Ryan Coulter of The James Brand on Collaboration and Collective Consciousness

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with The James Brand’s founder Ryan Coulter to talk about their collaboration with artist and designer Elyse Graham. We also learned how The James Brand continues to evolve their company and products through collabs and even the COVID-19 crisis. 

Thanks for taking some time with us Ryan. Luckily for us, the Vanish audience is very familiar with The James Brand and your product line. What’s something they don’t know about you?
I think a lot of people think about us as a knife company. And I think that sometimes even we think about ourselves as a knife company. But we didn’t actually come at this from the knife world. We came from more of an outdoor/action-sports/lifestyle world, and I don’t think people actually know that. Clearly, we see the pocket knife as this core, important, high-commitment item in your everyday carry, but it’s no more important than your pen or your carabiner. So it would be interesting for people to imagine us also as a pen company or even a key solution company.

When we try and think about who we want to be, we really want to be an everyday carry company. We’re focused on useful items that live in your pocket and this interesting relationship between you and the things that you carry with you each and every day.

Can you talk about your approach to collaborations in general? How do you know when it’s the right fit?
We’ve done several collaborations, so we think about this a lot. We believe collaborations are a key component of a lifestyle brand. A good collaborator for us requires that classic Venn diagram of our audience and their audience. We’re looking for an overlap that extends us into areas that are new, where our brand and products would not be able to get to on their own. And the same goes for them. Anything that’s not extending the reach of the brand and our audience is not a successful collaboration. 

So the first filter is: Does this push us into new areas? The second is — and we’re always pretty adamant about this — does this help us better communicate around the message of modern, minimal, everyday carry? We believe the things that you carry with you every day should be functional, but are also emotionally important. They say a lot about you, your values, and what matters to you. So collaborations that help us tell that story — those are the ones that work the best.

We’re blown away by your recently announced collab with Elyse Graham. Can you tell us how you met her and what inspired this collaboration?
Well, we try and do a lot of work with artists. And our goal is to use products that we make as a vehicle and a venue for their expression. Sam Amis is our Design Director. He and his wife had been fans of Elyse for a while, as they are both designers and pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in that world. They were in NYC for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (the ICFF) and there was a side event called Sight Unseen. They stopped to talk with Elyse there. I’m sure that we were the only knife or EDC company going to an international furniture exposition. That’s something that is totally outside the realm of most of our competitors.  But Sam and Hannah (his wife) go to those types of shows because they are designers first, and foremost. That’s how we approach the business. 

He saw her designs and household products and just thought it was really amazing in terms of their color and the finish of what she calls MetaMATERIAL. You have to feel it in your hand, but it’s really silky — kind of amazing stuff. So it was Sam’s idea. He knew we were working on some new silhouettes that are designed to take on various materials. So he established contact with Elyse after seeing her work and pitched the idea of collaborating.

Her initial reaction was… a knife company?… this doesn’t make any sense. But after talking with us and understanding our mission and the importance of design in our world, she realized — you guys are my kind of people and this would be new and unexpected. Let’s do it.

So doing a knife and pen with Elyse was certainly in your wheelhouse, but you also did this stunning Valet Tray and — I’m not sure what you call it — this ring container?
It’s a Ring Dish!

A Ring Dish, awesome. How did you get from doing a knife to expanding the product offering? Did that come from her background in home goods?
A lot of what we think about is the journey these products take each day. So in the beginning of the day, at least in our minds, they live on top of your dresser. You wake up, put on your pants, and then you grab your wallet, keys, pocket knife, pen, Field Notes, watch, sunglasses, and your ring. You put them where they need to go, and you go about your day. They come out, they get used. In the office, those things may live on your desk, then go back in your pocket and finally back onto the dresser. So in that journey, when they’re not in your pocket, they need a home.

Much of what Elyse does is designed for the home. She makes planters, vases and mirrors, for example. So she already had this awesome connection to home goods. As we continue to figure out our connection to the home, it became apparent that together we could create a conscientious connection between this dresser top Valet Tray and the object itself — truly collaborative and focused on that whole journey. And in terms of the ring dish, Elyse mentioned her husband takes off his wedding ring every night, but there wasn’t really a place for it to live. And that’s an object that is owed a lot of respect. So having a dish that is specific for that object just made sense. 

We recently spoke to Bradley Price from Autodromo about the concept of cultural synchronicity and your company came up. Do you think that there is a cultural consciousness worth tapping into?
As a professional designer and creative, you spent all of your time, even subconsciously, trying to figure out where that is and how you’re going to play with it. Having a finger on the pulse of where that is, is really important. The James Brand is design led, we’re design focused. We spend a lot of time trying to figure that stuff out and then play into it. 

One of the things that we’re trying to do is to find these product icons that will hopefully be in our line for a long time. But to define them in such a way that we have some flexibility to be expressive. We want to have the ability to do things like change colors, materials, and other details to better reflect what’s happening in that collective consciousness.

Everyone is going through extremely tough times with this COVID-19 crisis. It’s having an adverse effect on almost everything. What do you hope we can all learn from this?
I believe we’re going to see more value around actual interactions. Anything you do that’s digital is generally a simulation of a better, actual physical experience. I’ve got a digital pinball game on my iPad. It’s fun, it’s convenient, but it’s not nearly as good as playing an actual pinball machine. So a service like Zoom is really important and convenient today, but going outside in the sun with your family and doing real-deal physical activities matters more than ever before.

In this very crazy time that we’re in, I think the thing that we’re all doing right now is trying to identify how our collective consciousness is changing, even before our eyes. 9/11 had this sort of impact on our culture and affected our buying decisions—what we liked and didn’t like. And this moment will have, and is having, that same kind of impact. We’re trying hard to figure out what that’s going to look like and what kinds of changes we need to make in order to give our customers what they want.

In the short term, what it’s meant is less of a focus on specific products and more of a focus for us on: What is this brand about? What do we care about? What are our values? Who are other people who express those same values? And how can we bring all that to the market? Because in times of uncertainty, people come to the brands that they care about for stability. And that is one of the responsibilities of having a brand. So we want The James Brand to be there as this stable force that is a reflection of the things that people need and want.

Shop the Elyse Graham Duval knife ($375) or the James × Elyse Graham Ultimate Box Set ($1,500).