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Living in a Material(s) World: Eco-Minded Design Firm Adapts Quickly to Change

Joe Luttwak, CEO, Lingrove: Ekoa is better for the planet because it is made from rapidly renewable plants. Most things that we have in the world today are made from extracted materials. It is our view that wood is part of that because, like ivory, you ultimately don’t really know where wood comes from.

My real focus came when I started working at Ferrari, and that’s where I learned about composites and stuff like carbon fiber. From then on, I became a composites nerd and applied that same thinking that Ferrari was using to make their Formula One cars toward musical instruments, which also need to be very light and stiff to make them sound good.

I started to understand how carbon fiber, which is what we’re using, compared with old-growth rainforest wood, which is what is normally used to make musical instruments. We had this “eureka moment” where we understood that carbon fiber was worse—from a life-cycle assessment, from carbon embodiment, from energy composition—than old-growth rainforest wood. That changed everything and from there, we started pursuing more sustainable versions of carbon fiber.

Gwyneth Jones, Prototyper and Finisher, Lingrove: Ekoa is a natural composite made of flax linen and resin, and it has a very interesting wood-grain aesthetic without any of the ecological issues that come up with wood. But also just on its own, it is a very unique, very beautiful product.

Yvonne Mouser, Designer, Lingrove: It has a very wood-like characteristic, but it’s like this hybrid that is like plastic or fiberglass but without the environmental impacts.

Luttwak: Even huge companies that have great governance keep getting sidelined by the fact that their supply comes from primary forests—so, old-growth forests. We only have 10% of those left. We need them to sequester carbon. They’re the best land-based carbon sequestration that we have. In fact, we need to regenerate more forests.

Jones: My first impressions working with Ekoa were, “How is this possibly going to look good and work in the way that we want it to?” Watching the progression and the evolution of the material, seeing that process and realizing, with each progression and each evolution, how much of those sorts of ideas and hopes and dreams are possible.

Mouser: We were thinking about, well, “Where does this product end up living?” And we were thinking about more public spaces, office spaces. That led us to thinking about the chair as a module.

Luttwak: The idea through the pandemic is that office and home are no longer two different things. Communal seating, space-defining modular seating pieces are not what the world needs right now. What does the world need? Well, people are working from home, or they’re going to be. We said, “Why don’t we work on some pieces that can enhance the work-from-home experience and also have applications that are multifunctional.”

Mouser: Where we landed was the shelf, but it’s really one of many parts that are part of a system. It’s almost like thinking about the material becoming this continuous form that breaks to be different things, like a wall treatment or lighting or a shelf or other kinds of wall furniture. What we ended up actually making now ends up being, in a way, the most simple version that allows us to explore a certain way of molding.

The core and the middle is a honeycomb cardboard. The 3D modeling is a big part of the process, and Fusion is a really good tool for building that model and then being able to go into the CAD programming and then being able to take that onto the physical tooling.

Luttwak: We’re utilizing tools to accelerate and realize our ideas without having to spend huge amounts of money on molds or huge amounts of time. It’s like the foundation for good products is the building blocks, the materials that go into it. That’s something that I think is often lost on the end user, but my hope is that people start paying attention to that stuff more because, of course, there’s the function, there’s the performance, but there’s also the sustainability component of knowing where the materials that go into your products come from.

Mouser: When it’s set up for production, it’s something I could do in my shop by myself, potentially. The way that we worked out how to make it is complex, but once that is set up, it’s really efficient.

Luttwak: What I see now is that we are the vanguard that other people are following, and we want to create that movement. We don’t think that Lingrove is going be the only player in the space, but we want to show people that you can make better products using clean chemistry, using carbon-negative inputs, and it’s not a compromise. That shift has to happen so that we can use the market-driven mechanism so that people will start choosing the better choice—because it’s better for them and it’s better for the future.

El Capitan guitar on its side

Blackbird Guitars’ El Capitan on a bed of Ekoa. Courtesy of Blackbird Guitars.

Blackbird Guitars Unifies Sound and Manufacturing Vision With Ekoa “Wood”

Inspiration comes in many guises: a glimpse of an old photo, a ray of sunlight on the skin—or the crash of a digital watch against a concrete wall, which was the childhood inspiration for industrial designer Joseph Luttwak. Although the watch did not survive, his budding interest in making things that last did.

Based in San Francisco, Luttwak is the founder of Blackbird Guitars and Lingrove, a biocomposite-materials company. And the things he builds are lightweight, great-sounding instruments.

blackbird guitars workshop
A peek inside Blackbird Guitars’ San Francisco workshop. Courtesy of Lara Caldwell.

“That obsession with the materials and design used to make truly durable ‘gear’ continued into adulthood, and at some point, I realized that this can be a profession,” Luttwak says. “Making products that enhanced life experiences and were truly long lasting became my eventual focus. Longevity is really at the nexus of good design and planet friendly. Blackbird’s first guitar grew out of this approach.”

That inaugural guitar, the sleek and glossy Blackbird Rider, was designed as a travel guitar thanks to Luttwak’s love of the outdoors. “I wanted to make the best travel guitar because I selfishly wanted one to take hiking and traveling for songwriting,” he says. “The challenge of sound, structure, playability, and portability made it an intoxicating problem to solve. The impetus was to make a tool that would last—not another throwaway product.”

Indeed, the Rider is a success, with more than 1,000 produced from Blackbird’s San Francisco manufacturing studio. But it’s the city—and the unique manufacturing challenges associated with carbon fiber—that has required Blackbird to rethink its production processes.

blackbird guitars detail
Detail image of the El Capitan. Courtesy Blackbird Guitars.

San Francisco’s stringent operational and environmental regulations challenged the assembly of the Rider series: Because carbon fiber can irritate the skin and lungs, the city requires full protective gear to mitigate dust particles during manufacturing. These worker-safety considerations made it more difficult to recruit craftspeople and more expensive to operate. This regulatory obstacle gave Luttwak a creative opportunity to evolve the manufacturing process for his next guitar line: El Capitan.

Luttwak needed a solution that would alleviate environmental manufacturing difficulties while still allowing for production of a lightweight, full-body instrument with incredible sound. So he partnered with a local materials company, Entropy Resins, to test and formulate a natural-fiber option. The result was Ekoa, a proprietary composite of flax linen and plant-based resin upcycled from industrial waste.

Although old-growth spruce is considered the gold-standard material for acoustic stringed instruments, Ekoa is lighter and thus more resonant, with “very few drawbacks,” Luttwak says. “Ekoa’s fabric component, linen, is one of the oldest high-performance materials and absorbs higher frequencies like wood does.” Ekoa looks and sounds like real wood, something the music industry could use more of these days: High-end instruments are made of increasingly scarce rainforest wood, which is creating a supply-chain issue for instrument manufacturers.

With the Ekoa formula in place, Luttwak set out to produce an “heirloom-quality” instrument with the new material. Prototyping took about three years, starting with a ukulele. The ukulele prototypes led to Clara, Blackbird Guitars’ first Ekoa instrument. “It’s easier to start with a small piece like a ukulele than a large one like a guitar,” Luttwak says.

blackbird guitars raw ekoa
Raw Ekoa. Courtesy of Lara Caldwell

The next step was to create an original manufacturing map that assimilated the tangible nuances of Ekoa into a guitar design while keeping costs down. This motivated Luttwak and his team to innovate further. Whereas carbon fiber dictated a set standard manufacturing process, Ekoa allowed Blackbird to advance its fabrication methods by creating a process specific to “urban manufacturing.”

Studio space, labor costs, and safety regulations—including reducing clear-coat paint use—all played a part. Eliminating clear-coat paint altogether required using a different kind of mold and taking a fresh look at parts assembly methods. Resolving these issues demanded a design solution.

After folding Ekoa into the manufacturing chain, Blackbird produced high-grade tooling molds from which skilled technicians could pull parts that had a Class A finish. Together, these production components enabled Blackbird to streamline composite production, assembly, and finishing.

blackbird guitars mold
An El Capitan mold. Courtesy Lara Caldwell.

Combining premium linen with the proprietary eco-resin to produce Ekoa initiates the El Capitan manufacturing cycle. Ekoa is produced on aerospace equipment, with exacting fiber-to-weight ratios for precision. This sets up the later steps for the molds. The smaller parts of the guitar are machined off Blackbird’s master CAD assembly and polished for a perfect fit. Finally, all parts are assembled and a luthier tests each instrument for sound and playability.

“We have a unique process, material, and construction that we developed over several years to help make production smooth,” Luttwak says. “Still, the amount of variables every day brings a new challenge. Taking production optimization seriously means making better products. The speed at which a problem is solved is tantamount—the faster the better, of course, but with physical products, it can often take months. When there are issues, I often personally give the client a ring to resolve them.”

Luttwak’s dedication to problem solving led to Ekoa, which not only resolved his manufacturing dilemma but also spawned his second company: Lingrove. Dedicated to wood replacement, Lingrove produces Ekoa for four market categories: mobility and technology, music and sound, furniture and built environment, and outdoor and leisure. Along with the El Capitan, Ekoa has other product applications, such as canoe paddles; bike parts; and furniture, including a concept tulip armchair.

With Blackbird Guitars and Lingrove, Luttwak has incorporated his brand of form, function, and design thinking to offer unique instruments and products with an unmistakable San Francisco sensibility—a high note, indeed.

Additional reporting by Lara Caldwell.