– By Kara Larson –
On paper, a business built on motion, evolution, and transition is perhaps a risky endeavor. But for Hanna and Andrew Vomhof, the husband-wife duo and owners of WAAM Industries, wheels serve as the ideal foundation for their vision. “We Are Always Moving—I mean, that was it,” Hanna begins. “Moving forward, transitioning spaces. It also holds true in the portability in a lot of our products. Everything is built so it doesn’t have to be stationary. It can transition with you.”
And yet, ease of transport comes without sacrificing strength or quality. In every item, Hanna and Andrew thoughtfully design with real life needs in mind. Their objective is to take a familiar item that is typically disposable and reimagine it into a product with longevity, quality, and style. From grocery totes to tinder blocks to lunch bags to milk crates, Hanna and Andrew are inspired by the needs of people everywhere. To them, everything is an object—and every object deserves to be built well.
Individually, Hanna and Andrew are very creative people. Both graduates of the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, Andrew studied sculpture while Hanna studied photography. The skills and passions that drew them into these fields are the same ones that drive them to be successful in their current creative endeavor through WAAM. Though, like many ambitious, successful, and passionate makers, there was a period where they weren’t quite so creatively satisfied.
After graduating from MCAD, Hanna and Andrew moved to New York where Andrew worked in art handling in the gallery world. Hanna worked in retail, explaining that she more or less fell into this work for practical, adult reasons, i.e. insurance and benefits. However, Hanna also credits this time in their lives as the impetus for change—and the beginnings of taking WAAM seriously. “In New York, you’re always seeking an outlet to basically get out of the daily norm, but it’s a lot harder to actually produce work there. We felt like we had a lot less time, but we were more creatively driven, I’d say.” Hanna adds, “I think it took us being in New York to actually be serious about what we’re doing because we wanted to have a break from our daily jobs.”
WAAM Industries officially began 5 years ago in Andrew’s parents’ garage. Though, just six months in, they rented industrial workshop space one door down from their current location in St. Louis Park. At the start, Andrew and another co-founder were running the business, designing and making replicas. Hanna shares, “They started with a shell phone loudspeaker, which is a conch shell with an acoustic amplifier and that’s kind of what got the ball rolling on everything. The shell phone took off online probably about a year later.”
Also about a year in, Hanna joined forces, sewing drawstring canvas bags for the shell phones. Today, Andrew and Hanna are the sole owners of WAAM and switched to fulltime two years ago and one year ago, respectively. In terms of who does what, as a machinist and sculptor, Andrew makes the wooden items, while Hanna, as the scheduler and coordinator and sewing pro, makes it happen behind-the-scenes as well as in their home sewing studio.
Andrew’s background in sculpture is a big part of WAAM’s trajectory. From this origin, their work derives from the idea that everything is an object. However, they split from many perspectives in the art world, asking larger questions of the objects. “We look at it more like—how is it functional? How can it last? And what is its life? Because it’s different to create something that hangs on the wall—it’s not easy, but it’s different. We really aspire to make super functional objects that will last a long time.”
And there is pushback as they sometimes get asked, “Why aren’t you making art anymore?” But Hanna knows better. Because they are. “It’s just we’re making more functional objects that you’re going to surround yourself with and use every day.”
Their designs come from their desire to make products with longevity—things that people are going to use every day. And sometimes, ideas come directly from personal experience. “The waxed canvas grocery bag was actually my idea. When we were in New York, it was right around Thanksgiving and I was walking home with a turkey and all the groceries…” begins Hanna. As the story goes, the bottom of her flimsy paper bag fell out, followed by a cascade of what was meant to be a Thanksgiving meal. Holding everything with a good remainder of her commute still ahead, a stranger graciously offered his plastic bag—which, of course, had an enormous hole. Alas, she came home au courant with their next design idea.
Beyond personal experience, they also call upon their love for travel as a source of inspiration and an opportunity for research and collaboration. “It’s been valuable just getting out into the world and finding needs and also getting inspired by places—different states have different things that they need and you find those along the way.” Hanna adds, “On our trips, we always come home with at least ten ideas. And even though we don’t always get to produce them right away, we have a few little black books full of ideas.”
They recently took an East coast trip—North Carolina to New York to Massachusetts—and felt very inspired by what they came across, especially one shop in New York that was filled with objects that replaced stereotypically throwaway items. “It is so cool to see that people are moving forward and thinking about the Earth and creating solutions. It was encouraging to see that and think about what we do and how we can do it better. Thinking about the long-term and finding stores like that, it’s like, oh yeah, there’s even more to this. It’s always great to get out there and actually see it.”
In 2016, Hanna and Andrew added another travel venture into the mix via a craft market circuit around the country, traveling as far as San Francisco, Chicago. This fall, they’re headed to Austin and possibly Seattle. Through the markets, they have made maker friends from all over; though, Hanna and Andrew consistently drive the farthest of anyone they know. Their favorite markets so far have been in San Francisco at Fort Mason, an honest 26-28 hour drive. “The weather is always really nice and the people really like supporting artisans in San Francisco. They have a lot of the tech industry, so they also get really into our nerdy products and designs.”
Beyond getting to connect with people from all over America and watch them interact with their products, Hanna and Andrew also utilize their time at craft markets to open the door to meaningful collaborations. “This year we’re working on a collaborative office line with some friends who are ceramic artists we met through the markets. So that’s our goal for the end of the year,” shares Hanna. “It’s always fun because they have a different outlook on things than we do, but we’ve both gone to these markets and talked to different people and found things that we’re both missing that people want to see.”
WAAM has a couple other collaborations at present—one being with Gunner & Lux, a father daughter duo who make jewelry and accessories together. Hanna and Andrew did a series of colorful snack champ bags with this small, groovy company for back to school last year. And this year, WAAM is collaborating with an illustrator and together, they will be releasing a series of pin bags. Hanna smiles, “So, get your flair for your lunch bags, which will be really fun. She does all the illustrations and makes all the enamel pins—and we’ll be doing sets with our fun-colored lunch bags.”
At the core of collaborative work is an open mind. Being able to recognize that there are gaps in your work that other makers and artists can fill with their talents and vision. This receptiveness, met with innovation, curiosity, and hard work, is what sets WAAM apart. We Are Always Moving—a mantra, a scheme, a way of life. They’re listening to the world around them, discovering its needs, and calling upon their creativity to translate the message into solid, stylish products. Beyond that, Hanna and Andrew are thinking about the future—transforming items that get really beat up and then have no afterlife into long-lasting, environmentally-savvy, design-smart goods as functional as they are beautiful.