Conversation 04: Byron Shaving Company
Our new series features refreshing conversations with Tucson’s makers, creatives, and small business owners via long-form interviews. We aim to share their multifaceted stories, processes, and inspirations through the lens of beginnings, risk, and creativity.
Photography by Meredith Amadee
Byron Shaving Company is a purveyor of handmade, original design tools and gear for wet shaving. Find their work here.
John Leitch / Designer & Craftsman
Tell us about your path to what you’re doing now; how did you start Byron Shaving Company? What is your background?
My professional education includes graduate degrees in applied arts, ceramics, and product design. Various life segments include jewelry design, ceramics as an artisan potter, cutlery design and manufacturing, original-design wet shaving gear products, and a lifetime of being an obsessed maker of objects, original in design, in a myriad of materials and processes. Seeking knowledge and learning a related, specific skill are requirements. They lead to the reward of accomplishment in going forward with my personal creativity. My past creative obsessions include: photography, jewelry making, ceramics, handmade brushes, making cutlery, and now, my shaving tools adventure.
How has your style developed as you’ve grown?
I would say my work has evolved within each category of making specific objects, gaining skills using tools, and learning about new materials with each piece of knowledge contributing to my next project or venture.
I can identify three shifts in my style and medium choices:
01. Switching from ceramics to handmade brushes (including shaving brushes), because I was using the brushes to decorate my ceramics (through over-glazing) and I couldn’t find any brushes that were suitable to use. So I made my own!
02. Moving to New Mexico ended my ceramics phase because there wasn’t as large of a market for ceramics, which caused me to shift to handmade cutlery.
03. Moving to Tucson caused a shift from cutlery to shaving because of space and equipment considerations. I wanted to develop a line of shaving gear because it was a new challenge, and I knew I could do it because I had made brushes in the past. It seemed like an ideal market for repurposing and reusing materials. Using a longer-lasting blade is more sustainable and eco-friendly. With my original design of shaving gear, every component relates to and complements every other component.
“Seeking knowledge and learning a related, specific skill are requirements.”
“I wanted to develop a line of shaving gear because it was a new challenge, and I knew I could do it because I had made brushes in the past. It seemed like an ideal market for repurposing and reusing materials.”
When did the idea of starting your business feel like something you could achieve? Was there an “aha!” moment?
It started with making brushes many years ago to decorate my ceramics. Following this, I made shaving brushes with turned wood handles, bone, and metal. My brushes and cutlery were included in the Smithsonian Craft Show, Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, and the American Craft Exposition in Chicago. Several years ago I decided to take a new direction and began the design and making of wet shaving tools.
The ability to participate in local shows and retail spaces contributed to my motivation to grow the business, sell at stores, and develop an online presence.
If you weren’t running Byron Shaving Company, what would you be doing?
I would be designing and making other product prototypes. I’d also keep expanding my shaving gear line, constantly improving each product and tweaking elements here and there. The new ideas just kind of come out of nowhere and pop into my head, which leads to new product lines and ventures.
Does your process come pretty naturally or do you find yourself fighting against creative block at times?
It is a challenge to always be “on” in the moment and move forward. If progress is futile, I wait until another day. I reinvigorate myself for the next day by reading and seeking inspiration from outside sources, such as design sites and style magazines. I look outward for inspiration to refuel, in addition to rest, walking, sleep, and trips downtown.
“New ideas just kind of come out of nowhere and pop into my head, which leads to new product lines and ventures.”
Have you taken big risks to move forward? Do you see a connection between risk and creativity?
Everything in life seems to have some risk. Risk in the making and designing involves success or failure with regard to sales, income, and a feeling of personal well-being or not. Taking risks is very important for almost everyone because it leads to growth beyond what one can imagine.
Have you had any memorable collaborations? Why do you think it’s important for creatives and makers to come together and collaborate?
I have had one significant collaboration, with Isaac Tait, a Northwest Coast Native British Columbian, who was an artisan that designed works using the traditional Native Northwest Coastal shapes and forms. I approached him to create a surface design that I could etch into the surface of a knife blade he would design. He provided the artistic vision and I had the knowledge, skill, and equipment needed to make the knife product. It was included in his one-man show in Santa Fe, NM, entitled Jewels of Our Tradition: A Measure of Transformation, exhibited at the American Indian Arts Museum.
It’s important for creatives and makers to collaborate because each person has a separate knowledge and skill-set to contribute. Blending two or more skill-sets and backgrounds presents a more viable and interesting product. That ultimately leads to newer iterations and better ideas! I’ve found that being in a larger city where you come into contact with other creatives and artists leads to growth and new opportunity. Collaborations create an opportunity for everyone to move forward.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out?
Talk to as many artisans as possible that are working and making a living using the same materials and process. Become an apprentice to a highly skilled and knowledgeable person, and begin learning and developing necessary advanced skills to quickly achieve your goals.
I have become the craftsman I am today from almost entirely self-taught methods. I was a student of a few very talented professors in ceramics who taught me about form and design. This knowledge influenced everything that followed. For example: a ceramics shape can influence the shape of a lather bowl or a brush handle. Even my metal bowls mimic pottery forms.
Every media that I have taken on after ceramics has been influenced by the craft of ceramics—even woodturning brushes, or the design of shaving razor handles. My ceramics background has also influenced the importance I place on the weight and balance of my shaving equipment. The feel of something is so important; the tactile nature, balance, surface, weight, and texture.
Outline the 3 greatest attributes you need to be a maker and small business owner:
01. Motivation. Take course and be motivated in starting and running a small business.
02. Lifelong learning. Learn all you can about marketing products. It is the most important distinguisher between a successful business and a hobby.
03. Sales knowledge. Know you are just creating unsold inventory until you have success in sales. I sold my first piece in the 70s at a street art fair in Chicago...hence my business began!
“It’s very important as an older person to give the younger generation input on their process. I believe it’s so crucial to pass on my craftsmanship knowledge and skill set.”
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger? What type of legacy do you hope to leave?
I am always interested in sharing and passing on any skill and knowledge I have with a deserving, aspiring craftsman. I am not concerned about a legacy, but like the notion of a photo record of some of my objects preserved on a website or in some form on the internet.
Recently, I have had the pleasure of mentoring Seth and Julian (of Four Corners Ltd.). It’s very important as an older person to give the younger generation input on their process. I believe it’s so crucial to pass on my craftsmanship knowledge and skill-set. Sharing knowledge eliminates a lot of the trial and error for young craftsman or businesses, but still leaves room for personal direction and expression. I really enjoy showing Seth and Julian the tricks of the trade and seeing how they flourish. That being said, it all takes time.
What brought you to Tucson? How does living in Tucson influence your craft?
I moved to Tucson after residing in Santa Fe, NM, for ten years. I came here for a milder winter climate, a larger population base, and have discovered it is home to many fellow artisans. The different geography of Tucson and a change of pace influence my daily life. I feel as if fellow craftsman are more forthcoming with information in this city. There’s more of a network here.
“I always stay curious and am a lifelong learner; I stay on top of what’s new and keep track of my industry to stay fresh.”
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I stay inspired by looking at other objects that people have created in the design world (commercial design) and the fine art and craft worlds. I also always try to discover new methodologies or manners of working that give me a unique angle in terms of my product design. I like to discover new ways of making a surface on a material or troubleshooting a new manner of assembly for my objects. I am constantly perusing design magazines and books both within and outside of my craft. I always stay curious and am a lifelong learner; I stay on top of what’s new and keep track of my industry to stay fresh.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My day starts with coffee and the newspaper, and then I move into gathering and producing parts. I work from my home studio and workshop daily, starting later in the day and often working late into the evening. For my process, I create multiples of a certain product and prefer to work in batches for productivity’s sake. I am always reading and researching, which usually means online image research or watching tutorial videos regarding technical production and methods. I have an early evening stroll with my wife and end the day with a beer and online news.
What are you trying to learn right now?
I am currently learning to paint with pigmented molten beeswax, which is known as “encaustic” painting. It involves layering colors much the same as I have done in my years of applying glaze to a ceramic surface except in encaustic painting the result is immediate and does not require the work to be fired to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, as in ceramics. I will be taking this specialty class with Tucsonan artist, instructor, and gallery owner Miles Conrad of Conrad Wilde Gallery.
I’ve also started learning slip casting (for ceramics), and have begun to integrate my ceramics pieces and shaving gear.
Seeing where you are now, what are your ambitions for the coming years?
I hope to stay healthy and happy! And also continuing to make objects and pursue my craft of product design and shaving supplies production work. I’d like to expand my product line further, increase my stockists on the West Coast, expand nationally, and eventually sell my designs and concepts to larger corporations or manufacturers.