Danielle Trofe is an unlikely industrial designer. She didn’t set out on that path while seeking a master’s in interior design and, before that, a bachelor’s in marketing and entrepreneurship. Pursuing the life of an industrial designer wasn’t ever part of the plan.
But a furniture-design course in her master’s program changed all that—and put a new plan into motion. “I had no concept of how to make an object, and that began my path of learning how to do that,” Trofe says.
She was a quick study: During a furniture-design internship in New York, she happened upon a vertical bottle garden and thought, “This could be so much more beautiful.” So Trofe created her own version, and that first project was so successful (winning international design awards, no less) that she went all in, opening her own design studio in Brooklyn, New York. That was five years ago.
Today, Danielle Trofe Design still offers that vertical hydroponic garden and other award-winning products—including her Mush-Lume lighting collection, which is grown (not manufactured) from mushroom mycelium. All of Trofe’s designs embody four core pillars: technology, science, design, and sustainability. “The focus is incorporating innovative technology or material science into the design process to create a sustainable solution,” she says.
Five years in, Trofe isn’t about to get comfortable: She’s pursuing a second master’s degree in biomimicry, yet another tool to deepen her studio’s reach into bio-inspired design. Here, Trofe reveals the real life of an industrial designer and studio owner, including the patience to generate demand, the key to balancing business and artistry, and the passion that makes it all worthwhile.
How do you come up with new design ideas?
My designs come from either material—in the case of growing lamps from mushrooms, where I designed with the material in mind—or technology, with hydroponics and trying to harness kinetic energy and work with solar. Those are the jumping-off lines, so I’m trying to work within the limitations of the material. I’m inspired by nature, and I use a lot of organic shapes and forms.
What is it about a material that piques your interest enough to pursue?
I think about the full life cycle of a product. So when I’m looking at a new material, I want to know how it’s made, what it’s made from, and how it’s going to end up. Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable? I take that full 360 view of the material.
Can you describe your design process?
I’m a terrible artist in terms of drawing and sketching. I cannot put a pen to paper to communicate anything. I use Autodesk Fusion 360 almost like a sketchbook. I go into Sculpt, and I model, mold, mesh, and move things around. That’s my sketch mode, and next comes rapid prototyping. I have a 3D printer in the studio, and before you know it, I’m slapping together off-the-shelf hardware parts with custom 3D-printed parts to get an idea of what the object looks like—how it feels in your hand, the size, proportions, everything—and the faster and least expensive you can do that, the better.
Which of your designs is particularly meaningful to you?
I feel like they’re all my babies. My design studio focuses on a few core products, and those take years. The first one is on its fifth year. The lamps are now two-and-a-half years in. So they all feel near and dear to my heart in different ways.
But I like the mushroom lighting. It gets people thinking, and that’s the underlining of a lot of these projects. I want there to be a hidden concept that’s entrenched in the design, as well as the aesthetic or the material or the function, that starts people thinking, “Should all my objects live indefinitely, or can they biodegrade after I’m finished with them?”
How do you strike the balance between creativity and business?
I have a hard time balancing. If you want to hear the real truth of being a studio owner, a designer, and part-time student: It’s so hard to balance. If you’re off balance, it really does influence the other parts of your life. It’s finding the most important thing that needs to be done and prioritizing. I’m doing everything from marketing to administrative elements to all the books. It’s a lot of juggling, but it’s mine. It’s not my job—it’s my passion, so that makes it a lot easier.
What excites you to head to work in the morning?
There have been many times in these past five years when I’ve thought, “I can’t go any further. It’s too difficult, it’s too hard to generate money, and I don’t know if this is a sustainable business model.” The thing that has always kept me going is: I don’t want to do anything else. I feel that passionate about what I’m doing. I think that there is a need—if there’s not yet a demand—for the kind of work that I do.
What parts of the studio-owner role do you dread?
It’s the things that I don’t feel proficient in: all the graphic design on my website or when I post to social media. It communicates well enough, but I don’t feel like it fully represents where I want to take this brand and this studio. But it’s all about a give and take. What is the most important? Should the money be going toward furthering a prototype or making things look pretty to the outside world? It’s another juggling act.
Is your business where you want it to be at this point?
I always want to be further, no matter what stage. One thing I’ve learned through this process is patience. Everything takes a lot longer than you actually think it will. But I know that the work that I do also takes an audience to evolve, so the demand has to reach the same stage. When I first did the vertical garden, no one knew what hydroponics were. And now this past year, they’re saying a miniature hydroponic garden is one of the most sought-after home products.
What do you see for Danielle Trofe Design in the future?
I think you might see Danielle Trofe Design diving into the biodesign sphere. I want to bring other designers in. I want to expand the mushroom lighting collection. So a lot of it is scaling and expanding. But the main focus will be to further the core ethos of my work, which is combining technology, science, and design into one.
Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or other creator/maker.