MEET THE MAKER: TAIT DESIGN CO.
Matt Tait has always been a tinkerer. Since childhood, the designer has been fascinated with assembly and could oftentimes be found picking apart appliances and reassembling them, or setting up skate ramps outside his Michigan home. Matt went on to study graphic design and eventually began working in marketing as an Associate Creative Director, but he missed tinkering. He developed an itch to get back that childhood feeling, that desire to create something impactful and lasting — something you could interact with in real life that wouldn’t just live in a computer.
After taking classes at a makershop on everything from welding to woodworking, Matt’s re-ignited passion only grew. The creative spark then took full flame after he paid a visit to his local hardware supply store, where he spotted a model airplane kit hanging by the register at checkout. The classic kids’ toy struck Matt, as it hadn’t gotten much of an update in close to 50 years. He decided to apply the skills he had recently learned through the makershop towards a much-needed redesign, dubbing his makeover The Turbo Flyer. Matt created a website to sell his new creations, garnering so much traffic the first week he took the site live (over 30,000 curious visitors!) that it crashed shortly after launch.
Matt went on to operate TAIT Design Co. mostly on nights and weekends, balancing it with his full-time job. He was then approached in the summer of 2017 by Audrey Elkus, another designer still in school at the time, about working together. After Audrey came on board, the two developed an undeniable chemistry, and decided to focus all their efforts — not just those hard to come by nights and weekends — on TAIT later that fall, taking it from side hustle to legitimate business venture.
Fast forward a few years and they’re still going strong, with an expanded offering of toys and home goods ranging from yoyo’s to wall clocks, all designed in-house and handcrafted from materials sourced throughout the U.S. While unique, eye-catching design obviously takes precedence for the company, TAIT’s core values also revolve around keeping as much of their product manufacturing as close to their native Detroit as possible. They estimate an over $250,000 impact to the city’s economy already.
Read our interview with Matt and Audrey below.
Meet the Maker: TAIT Design Co.
S&A: Matt, we know you went to school for graphic design and worked in advertising before making TAIT Design Co. a full-time venture. Where did your interest in industrial design stem from, and what made you decide it was time to turn the side hustle into your main focus?
M: I’ve been building things my whole life – I was the type of kid who would take apart appliances and put them back together, and build skate ramps in my driveway. But after going to school for graphic design and working in advertising, I ended up spending the majority of my time working on digital design rather than physical.
When I was working as an Associate Creative Director, I began to get tired of making things in the computer. No matter how much work we put into a project, in a year or two it would be outdated and we’d have to start from scratch. To experiment outside of work, I started taking classes at a local makershop that unfortunately no longer exists called TechShop. I took every single class there, from welding to woodworking, and became really obsessed with industrial design and 3D work.
Around the time I finished up the last class there, I was in a hardware store buying supplies and noticed a balsa model airplane kit in a plastic bag behind the register. I realized that no one had re-designed that classic toy in about 50 years, and saw an opportunity to apply all the skills I had learned at TechShop to make it better.
I immediately honed in on this project, completely re-designing the plane, its graphics, and the packaging it came in. I ended up calling it The Turbo Flyer, and showed it around to my friends at work. Everyone wanted one, so I thought it would be fun to set up a website for just this one product and see what happened next.
I launched it online, not sure what to expect. But the very first weekend over 30,000 people came to the website! It crashed, and I had orders rolling in nonstop for weeks. All of a sudden, I had a business. And eventually, it got to the point where it just became too hard to balance my full-time job and this side hustle. I had to choose – and I chose to focus on TAIT Design Co. exclusively back in September of 2017.
S&A: How did you and Audrey meet, and how have you two worked together over the years to shape the company's creative vision?
A: It’s a pretty funny story. At the time, I was still in school and searching for summer opportunities close to home. I found the TAIT Design Co. website and thought there was a big team behind it. I wrote in to the general contact form asking if there was room on the creative team, and when Matt wrote me back, I found out it was actually a one man show! Matt still had his full-time job and was working on the business at night and on the weekends.
That first summer we worked on a packaging project together and realized we made a great team. Within a few months of working on the weekends, we started talking about doing this together in a more serious way, and making it into a real business rather than a side hustle.
We’ve worked really hard to maintain the same values we’ve had since the beginning: to make great products, manufacture our line as close to home as we possibly can, and to support our community through local hiring and partnerships as we grow and scale. Now, four years after meeting, we own the business together, have our own studio space, a team of 5 employees, and a full product line that’s in 250+ stores all around the world. It’s pretty crazy to look back on all of our growth! It’s really been a wild ride.
S&A: Why is it important to you both to use U.S.-sourced materials and keep the manufacturing process as regional as possible?
M: In the beginning, I was making every Turbo Flyer by hand in my basement. As I started to realize that I needed help, it only made sense to find someone nearby to talk to. Michigan has such a rich manufacturing history, and the ability to work with true experts in their field that just happen to be a short drive away has been incredible.
As we’ve grown, being able to go back to those vendors and give them larger and larger orders is one of the best parts of my job. Watching them hire up from the community or buy a machine just to handle our orders really shows the ripple effect of working with local partners.
At this point, those relationships have grown so strong that we wouldn’t think of moving our production overseas. We’re creating and sustaining jobs here, and get to have a very high level of oversight as well. It has worked out great for us, and we highly recommend working in this way, if possible, to anyone who is manufacturing a physical product.
S&A: Is there anything in particular that serves as creative inspiration when you're getting to work on a new design?
A: Traveling somewhere new is always a great way to spark new ideas and inspiration. It doesn’t need to be somewhere far away – even going up north in Michigan and spending time outside in nature is a great way to refresh and think about something new.
M: Besides getting outside, going to museums and art festivals is another great way to think differently about a new idea. I was able to go to Salone Del Mobile in Milan a few years back, and that was one of the most inspired events I’ve been to.
S&A: How would you characterize your business's relationship with Detroit? What benefits does the city present to a creative business such as TAIT?
A: Detroit is a really special place to be an entrepreneur or small business owner. The community here is incredibly supportive and more than willing to share ideas, contacts, or best methods on how to accomplish something. It’s really not a competitive space – everyone wants each other to succeed. We feel lucky to be a part of it!
M: And of course, so many of our great manufacturing partners are in or around the city. Getting to work with such talented, creative people is a huge benefit of our work.
S&A: Any other makers or small businesses in Michigan you're particularly fond of?
A: So many! POST is a creative co-working space we work out of, and there is a storefront that carries over 100 different Michigan artists’ work. It’s a special spot, and our friends from Mutual Adoration woodworking, Hooray Forever graphic design, and Scarlet Crane Creations screen printing work out of there too. Outside of our studio, the team over at Bon Bon Bon makes great chocolate bon bons. And some of our favorite shops in the city are Nora and City Bird.
M: Yes! We’re also fans of Detroit Abloom flower farm right near our studio, and the team over at Corbe makes beautiful ceramics as well. And you can’t talk about Michigan businesses without mentioning Zingerman’s – the delicious food empire in Ann Arbor.