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RapidChat: Mark Holzbach

Mark Holzbach

At the top of one of Grand Rapids' most stunning buildings lives Mark Holzbach and his expansive creativity. In this week's RapidChat we enter Mark's world and chat about MIT, retirement, and community building. Mark lived in Boston, Toyko, and Austin before landing in Grand Rapids when his partner, Dana Friis-Hansen, was hired as the director at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Mark thinks big and in his short time in this city, he's become an important stakeholder. Read on to learn how and why.
Mark Holzbach: I’m on the board at River House. We’re transitioning from developer run to resident run, so it’s an important time. Community and relationships are very important to me. You have to have yourself together, then your family, and then your neighborhood, and then your bigger neighborhood. I want to promote healthy relationships on every level. With River House I’m doing things that bring people together. I created a speaker series and an online forum for members.

Rapid Growth: Your neighborhood is important to you. It seems this condo overlooking Grand Rapids is important, too. Where’d you get the concept for this space?

MH: It was vacant space so it was hard to visualize. It’s a work in progress and always will be. We like to commission things. Cory VanderZwagg designed our kitchen island. Our table (that retracts into the ceiling from several steel cables) was designed by an old friend from our Boston days. He’s a polymath and lives in Brooklyn now.

It was difficult to decide what architect to use. We debated between old friends who could read our minds or one of the talented local options. We decided to use our old friends (Dana would’ve used the local option) and included a friend in Kalamazoo as the local lead, who is a designer at Landscape Forms.

Space is so important. We were impulsive with this condo, we recognized the opportunity. We asked ourselves, “How can we justify this?” We decided we’d make it a space for the community, our lab.

RG: What do you mean, your lab?

MH: I remember watching the documentary, “The Architect and The Painter," about Charles and Ray Eames. I was inspired by the depiction of the Eames studio. It was a lab and workshop where they did a lot of projects. Hospitality was very important to them, and I was inspired by that.

Then there’s the "Eames House" in Pacific Palisades. The furniture was all moved temporarily to the LA County museum, part of the Pacific Standard Time program. Dana sat in that empty house talking art and design with Eames Demetrios while the sun was setting.

RG: So you made this your lab, an inspiring space for the community. What kind of events do you have here?

MH: The house is laid out so that our personal space is upstairs and the apartment is usually ready for an impromptu cocktail party or event, which is perfect when someone is in town interviewing with an organization, considering relocating here.

Our friend Seth Starner planned meetings all over the world. He said he would always look for a meeting venue that was high up. Being able to look out at the horizon inspires people and gets them to think bigger. That’s what we have here. You have the city as a context for your discussion and can point to things and understand the landscape.

The first event was a reception of VIPs and speakers for the Midwest User Experience conference. That was a great event, very well attended, and important as designers in Grand Rapids are understanding the power of human centered design thinking.  The speakers all said, “Wow, this is Grand Rapids?” And the locals all said, “Wow, this is Grand Rapids?”

Last week The Right Place had a day-long meeting of thirty innovators from around the state. GROW had a gathering to kick off a new program. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce met here. The space is very flexible and always changing.

RG: Let’s rewind from all the exciting things happening in this space. Where’d you and Dana meet?

MH: We met at the MIT Media Lab, which was an enlightening and inspiring group of people researching technology, multimedia and design. We were both living in Boston. We were founding members of the Media Lab. I was a graduate student studying physics, but then when the Media Lab opened, I changed to pursue a M.S. of Visual Studies. Dana was working as curator of the MIT gallery, one of his first jobs out of school.

So we met in the lobby of the Media Lab, which is a beautiful building designed by I.M. Pei. Artists helped design the space. My late professor's wife told me years later that he said he regretted not inviting me for a PhD at the Media Lab, which they started offering soon after I graduated. That was humbling to know he would have liked to continue working with me.

After Boston we moved to Japan. We lived in Tokyo for five years. I worked in high tech and Dana was a curator of international art shows. It was a risk, but I like taking risks.

When we moved to Austin, all of our friends discouraged it. Back then, Austin was considered the backwater.

RG: What did they say when you announced you were moving to Grand Rapids three years ago?

MH: We were so confident about Grand Rapids, we convinced them. Right when we were moving the lipdub came out, so that was good timing.

We invite our friends for an annual Art Adventure Tour. We encourage them to visit during ArtPrize. Some have come multiple times. People from our lives, who live around the world, come here.

We’re taking some friends to Austin in June. When I think how to keep people here, I think the answer is to take them to meet interesting people outside of Grand Rapids. When faced with opportunities, they’ll probably choose to stay in Grand Rapids rather than assume the grass is greener elsewhere.

Dana and I try to be catalysts, introducers, and connectors. Want to see our mission statement? Hold on let me pull it up. I’m really getting into Evernote.

RG: What other apps do you like?

MH: Duolingo uses gamification to help me keep my German up. I used to be fluent but months go by that I don’t use it, so I need to make sure it’s still there.

RG: I love the idea of a personal mission statement. You seem very focused on growing this community and fostering connections.

MH: I am naturally a planner. I try to plan my life, living, and work, so that spontaneity becomes more possible than it would otherwise. I appreciate wisdom. Our lives and our time are our resources. How do we make the most of this and be the best stewards of these resources?

I mentor young entrepreneurs through GR Current. Kevin McCurren at GVSU selects companies for me to work with; it seems they’re the ones that are likely to succeed, so they don’t need that much help. I mostly help them with connectivity. “Have you thought about…? Have you met…?” It is a role that I do very naturally.

I believe in energizing the improvised. The answer today might not be the same today as it is tomorrow. It’s personal but it is bigger than us. I encourage people to think that way.

RG: You’ve been an entrepreneur for quite a long time, right?

MH: I started Zebra Imaging in 1996. It’s been a roller coaster. We make 3D holographic prints. It’s a concept that spun off from the MIT Media Lab. I’ve pulled way back; I used to spend a week of every month back in Austin but I haven’t been there this year. I’m making an intentional decision to pull back from the company and focus on my projects here.

RG: Are you retiring?

MH: No, I'm actually looking for new paid projects and open to full time employment. But in any case, it's not retirement.

I’m not playing golf and relaxing. People live much longer now and I think the concept of retiring at 65 is outdated. People are forced to work way too much when they’re younger and make sacrifices. I don’t like the culture that you have to log long hours, butt in seat, to be valuable -- there’s no trust there. It’s not respectful of young people. You work, you kill yourself, then you retire at 65 and you get out of there and go play shuffleboard.

We all need more meaning throughout our lives. It’s all about relationships. Family first, then neighbors and community.

RG: Are you here for the long haul?

MH: We’re here for the indefinite now. How’s that?

RG: That’s very, very good.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.

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