Joey Ruiter has designs on downtown Grand Rapids

Design an award-winning office chair: Check. Design an aquatic pod-racer: Check. Design a bicycle for urban commuters: Check.

Now, Joey Ruiter has designs on a new Grand Rapids workshop. Check this out: The 33-year-old industrial designer has bought a tiny parcel west of Founders Brewing Co. and plans to construct "a little office-garage" estimated to cost $180,000 to support his work.

"The office today for me is barely a setting. It's a state of mind," says Ruiter, looking over design concepts for the studio he envisions on Bartlett Street SW. "Every week I do something different, so it's gotta be able to change and shift and move.

"This is really a shell to accommodate a lot of different things. This is an experiment in how to work in the future."

Ruiter does a lot of forward thinking. The Grand Haven native sold an office chair design to Steelcase while still in school at Kendall College of Art & Design, which honored him last month with a distinguished alumni award. He also has earned honors at NeoCon, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings that will soon be taking place in Chicago. And a "totally experimental" boat he designed was featured in Popular Science magazine.

On his own
After working for Steelcase's Turnstone division after school, Ruiter five years ago opened his own studio. In addition to furniture companies including Herman Miller, Nucraft and izzy, Ruiter's clientele crosses industries ranging from dental tools to hot tubs. He spends about half of his time developing new stuff, or creating new designs of existing products.

One of his latest creations, the Inner City Bike, seeks to engage a growing cadre of urban commuters by putting some new tread on the traditional bicycle. It sports a pair of 36-inch wheels with a seat atop the one in the rear. There is no chain.

"I basically took away everything that you didn't absolutely need," Ruiter says. "You don't wear one of those cone (racing) helmets on this. It's probably a reverse in evolution."

Then again, less can be more in terms of design to Ruiter. His current workspace at 3 Oakes St. SW is smallish, adorned by a Herman Miller marshmallow sofa and a conference table that doubles as his desk. There's a photo of the Inner City Bike on the wall and a few of his designs on the floor, including an OFS-brand Swank lounge chair made to use a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood so there's no scrap.

"The key to my business is low overhead," he says. "I own a computer. I own a printer. I own a couple tools. And that's my business assets.

"I'm not really building a business to sell. The sale is me doing the work."

Ruiter moved his assets six months ago to Oakes, the most recent of several workspaces that together have been phases of an ongoing experiment. He previously worked at his Grand Rapids home, a task complicated by the presence of two children age two and younger. There also was a rented space that needed a bigger elevator to fit materials. There was an owned building with a ceiling too low. Ruiter even squatted for awhile in vacant buildings on Ionia Avenue SW.

Hey, he likes the downtown bustle.

"I feel like I'm part of a bigger world," he says, looking out on Oakes. "I feel like I have co-workers walking by."

Altogether now
People will be the focus of his design for the new workshop, Ruiter says. He's striving to make it "like the second home I can work at." For entertaining clients, there'll be a kitchen in the back of a second floor that has an outdoor deck on the roof. A third-floor loft would be for storage, with a ground-floor showroom housing a model shop.

The design combines elements from previous workspaces into a single, new building on a 2,000-square-foot lot.

"I've moved probably five times in the last six years, and I just haven't been able to find the right space. It has been a learning process," Ruiter says. "This building is really the consolidation of a lot of those components at a manageable scale.

"I want the people to stand out rather than the architecture. Products should be in the background to support interaction."

Grand Rapids city planning officials have embraced Ruiter's concept for the workshop.

"It is always exciting for us to meet with individuals who wish to build up the urban core and be living pioneers in nearly unchartered territories, like on his site," said Suzanne Schulz, planning director. "The little postage-stamp size of a lot that he wishes to build on captures the imagination about what could be there.

"To have an individual like Joey want to invest in the city and choose that spot speaks to the enthusiasm that exists about downtown and the confidence people have in the city's future."

Ruiter concedes he might never build his workshop, and whether or not he does may not matter. It's the process of designing that inspires him. It's another experiment to check off the list, another form given a fresh take.

"I've been doing this for years. This is, like, number 30," he says, looking over the latest workshop design. "It's a change disorder, an experiment disorder. Maybe there's an acronym for it.

"I'm really in no hurry, but it's kind of fun having the aspirations."

For a designer, it's an aspiration afforded by Grand Rapids. Shoot, he paid cash for the property. Plus, the business community is rich in world-class manufacturing and the geography suits Ruiter's penchant for outdoor action like fishing, boating and snowboarding.

Not to mention that Grand Rapids fits his design philosophy.

"We design our own lives to make it easier all the time," Ruiter says. "It's simple and easy to live here. I couldn't even think of doing this in New York."

Matt Vande Bunte writes about business, government, religion and other things. His work has appeared in newspapers including The Grand Rapids Press and Chicago Tribune and in assorted sectors of cyberspace.


Joey Ruiter

Newly purchased parcel of land

Future building design -Rendering Courtesy of Joey Ruiter

Joey Ruiter in his current studio (2)

One of Joey Ruiter boat designs -Photo Courtesy of Joey Ruiter

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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