As UncommonGoods photographer Emily and I made our way to visit Richard Upchurch’s studio, our cab driver quizzed us on some of the local neighborhood acronyms. “Do you know what Tribeca stands for?” he stared at us in his rear-view mirror. “Triangle below Canal Street,” we laughed. “What about Dumbo?” “Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” we said in unison. “Do you know why this neighborhood is called Red Hook?” he mused as we turned down a one-way street lined with rugged facades. We were stumped. “Because of all these brick buildings?” I guessed. “I don’t think so!” he teased. “But seriously, I’m not sure. Do you know?” he peered back in the mirror.
Out of guesses, I stared out the window at the jumble of modern and old-fashioned storefronts. With its scattered cobblestone streets and uncanny industrial vibe (a holdover from when it was a busy shipping center), I felt like I was back in my old Pittsburgh neighborhood. That is, until I saw the beautiful view of New York Bay and the Statue of Liberty directly across from the studio’s dome shaped doors.
Richard introduced himself with a comforting flair of southern hospitality. As soon as he learned about Emily’s Georgia roots, he started describing his favorite Georgia venues where he had previously performed as a touring musician, setting the stage for an afternoon with one of the best storytellers either of us had met in a long time. He walked us around his studio and described how Lil’ Mib, Zoots, and Loopy Lou grew from blocks of wood into sound recording gadgets. He related the first days of his business brandnewnoise, and how it’s grown to become an influential internship provider for inner-city students. He gave us the inside scoop behind the bright green frog in the center of his workstation. (A project that involved a crazy collaboration with Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips!) We pointed to his old wooden thumb piano, among other oddities, and he elaborated with charming, sentimental tales. He pointed toward his favorite barbecue joint across the street, distinguishing all of the clandestine spots that make Red Hook so special. With each new story, he built the kind of environment that made us want to settle into rocking chairs, crack open beers, and chat about life. After meeting Richard, I am not surprised that he decided to set up shop in a neighborhood that’s so full of history, character, and unexpected treasures.
Whether you’re looking for creative inspiration, or just hoping to get a sneak peek into an artist’s everyday life, you’re in good company. Pull up your favorite chair, sit back, and enjoy our tour of Richard’s Brooklyn Studio.
What are your most essential tools?
My Weller soldering iron, table saw, drill presses, hot glue guns, needle nose pliers, hand sanders, 320 grit sandpaper, and my bike.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Mason jars filled with electronics, wood working equipment, found oddities, tools, workspace to build, and an espresso maker. I’m lucky this is what I call work.
How did you develop the concept of your product?
I wanted my nephew to have the experience of an old tape machine. I couldn’t find one for cheap, so I just built him something that would simulate the experience. I ended up building him a simple voice recorder made out of wood where he could change the sound of his voice. He took it to show and tell, where his teachers inquired about purchasing some. So I made five for his teachers. I made 10 for my first online store at the insistence of my sister-in-law and, well, here I am still building them today.
How do you believe that your past experiences have helped you develop your current business?
Everything we do is built on previous days and our ability to move forward into something positive. Those days add up. I studied art in college. I got out of college and toured playing music for 10 years. Now here I am at the intersection of art and music making sound gadgets.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
“Workflow”, “margins”, and the jargon can easily outweigh time spent doing what I do best, making art. It’s quite difficult to constantly step away from the business part and get back to that which I love: the process of creating, building and seeing a physical object materialize from inception. One must create time to create.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Walk through every open door. If you find yourself in a room that doesn’t seem to hold your attention then look for the open door. There is no dead end.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
A victory lap might include a good cappuccino, a movie while we work, cookies (always cookies), and some robot dancing. When? The goal is to find reason to do the robot every day.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
I think this changes as events in our world change and certainly in my own personal life. So recently, I followed the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the two guys who climbed Dawn Wall in Yosemite:
“I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.” – Kevin Jorgeson
How do you recharge your creativity?
Travel. Live music. Dinner parties with interesting storytellers. Bike rides. Laughing really hard with friends. Looking at art. Taking things apart.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Collaboration is at the heart of my process. I am surrounded by talented, positive people who have different ways of seeing and are always ready to create positive change. I love throwing something into the universe and seeing it evolve.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I am surrounded by other artists, woodworkers, electronics wizards, and musicians that constantly challenge me to be better. I try not to get overwhelmed and just keep honing my skills in lots of different areas. We are all here to encourage each other, so I keep my eyes open and my hands always ready to build something.
[…] From their handmade wood bodies to their whimsical, silkscreened “faces,” Zoots, Lil’ MIB, and Loopy Lou share the mission of Ayah’s modular bits—to make electronics accessible and endearing. For more on Richard’s easygoing but innovative approach to designing and building technological toys, follow along with our recent tour of his studio. […]
Happy New Year folks.
I received a ZOOTS thumb recording gadget for Christmas. Love it! It’s not in tune though. Can you tell me if it can be tuned and if so, how I go about doing that. its the one with the red & black button in the back and an on off switch. The front has a black knob.
Thank you very much for any info you can provide.
Thanks for your question, Priscilla! We emailed you separately, but for all you readers out there who’d like to know the answer, here’s what Richard Upchurch told us when we asked: “The Zoots comes tuned to a funky little scale we put together but yes, it can be tuned. All you need to do is slightly loosen the two screws holding the tone bar and then slide the keys/ tines forward or backwards to achieve a different tone.”
[…] Check out the full Studio Tour with Richard Upchurch >> […]
[…] who we are and what we love; music, traveling, laughing, sharing meals. At the end of the day, brandnewnoise gadgets are an extension of who we are as a […]