Listen, skim milk is simply water with a thread of dairy mixed in it. The only liquid that can be qualified as actual milk involves percentages from one to two, and any combination of the following words: chocolate, buttermilk, whole, raw, unpasteurized. After consumption, milk cartons need to be thoroughly rinsed and properly recycled. Then, the aforementioned dairy receptacles go to wherever the guy who picks up the plastic goes, but then what? Enter Greg Benson.
Benson owns and operates Loll Designs, a Duluth, MN based designer/manufacturer of durable, all-weather, outdoor furniture and accessories made with recycled plastic – mostly from single-use milk jugs. We had the chance to interview Benson about his inspiration, processes, and how he enhances the health of our planet by turning trash into art.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
After college (and during), instead of getting a regular job, I was focusing more on being outside more than inside. Biking, trail running, rock climbing, canoeing, and generally just being in a tent as much as I could. It was this adventurous, exploratory aspect of my personality that made me want to avoid the traditional corporate world. So in 1997, with my brother and a friend, we turned seasonal event work for Minnesota based Rollerblade Inc. into a new career and founded TrueRide Inc., a skate park design and build company specializing in municipal skate parks.
How did your company come to be?
After 10 years and more than 450 municipal skate parks were designed and installed all over the country and abroad, TrueRide was sold in 2007. The opportunity came because during the TrueRide run two other companies emerged that aligned with my idea of what I wanted to do, Epicurean and Loll. Both companies grew out of a desire to put excess skate park scraps to good use. My partners ran with Epicurean, a kitchenware cutting board and utensil company created from the skating surface on the ramps (with products now sold in more than 60 countries). I took on Loll outdoor furniture making Adirondack chairs from the thick plastic sides of the ramps.
Why did you choose recycled plastic to work with and who taught you the making process?
My interest in the environment and our impact on it was why I sought green alternatives to the materials that were being used. Originally at TrueRide we used CCA treated lumber and then advanced to ACQ treated lumber and Post Industrial plastic. I pressed our supplier to make the material from Post Consumer and they did it. With the problems with plastic in landfills and oceans I just couldn’t imagine producing more new plastic so reclaiming and continuing to use this material just makes sense. It’s not waste!
With our experience designing and manufacturing skate parks we became adept with flat stock sheet and generally making things with it using Auto CAD software and CNC machines.
Describe how you go about designing new furniture. What inspires you?
My original inspiration came from out of the blue someplace. We had been making skate ramps starting in 1997 and around 2001 I really wanted to make the Westport Chair for some reason. By 2003 the nagging continued so I put a team together and we ended up with a more standard looking Adirondack. After 14 years we are going to make a Westport Chair this year. I am very excited about this.
I am inspired by clean, simple lines. And I am always drawn to Modernist furniture for this reason. I guess I can be inspired to make furniture from shapes I see or even how two things are joined together and I can see how we could incorporate that into something new that we have not tried. I like materials and am always looking for something new. I also enjoy finding something that I think we can improve on with design or material choice. Our dog bowls and bird houses are an example of this.
I don’t care much for flair or over design. I don’t particularly like art furniture. It can be very well made for sure, but it tends to exaggerate basic elements and be a little too playful with the material for my taste.
What processes do you abide by?
How does living in Duluth influence your work?
We are surrounded by woods and water here. Living close to Lake Superior is akin to living on a sea. Weather is always a consideration and it can fluctuate quite a lot in even a day. We make our furniture to work in the conditions we have here, which is 80 degrees in the summer and minus 30 in the winter. It’s a wonderful place to see how furniture works outside in these extremes and we design for that.
Why are sustainable practices important to you?
First off it’s just the right thing to do. It’s common sense and it makes economic sense. We can sell our plastic shavings from cutting parts to a local industrial waste processor and turn a profit on it. If we sent our waste to a landfill we would have to pay for it. We reclaim heat from the CNC vacuum pumps and pipe it into our plant. We have been able to heat a 26,000 square foot shop for the past two winters like this. Typically businesses dump this excess heat outside. We make local choices always when available to reduce shipping costs and also help the local economy. Using reclaimed milk jugs to make our products is only the beginning of the story, albeit a big one.
What’s something new – or challenging – that you are currently working on?
The biggest challenge for us over the past year has been launching the Sunnyside Collection. It is our first collection that will use thick outdoor cushions; its oversized, high end, and more luxurious than our existing collection. It truly will be a breakthrough product for us into a new market. We worked on this collection with Brad Ascalon and Ghilaine Vinas, both designers from New York, who brought a different look to traditional Loll design pieces. Its been a great collaboration.
Any fun facts about the brand or making process?
People always ask what Loll means. They don’t know the word. I have this in a presentation I do:
‘What does Loll mean?’
what is it? verb
what does it mean? sit, lie, or stand in a lazy, relaxed way
use it in a sentence, please “the two girls lolled in their chairs“
synonyms: lounge, sprawl, drape oneself
how do you say it? Läl
what it’s not? lol or to “laugh out loud”
The making process for us is my favorite part. We are making new things every day. We design and prototype in the same space as our manufacturing so it’s fairly easy to crank something out. It doesn’t mean it’s always good or right but then we keep tweaking until we can’t tweak any more and we feel good about it. As an example today we are making me a pair of glasses, as in eyewear, for a photo shoot. We are also designing an outdoor counter for the Indeed Brewery in Minneapolis and we made two 6 foot tall “loll” signs that are shipping to London for the Clerkenwell Design show in a couple weeks. Its not just Adirondack chairs around here.