As the design duo Materious, the Tharps created the philanthropic coin bank Piggy.
Bruce Tharp met his future wife, Stephanie, at a design conference in Milwaukee in 2003. They gravitated toward similar things—simplicity, socially responsible design—and each other. The pair e-mailed for a while, began dating the next year, and married in the spring of 2006. “Our wedding was on the patio of the Farnsworth House,” recalls Bruce.
Four years later, a shared axiom—that good design is obvious—still guides them. “We know that if we both like something, we’re onto something,” says Bruce, 42, an associate professor of designed objects at the School of the Art Institute. Stephanie, 38, is an associate professor in the industrial design department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Together, as the independent design duo Materious (materious.com), they sketch on napkins, toying with domestic items that could benefit from a little reinvention.
The first time Bruce and Stephanie combined forces, in 2005, they built a parent-child coat rack for a Design Within Reach competition and won Best in Show. Since then, many collaborations have transcended the prototype phase and entered full-scale commercial production. An umbrella that mimics a samurai sword is now for sale at the Modern Wing Shop, and the design blogs are buzzing about Piggy, a pair of nesting coin banks that the couple designed to teach children about charity (for sale at goodlittlepiggy.com). “It’s a simple idea—but imagine 50,000 of them out there. Not only can it benefit a charity, but the lesson it teaches—compassion—can have a profound effect on a kid’s life,” says Bruce.
On the luxury end, the contemporary French furniture company Ligne Roset just introduced a convertible porcelain vase called Stack in its European stores. Like many Materious projects, Stack is a simple but functional twist on something that’s typically overlooked. In this case, Bruce would bring his wife flowers, and they needed a vessel that could accommodate a single long-stemmed calla lily as easily as it could a short, dense bouquet. What they could not find, they created—and have since been navigating the complex channels of manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. “We’re learning as we go,” says Stephanie, describing their latest—and largest—project, a six-foot-long leather-tufted bench, Fallen, that debuted this year during New York Design Week.
Since the birth of their daughter, Isla, the Tharps have stumbled onto a new genre: baby product design. Bottles, car seats, highchairs—the couple has scoured the market for products that are sleek and sophisticated, only to discover that most things are made of bulky, disposable materials, such as plastic. “It’s all stuff you want to throw out the minute you buy it,” says Bruce. But he and his wife know that where there’s a problem, there’s potential for a brilliant design solution. Stephanie says they embrace the challenge. “Design is going to give us the freedom to move through life.”
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp