Nic Der is our associate designer and probably one of the most versatile people in the studio. From machinery to design software, he knows how to operate it all, and works closely with creative director Lindy to help draft and produce our bags. Liz interviews him here to find out what jumpstarted his design career and how he's motivated to create.
You do both design and photography here at Lotuff, and you’re also a very good writer. Did these skills all develop separately for you, or did you discover them through each other?
I would say the design and photography skills developed together. I started doing photo before design work, so being able to compose an image sort of informed my ability to design in terms of aesthetics, shapes, and composition. And now that I do both, they inform each other.
Writing is pretty separate, because I always hated writing, actually—English and history were my hardest subjects in school. I always felt self-conscious and just not good at writing; it might have been because I was always surrounded by people who were really great writers, so I thought I wasn’t in comparison. It wasn't until I got to grad school that someone was like, “You’re OK at this!” I guess it just made sense to me when I was older, after my brain had formed or something (laughs). But I will say, when I did write in school, creative writing was always my strongest and my favorite. I think that speaks to my ability to imagine and create images both visually and in words.
Seeing as you started out designing shoes and you now design bags, what are the biggest differences or similarities you’ve noticed between making one versus the other?
They’re both pretty intense in terms of handwork and process…they both are a lot of work. With shoemaking, it’s not as much back and forth: once you make the upper, then you don’t really have to do much else by way of a buffing wheel or anything. It’s mostly just about lasting and putting on the sole—that’s the bulk of shoemaking. I think ergonomics factor more into shoemaking, whereas with bag-making it’s not so much about how much something will fit to your body. I think I like doing both equally. They’re similar for me, because I’m using my hands to sew, grind, hammer, and stretch leather.
What’s kind of cool about shoes, though, is you can make really different shapes because they're molded over a form, whereas with bags they kind of take on the shape of whatever's in them.
In college, you majored in architecture and Chinese, and even lived in China for a few months. How have those studies influenced the type of design work you do today?
Architecture, I think, gave me my basic design knowledge and my skills in drafting and making models that I still use now. After I finished my architecture degree I found myself disillusioned with the profession. I loved the education I got; if I had to do it over again I would still study architecture, but the life of an architect was not for me. There were certain parts I had learned that I really enjoyed, like working with my hands and working problems out three-dimensionally, but I was more interested in working at the human scale.
It was when I was studying in China that I had an epiphany. I kind of had an identity crisis where I realized I didn't want to do architecture. While I was in Beijing, the idea had been to get a job working in architecture in a Chinese city or a Chinese architecture firm, so I was partially there to see if I could find work. I was supposed to be taking courses that I needed for my major, but they didn’t end up offering them at the university and I had to take random redundant language classes…so I had a lot of free time to think [about my future].
Where do you generally look to for design inspiration?
My mom went to art school, so I was always surrounded by art growing up. I think one my first books as a child was a book of Monet's paintings, and we always went to museums, so I looked at the fine art world a lot. My architecture education and the "less is more" mantra of modernists always finds its way into my designs somehow. These days the Internet and Instagram are amazing tools for designers to just be inundated with images, and that’s pretty exciting. You can just scroll endlessly through inspiring pictures. It can be hard to pinpoint where my inspiration comes from because I’m looking at so many things so frequently; it’s this cloud of images and information that somehow synthesizes into a design.
Sometimes part of being a designer is not just looking at aesthetics, though, but utility, and even paying attention to someone saying, “I wish _____ existed.” I mean, with the things I’ve made bag and shoe-wise, I’ve looked at naval and military stuff because it’s so functional and utilitarian. That’s a good base to jump off of.
Before this, most of the design work I did in school was not focused on fashion. It was more digital, and more like art than functional design pieces, so my inspiration there came from critical social theory and 20th century philosophers as well as social media and pop culture. I'm obsessed with pop culture.
Of all the things you've made in your design career, what creation or project are you most proud of?
I would say the pair of shoes I made for my independent study at RISD were my favorite. I tried to combine modern fabrication techniques and handmade shoemaking techniques. That was the third pair of shoes I had made, but this was the first time I combined the techniques. Instead of using, say, pieces of leather with precut holes, I engineered and laser cut the pattern so it corresponded with the shape of the shoe. It was more intentional. Before, I had stitched my shoes using a machine, but this time I did it all by hand, and these ended up looking a lot better than the other two. So they were entirely hand stitched, but I used modern laser cutouts and made patterns using CAD technology. I lasted and soled them all by hand. It took a really long time, but I found myself working and just losing track of that time.