Shinola’s story could’ve been pulled from the dust jacket of a novel. A legacy watch, bicycle, and leather manufacturer—which takes its name from a turn-of-the-century shoe-polish company—embarks on a new era in American manufacturing, setting up shop in Detroit’s Argonaut Building.
For all its intrigue, the story is also real, as Daniel Caudill, Shinola’s creative director, will plainly tell you. Many of the company’s 530 employees are former auto workers trained by the Swiss brand Ronda to assemble leather-banded watches, some of which retail for more than $1,000. Bill Clinton really did tour the factory and purchase 14 watches. Near the flagship store in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, salvage clothing boutiques and farm-to-table restaurants have emerged, along with a new class of creative professionals—signs of the city’s resurgence.
Caudill has had a hand in all of this. He oversees every aspect of what the brand looks like, from the iron trusswork and dark varnished wood in the company’s retail stores to the sleekly tapered watch dials and the chrome fenders on its bikes.
Here, he talks about his design inspirations, the role of craftsmanship in Shinola’s identity, and what the company’s appeal might signal for the future of American manufacturing.
Prior to joining Shinola, you were an apparel designer at L.A. Gear, a product designer at Adidas, a music video stylist, and a major brand consultant. What brought you to Detroit to oversee the design of bikes and watches?
I moved here for the company. It’s been amazing; I’m so lucky to have seen the city during this time and watch it all happen. Our growth and new product categories shows we’re expanding and healthy. We’re continuing to open new retail stores, which is very exciting. I’m most excited about our new product categories: Turntables will launch this year. We’re assembling turntables and cartridges in Detroit and expanding manufacturing and assembly right here.
New York Times writer Alex Williams describes Shinola as a lineage brand that benefits from Detroit’s automotive legacy, and a cultural currency that combines the allure of locavore, Americana, and small batch. Is that a fair characterization?
No matter the company, you’re inspired by what’s around you. This isn’t a story; it’s what we live day-to-day. We welcome people to come in and see what we are doing; we have regular tours every Friday. You can register through customer service and come walk through the leather floor or watch people build a watch fob. It’s real, and it is about jobs, and all that is very honest.
To me, the signature of Shinola, the approach of our design—regardless of product category—begins with the same philosophy: We want to create a product that is beautiful and appealing, but also make it simple and true as to how it will be used. That’s all about manufacturing: a partnership of what’s inside and how it’s made. Personally, I just want the turntable in my house to look pretty; my interest is aesthetic. But the true audiophile is looking at the record player from a performance standpoint and appreciates it for how it’s made.
How does an idea become a product at Shinola?
A lot of our ideas start with things that we see as being part of the brand. That leads to manufacturing. Who is making the best product? Is it being made in U.S.? Will this be a collaboration or is there a factory that we’ll have to build?
Then we partner with people who are experts in their industry to understand the manufacturing process. With leather goods, that’s John Truex and Richard Lambertson, who’ve been in the leather accessory business most of their lives. With watches, the Swiss movement manufacturer Ronda is a true partner in all business aspects: quality, training, and equipment. Our Detroit staff will train with Ronda in Detroit or Switzerland. Our watches are 100 percent built in our Detroit factory.
Bicycles are another example. Waterford Precision Cycles, owned by Richard Schwinn [great-grandson of Ignaz Schwinn, who founded Schwinn Bicycle Company], makes amazing $10,000-and-up custom bicycles. Sky Yaeger, who created our bike program, is an expert in the industry, a racer herself, and the former product manager for Bianchi. She worked with Waterford to build the bike. The frame, fork, and change guard are made in the U.S. Parts are sourced from all over: the U.S., Taiwan, and Japan. But it’s all assembled in Detroit.
How much of your design happens digitally?
That varies by product category, whether it is leather, watches, bikes, or paper. With leather, we definitely sketch things out first, starting with a physical drawing before we make a pattern. Once we decide on a final sample, we move to computer rendering, 3D models, and then the engineering package. Because the leather design room and factory sit right next to each other, it’s all seamless—engineering is involved in design, and design is part of engineering.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I’m inspired by modern minimalist art. I’m a big fan of Donald Judd: his use of repetition and his references to nature. I spend a lot of time in northern Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City. And, being from Montana, to find a place within driving distance that feels like home while living in an incredible city—I have the best of both worlds.
Why are creatives suddenly flocking to Detroit?
There is an excitement here. It’s a place where new restaurants and shops are opening every day. People get excited by that and want to help, not for any other gain than to help the community and people around them. To see that on a small scale and large scale every day, to see the enthusiasm around the watch factory, is inspiring. I feel lucky to be a part of it.
Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.