physical objects. And, to me, the ultimate handmade project is a guitar. As I was learning woodworking, I became fascinated by the way a guitar was constructed and I felt like I needed to learn how to do it.
The school was based in Vermont and was very intimate, just four people. You’re living on the teacher’s property in complete isolation: no reception, hardly any wifi. It’s super meditative, and all you do there is make the guitar. We worked from 8am to 8pm almost every day for an entire month. Every piece on the guitar starts as a raw material that’s scraped down to just the right thickness. The neck is fully carved, the sides are steam bent and then you build the bracing structure. The back is rosewood, because you need a stiff wood on the back and a soft wood on the front to achieve a bounce and a resonant vibration.
My favorite part of that summer was waking up, having my coffee and going into the woodshop and having that dust in the air with the morning light. You just know that you’re going to make something really fucking cool instead of a website for some urologist or something. I came back and was infected – there was no way I could go back to strictly graphic design. I learned so much just from making the guitar, about wood and its character and diversity, but also how to use a wide variety of tools.
And that’s what fueled your desire to start your small once-a-week projects?
I wanted to apply that knowledge, so I started making whatever I could make so that I could get that instant gratification and sense of satisfaction. It was basically all the stuff you find on Etsy: cutting boards, spreaders, etc. I made a skateboard too. I made that lighting fixture that ended up on Gearpatrol. I’m sure something like it had existed before, but the way I was doing it was very unique for that time and it sort of blew up. That product became really successful.
And what happened after that?
I got my big break in 2013 when a very prominent French interior designer, Dorothee Meilichzon, placed an order for 120 lights for a hotel buildout. These weren’t the mini lamps either – she was ordering this brass articulating arm lamp that I prototyped. I thought to myself, shit, I’ve got to hire someone. A big problem was that I didn’t even know how to train anybody at this point, since I was still figuring everything out for myself. I remember eating a burrito at Tex-Mex with my friend who told me was looking for a job at the time – and I simply asked him, “Why don’t you work for me instead?”
I spent most of 2013 working on this order for Dorothee, and experienced the same scaling difficulties as I had with the little lamps since I had only made a few until then. I wasn’t traditionally trained as a designer, so I never thought to draw the fixture out and have a manufacturer produce them in bulk. No, I fucking hand turned every piece of wood that went into it. It was insane. I actually had to hire two more friends along the way, and they came in and we churned every single lamp out ourselves. When we were ready to ship, we didn’t even crate them. Three post office trucks showed up at my house and we filled them all to the brim. It was an insane time and a pivotal learning experience for me. There was never an advisor or investor to tell me what to do. I made a lot of mistakes, but looking back I was fortunate that I designed products that were easily replicable – meaning, I never prototyped anything that was so ambitious that I couldn’t actually produce.
Where did Dorothee end up placing the lamps in?
She bought them for a hotel in Paris called the Grand Pigalle Hotel, and the cool thing is that we still make these lights to this day. When we were turning those lamps out, I had no idea where they were going to go. This wasn’t my world; I had no idea about hotels and interiors, trade discounts, any of that. My first employees were musicians and they wrote this song, “Where do the lamps go?” and it always stuck with me. Nobody knew. We were sending all these fixtures out in the early days and we would never get photos back. That’s changed, of course.
My first employees were musicians and they wrote this song, ‘Where do the lamps go?’ and it always stuck with me. Nobody knew.
Allied Maker fixtures feel warm and inviting when I look at them.
I recognize that there have been tons of designers before me who have laid the roots for this sort of style, but I feel like I played a part in reintroducing a certain aesthetic into the lighting world. Now you scour Etsy and you see it all the time. In fact, some of the companies we order parts from have started offering the parts we designed to others because it’s in such high demand.
Overall, though, I am thankful that we have a unique look that no one else can fully mimic. I’ve always considered our aesthetic as being really playful and naive. Our dome and glass signature look came about when I was checking out molds from a metal spinner. I felt that the simplicity of a hemisphere would lend it a certain ease with which it could be worked into a space. It’s a shape that hasn’t really existed before; I found one or two examples from the 1920’s that had a similar idea, but that was it. The collection expanded from there; I kept adding joinery methods and that led to the arc collection. As soon as the basic shapes and materials were set, it expanded.
Everything comes from the same basic playful roots and geometry. I always hated decorative touches people tend to add, like scrolls and all that superfluous stuff. It’s all about the line – I don’t want anything to screw that up. Our customers always say it’s hard to find someone who just strips it down to the bare essentials. Sometimes I feel like it’s easier to just over-decorate something.
What are you aiming for with your materials?
I’ve always been interested in giving each piece a very honest finish, in that it’s not trying to be something else. We give our walnuts a proper coating and nothing else. Our brass finish is just brass, but treated the right way. If it’s bronzed, the patina looks like something natural that would come from age. And we blacken our wood with a flame – not just a paint or stain – so that you can see the grain.
At some point I became annoyed at how cheap some things felt. My parents weren’t really design people so all the furniture I saw growing up was flimsy, like most of what you see out in the wild. When I was researching finishes, I found that the ones being applied to guitars were on a different level. I wanted somebody to pick up our lamp and be surprised by the weight of the fixture. In my opinion, the finish should show off that the materials are of a high quality. The character of the piece should never be lost because of the finish.
All our wood and metal finishing is done in house, and it’s a huge part of what makes our product special. The blackened brass is a proprietary process I developed: we start with raw brass and force an oxidation that creates the appearance, and then we lay on coats of wax. Traditionally, this blackening is done with a hot acid solution. But in my research, I learned that the gun industry uses a cold method, so we started buying a solution that’s meant to touch up firearms. It took a long time but I found a series of steps to achieve just the right outcome. The secret is in the timing, and as such, I consider the finishers downstairs both artisans and mathematicians. There is a formula that they are repeating like a drummer everyday, but they also need that artisanal touch for when situations change.
The character of the piece should never be lost because of the finish.
You mentioned that travel has been a major source of inspiration for you over the years. What are some destinations that have been particularly inspirational?
Last year, we took a trip to Amangiri, an incredible spa destination in the middle of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park in Utah; they purchased the land from Congress. Getting the opportunity to visit a place where the architecture and decision making is at such a high level, and to see it placed in such a unique part of the world – it really moved us. We’re working on a new collection that’s inspired by our time there.
I also remember visiting Paris and seeing how they treat brass so differently there. We noticed this little French lady cleaning her brass doorknob and the care she gave to it was so beautiful. Or going into a government building and seeing huge brass fixtures – it made me want to create something of that scale. We are getting more and more inspired by scale. Our collection started small because the garage was my reference point; then we moved to this current workshop and it grew. The more opportunities we have to visit new destinations, the wider our our perspective becomes.
I feel like any person working on a DIY project at home hopes for it to turn into something bigger.
My dad used to say, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” The reality is that it has proven to be incredibly difficult. You are responsible for every person that works for you, from their jobs to their well-being. Growing each department has produced its own unique challenges. There’s so much as an independent entrepreneur that is going against you; everything is trying to take you down. I am so thankful that we have incredible employees who pour everything into their work. They’ve been critical in growing the business.
Once you signed on for more space in the building, you were finally able to separate departments out. Does each one have its own personality?
Definitely. One of the first things I wanted to do when we took over the downstairs space was to develop army-style patches for each department; that was one of the first times I ever sat down and really thought about the character of each team. The assembly team is this nerdy bunch that can see the nitty gritty details of putting things together. The finishers are these badass dudes, pedal to the metal grinding brass down. The fabrication team is a powerhouse bend-it drill-it team, but also a thoughtful ‘measure twice, cut once’ kind of group. The shipping department is the protector of everyone’s hard work; if it breaks during shipping then it’s their fault, and they take that seriously. The scheduling and sales force is like an information artery.
I love all the departments, and am so excited to see them grow. As we keep scaling up, my goal is for the company to remain an incredibly diverse group of people that we can have a blast with. I dream of having artisans, master artisans, and artisans in training. It’s such a cool thing that can happen with the style of manufacturing that we’re doing.
I’ve heard from friends that one of the biggest challenges in-house manufacturers face as they grow is effective management of their employees. Have you found that to be the case?
This is where my wife Lanette came in. Before she joined us, I was very excited about the company and everyone who worked here and I was very generous – and people were taking advantage of that. Instead of managing the business and the employees, I just wanted to hang out and be friends and make things together. It sounds good in theory but it doesn’t actually work; my employees started getting demanding. Lanette came in and instantly saw that flaw. Right away, she set some basic parameters like giving advance notice when requesting vacation time, conducting work reviews, and even implementing basic standards of cleanliness and safety. The original five people who worked here all ended up quitting.
You grew up here in Sea Cliff. Did you give any thought to opening up a workshop closer to NYC?
I enjoy reminiscing on the days when we were first working out of my parents’ garage. It was so serene. When I was scoping out larger spaces a few years ago, I wanted something similar that was quiet, low key, and insular, but I figured that I should consider some spaces in NYC – so I drove in to check out some spots in Brooklyn and Industry City. I found them to be so cold and uninviting. I remember the amount of traffic I sat in just to get to the space and the lack of parking once I arrived. Everything just didn’t want me there, and I was just so frustrated. I felt like I didn’t need all that.
I’m not someone who goes out or networks, so being here in Sea Cliff suits me well. I feel like it’s really important for me to be here, working in a quieter space because I feel a strong duty to make new work. It’s more than a business for me. It’s a love for the work.
Looking back on these past four years, what are some things that are different now?
I think my wife, Lanette, has had the biggest impact on Allied Maker. If I’m being real, this company is basically an artist studio, and all the production work is meant to fund the art. Lanette is the one who really turned that into a possibility. Before she joined us, we were working and having fun and making money, but the true nature of this business requires so much discipline. In order to manage that, you need someone to answer to. It can’t just be loosey goosey; we almost need to be militaristic in our approach. Every day it feels like trench warfare in here and I’ve realized that the more disconnected I am from the orders, the better the business functions.
Another thing that has changed is that we have more space. We are actually able to separate and spread out our departments instead of having everyone on top of each other. In fact, we’re starting to outgrow this space. The amount of products we offer has gone up by a multiple of at least five, and the diversity of what we are capable of at this point is amazing. When we hired Justin as our 3D modeler, I didn’t even feel like I was ready for that capability. I didn’t even want to hire him, no offense to him, but Lanette said that we have to – and then it became this beautiful collaboration. When I have ideas now, he’s my link to making it happen. Just having people that expand on my skill set has become the biggest change. And having people who are really good at what they do is amazing. I can put together the prototype but it’s up to my guys to make it perfect – and they do. I have certain expectations and I know they are capable. We all work together.
What’s stayed the same?
I still whip something together, play with it, photograph it, and sell it. That hasn’t changed from the day Allied Maker was conceived as my project for Parsons until now. My process as an artist and designer has always stayed consistent. There’s always work to do, but I would rather hire more spec sheet guys to keep up with me than to change my process simply to cater to the nature of our clients and the business. I always want to be able to make a prototype, have my guys take dimensions of it, and then post it up on our website for sale. That’s what makes us different. For many other companies, it takes so much time to develop something. We’re able to move quickly which keeps us current and lets us stay creative.
You and Lanette became parents a year ago, and that happened during a crazy period of growth.
I remember finishing the last sample for ICFF and Lanette called me saying, “I think my water just broke.” And we just went with it. Landen was two weeks old and he was at ICFF with us. He was born on a Saturday and Lanette was back at work on that Tuesday. At first she thought she could just answer emails from home, but it turned out that she couldn’t. There’s even a photo of her on the phone with a computer in labor. Nobody was telling her she had to do that either. I kept telling her to put it away!
Landen’s just been with us through it all, and what he’s brought to our family has been amazing. Nothing is more fun than going to grandma and grandpas and hanging out and playing on the weekends. It’s given us that family dynamic that we’ve always wanted.
What are some adjustments you’ve made as parents?
We quit smoking. We were intense chainsmokers at one point and it had become part of my process. But aside from that, honestly, it’s just a little more challenging to manage our time here. We have to schedule his care. And in a lot of ways, it makes us healthier. We used to work through the weekends but we take them off now. It’s been critical to add some balance to our lives.
We have amazing family though too which helps. My parents are great and our niece is essentially our full time nanny. It’s super manageable for us now. I credit that to him being an easy baby.
Any mistakes you look back upon?
To be honest, we grew a lot last year. I was recently looking back on things and found that I missed the simplicity of how it all used to be. I would wake up, have a coffee and a cigarette, hang in the garage and play with a few things. My friend who worked for me would come over and tell me about the problems he was having as we worked and we would hang out. It was a really nice flow that obviously wasn’t sustainable, but it was super romantic.
Now it feels like I blinked and we have this big company, a ton of employees we are responsible for, this huge space we’re paying rent on, tens of thousands of parts in inventory, and a baby. I feel like we added so much so quickly. But I don’t think that was a mistake; it was what I wanted and what we as a company wanted. It just happened faster than I thought. Sometimes I feel like giving into the pressure but I have to be stronger and snap myself out of it. I have a duty to keep moving forward because there are a lot of people that count on us.
Have you thought about your legacy?
It would be a dream come true to be able to pass this company on to my children – to have it outlive me. We are trying to turn this into a family business. Our new tagline is “the future looks bright” – and that’s what we’re really hoping for.