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MTRL DSGN uses high-tech design to create functional home products

MTRL DSGN co-founders Josh Powell and Nick Mauer, and Georgie

MTRL DESN co-founders Nick Mauer and Josh Powell solve spatial problems in homes and commercial environments with functional laser-cut art made from reclaimed wood and cardboard.

But what exactly is MTRL?

“We’ve always had a hard time describing who we are and what we do,” joked Mauer. “We build things and we design things out of cardboard and eco-friendly [materials], but what is it exactly? We don’t know yet. It’s tough to put that into a succinct [phrase] for people to get a good idea of what we’re capable of.”

Planting literal roots in Omaha

Now housed in a renovated furniture factory in Omaha’s booming North-Downtown neighborhood, Mauer and Powell started MTRL with a desire and a passion for creating new, eco-friendly products for the home that solved common problems.

They found themselves using a lot of bamboo and wanted to take their commitment to problem-solving a step further, so they launched a crowdsourcing campaign to bring bamboo to Omaha and cut materials transport out of the equation.

“We were able to try four different species of cold hardy timber bamboo, but the Omaha winter killed them,” said Mauer.

While they were running the crowdfunding campaign, they started working with architects and interior designers on different projects from signs and displays to shelves and furniture. That side of the business took off and Mauer and Powell started moving toward more client work.

“The product [development] went to the back burner as we started working on custom things,” said Mauer. “We always had the products churning through the gears in our minds.”

Combining form and function

MTRL is currently moving back to the product space while still maintaining their work with clients.

“We’re trying to attack our own products again and really trying to figure out the future of these products,” said Powell.

One of those products is a sound-absorbing, laser-cut wall made of cardboard. The wall is completely customizable in design so it works as both a functional addition to a space and as a piece of art.

MTRL’s sound-absorbing SRFC wall in custom moon pattern

Mauer and Powell have a patent pending on the SRFC wall and have had it tested for sound absorption.

“Most acoustic products out there are flat panels and foam,” explained Powell. “You can’t really get intricate or creative with it, but the sky’s the limit with these.”

The wall is constructed out of strips of cardboard that are cut on one side and then stood up and adhered together. Because of the way it’s assembled, the appearance of the wall changes as it’s viewed from different angles, almost like an animation. It can be hung on an existing wall or used as a free-standing wall itself.

“I like to call it ‘analog interactivity.’ There’s no power going to it but it seems like it moves with you and has a digital display quality,” said Mauer. “It looks like pixels, but it’s not. It’s light passing through a hole.”

Finding a balance

Developing their own products in addition to client work is also an essential part of the business model for MTRL.

“What’s really pushed us to focus on our products is the fact that if there’s not a lot of collaborating on the design process [with clients], then there’s a lot of dead time for companies like ours,” said Powell.

Mauer and Powell have found that completing client work and developing their own products has been tough, but finding a recent balance between the two is ultimately what’s best for the future of MTRL.

The MTRL team

“We have more value when we can explore our own thoughts and make those things a reality,” said Powell. “There have been a lot of really exciting [custom client projects] but we feel like when we can come up with an idea, execute it and make it a physical thing, there’s a lot of value for that personally for us.”

They’re now able to develop products of their own creation while still applying their unique perspective to their clients’ work.

“We think of things a little bit strangely. Who else would think to cut a bunch of slices out of cardboard and turn it the other way and make some artwork that makes a place sound better?” said Mauer. “It’s a process that doesn’t really happen unless you’re free to try things and experiment. We like to do that for clients. When we collaborate, we’re able to come up with some really unique, effective solutions.”

What’s next for MTRL

Mauer and Powell feel that they have a beautiful and functional product that customers will want, but now they have to perfect the production process for the walls. So far, the walls are assembled by hand. That’s no small task when handling 1800 individual pieces of cardboard.

They’re also working on offering the wall as a modular product that can be sold as individual tile panels or in kits to consumers. That means working out different pricing structures, making product catalogs and creating an integrated marketing plan.

“We could sit here and make cool things all day long, but we came to the realization that we need to market products,” said Mauer.

It’s a process that they know will be ongoing, but they’re looking forward to what this new chapter of MTRL will bring.

“Not knowing what the end of this looks like leaves the future open-ended for us, at this point at least,” said Mauer. “We’re really excited to get our products consumer ready.”

MTRL Design // SRFC from Omaha Video Solutions on Vimeo.

Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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