Road Trip: Visiting Tom Bihn in Seattle, WA
Last Monday, I loaded my Macbook, and a few friends into the car. We were going on a road trip, heading due north to Seattle, to visit the Tom Bihn showroom and factory. Tom Bihn bags are known for their quality and unique styles and colors. I know, most of my bags are Tom Bihn bags. They're made in the USA and carry a cult following among techies (waves to the others out there). Three hours later (and some great rock star parking) we were standing just outside the famed bagmaker's haven.
A single man, seated in front of a counter greeted us upon entering the showroom. It was none other than Tom Bihn himself. He allowed us to hang out, informally interview him, drool over the stock in both the storeroom and stockroom, and he gave us a small tour of his factory facility. All in all it was a wonderful experience and I wanted to share bits of that experience with everyone here.
On his factory
The factory sits on the second floor of a building right off the Seattle waterfront. It's well light and has ample space to move around the sewing machines and work stations. Tom employs a small team of personnel who are experts and collaborators at making his bags. The process from bag idea to reality starts with an idea. It's then turned into a pattern which is used to cut multiple layers of bags. These bag parts are then sewed together using the many sewing equipment in his factory. He told us that he spent a year and a half getting all his bags into the 3-dimension application they use to store all patterns. This revolutionized his bag process because it allows him to add immediate tweaks to the current bag line up, right on the spot, instead of having to wait until a moment could be taken to carve out a new template from a plastic shell.
He also told us that his relationship with his factory team just isn't one of boss/worker. His team has been together for over 20 years now. Their longevity helps keep Tom honest and gives them the ability to suggest ways to improve upon Tom's bag designs. Sometimes Tom takes them up on their ideas and sometimes he doesn't. It impressed me to see how well collaborated his company feels, where everyone (including his customers) can have a say in what the finished product can become. It really gives a family feel to the company and makes me feel as if I'm a part of the quality he's built into each and every bag.
On Tom Bihn’s Idea Journal
I wanted to know more about Tom’s productivity and idea keeping habits. So I asked him what he used to sketch out bag ideas and track his thoughts. He told me that he keeps an idea journal and carried it where ever he goes. He pulled it out of his bag and allowed us to flip through it. It's a square, blank artist's journal and seems very similar (if not the same brand) as the Canson 6x6 Field Sketch book. He’s personalized the cover of his journal with a sticker from his own company. Inside the little book are words and images. The journal has no real orientation, so the writing and designs get sketched in any way the book has been opened. I loved seeing his journal and how all his ideas, notes and sketches blend in together, showing a true ubiquitous capturing device.
His pen, also reflects the multi-faceted dimensions of bag creation. It fits perfectly into the metal spirals of the journal. He uses one of those multi-colored pens, red, black, green, blue. And each color seems to have its own purpose. I think he was a bit self-conscious allowing a complete stranger to flip through his "scratches and sketches" but I felt honored to get a small glimpse into how his bags start out, on the page.
Tom also people watches, on the street and in the airports. He doesn't focus on the bags themselves but rather on how people use and interact with their bags. He searches for ways on streamlining his own bags as well as adding more user-friendly features to them. Sometimes he'll tweak his own bags to add features found on other manufacturer lines that might be lacking on his own.
On the “my president is an idiot” tag
In 2004 a curious tag appeared in some of the Tom Bihn bags. One of Tom's employees snuck it into the first Buzz bags. It was written in French and had wide-sweeping implications. The tag read, "NOUS SOMMES DESOLES QUE NOTRE PRESIDENT SOIT UN IDIOT. NOUS N'AVONS PAS VOTE POUR LUI." Which translates into "We are sorry that our president is an idiot. We didn't vote for him." Overnight, people started talking about this and just which president (Tom himself or the other President) the tag referred to. Fame in the tag grew and the company soon received many calls asking to have the text printed on a shirt. Tom decided it would be fun to go ahead and make the shirt design. He didn't plan on selling many of them, however he sold a lot more than he anticipated. Enough so to give a large-ish check to a non-profit dedicated to helping Veterans. While he stopped adding the controversial tags to the bags a long time ago, many of his current stock still feature the tags. We asked if he was going to do something new to replace the tag and he said that he probably would not. "I would rather have my bags and company rep be built on something positive," he said.
Tom’s Bag 2009 Focus
This year is going to be a fun one. For all you travelers out there, Tom's focusing his attention on travel bags. The line started with the Aeronaut, and then expanded with my personal favorite, the Western Flyer. In late 2008, he added one of the first checkpoint friendly bags to the line, the Checkpoint Flyer. The Flyer allows tech travelers the option to not take out their computer when getting their bags scanned by the TSA. A third bag, a size in-between the Aeronaut and Western Flyer is coming soon. This new bag features a third zippered compartment that will fit a computer directly into the bag.
One more thing...
Later this year, in the spring, Tom's releasing the first (of many, I hope) of what I envision might be a productivity line for his company. He calls this little journal-sized zippered pouch his "Field Notebook". It's a 3-ring binder that was commissioned by his friends at UCSC in Santa Cruz. Soon after, he'll release it to the general public and I can see this little notebook getting transformed into a do-it-yourself planner case.
We had so much fun hanging out with Tom Bihn, Darcy, and the rest of the Tom Bihn team, at their factory. Thanks for your time, generosity, and patience Tom! Here's to 2009 and we're excited to seeing your new creations.