When mid-century modern enthusiast Greg Kelly made the bold choice to downsize by half his 3,000 square foot home in Raleigh, North Carolina and give it a fully modern renovation, the finishing touch was a modern mailbox to complement the home’s aesthetic. But when finding such a mailbox turned out to be a nearly impossible task, the undeterred entrepreneur set out to make his own.
After scouring eBay and Etsy for vintage mailboxes and poring over prior mailbox patents and old Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues, Greg came up with a model that incorporated the best design elements used by manufacturers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He dubbed it the modbox, and after a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, it is now being manufactured by a fabricator in Knightdale, North Carolina, twenty minutes from his home in Raleigh.
Down to its very last details – the Eichler color palette or Neutraface number font, for instance – the modbox holds ample appeal for lovers of mid-century modern design. And as such, we were excited to sit down with Greg to learn more about the modbox, the mid-century modern market, and the challenges facing an independent design company.
Q&A w/ Greg Kelly
Your mid-century modern home in Raleigh, NC was featured in the New York Times in 2012! Where did you enthusiasm for modern design come from, and how does it play out in your daily life?
I always liked my parent’s living room set that was mid-century modern. I also liked the first house that my parents owned after my father retired from the Air Force in the late ‘70s. It was in Utah – a classic tri-level with a carport in front, large white brick fireplace, and orange shag carpet! When we were in the Philippines, early ‘70s, we lived in ‘modern’ houses with flat roofs, both on- and off-base.
My wife’s father was an architect, and she grew up in a modern house with modern furnishings. So we both like the modern aesthetic.
In part, we bought our 1950s home because it already had some great modern elements and we wanted to accentuate those. With the downsizing, we only needed a few pieces of furniture. That gave us the opportunity to furnish the house with original mid-century furniture or reproductions.
What inspired you to design the modbox?
I had been frustrated when I couldn’t find a mailbox that complemented the mid-century aesthetic of our home as a finishing detail for our renovation. Eighteen months later, I saw a picture of a vintage Leigh mailbox in Atomic Ranch magazine. It looked so sleek. A reader had asked, “Do you know a good source of ‘50s period mailboxes?” The editor replied “…the retro market seems wide open.” I started researching mid-century mailbox designs the next day!
What was the design process like?
The first step was to find images of mid-century mailboxes in old catalogs, magazines, and on eBay. I knew that in order to have it fabricated, I would need CAD models/drawings. I provided the key design elements to Andy of Vector Product Development and he built the base design models/drawings in SolidWorks 3D CAD Design Software. The software gave us the ability to look at any view or cross section and make real-time design changes. At a point, you know you’ve got it just right…no more, no less.
Tell us more about the modbox! What are its features and details, and how does its design reflect vintage mid-century modern mailboxes?
Back in the 50s and 60s, there were a number of manufacturers that had a product with a similar general shape. That was the starting point. The modbox design results from getting the scale, proportions, and angles of the shell and all the components just right (flag, flag cap, pull, overhang, and post). Thus, making the mobox pleasing to the eye. Good design.
Features include: 1) heavy gauge steel, the same as was done in the 50s-60s, which is 75% thicker than most mailboxes today, 2) a durable powder coating, 3) anodized aluminum flag cap and door pull, and 4) two-tone paint colors.
Who do you consider to be your audience for modbox? Is it a niche market, or have you found there to be lots of enthusiasm for mid-century modern design?
My business plan identified the target market as mid-century modern enthusiasts. What I didn’t know was how large it might be. As I worked to get the word out about the Kickstarter through social media (blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) I came to realize the community is large and active! In major metro areas, there are large Facebook groups that focus on buying and selling vintage mid-century items. Other general mid-century modern groups are national; for example Mid Century Modern, with over 19 thousand members and counting! You can find some great brick and mortar retailers that focus on vintage and new mid-century modern designs, too.
What I’ve also found is that good design can have broad appeal as well. Design Milk did a piece on the modbox and I still get visitors to my website by way of Design Milk. A design magazine based in Australia, (inside) Interior Design Review, notified us that we were selected as one of five favorite (currently available) design pieces for their object section. So, our audience is much broader than I anticipated.
What have been the greatest challenges in being an independent design company?
I don’t have formal experience in the arts or design. Instead, over time I’ve acquired an eye for good design, or perhaps an appreciation. I know it when I see it. So, I started with an identified need: bring some form of this cool mid-century modern mailbox back. The design followed from there. With that, I simply did and learned what I needed to in order to make it happen! A touch of passion about the product helps too.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to start their own product-based design company?
In general, identify where you need help and either pay for it, or find a friend who does it professionally – and hopefully they’ll do it for free or reduced fees! I hired Andy of Vector Product Development for the 3D models. I was fortunate in that my sister-in-law was an art major and is a key player in a Fortune 500 company’s corporate communications department, so, she has a good eye for final design review, ads, marketing, etc.
If you were to offer another mid-century modern product besides the modbox, what would it be? Can you see yourself expanding your line of products, or where do you see modbox going?
Early next year, I would like to release a wall-mounted mailbox design that reflects some of the post mounted mailbox design elements. I will seek to have it reflect the mid-century modern aesthetic, too. Folks have already been requesting a wall-mounted version.
I’m also looking into fabrication of an ultra sleek anodized aluminum modbox and post (not powder coated).
During and after the Kickstarter, I had a number of mid-century modern focused retail stores show interest in carrying the modbox. So, I will look into a dual sales distribution strategy: 1) direct to consumer, and 2) through mid-century modern focused retail stores.