Inside ROBRADY: An Interview with Chris Stefko
What was the path that led you to Industrial Design?
When I was about six years old I sketched a picture of the Flintstones from a box of Coco-pebbles cereal while I was eating breakfast. Nobody asked me to do it, I just got a piece of paper and started drawing it. As a young child I knew I liked the arts of some kind, but was never sure what.
Growing up, sketching was always just something I did and always thought of it as a hobby. When I was in high school I saw a goofy romantic comedy called Three to Tango, about an architect in Chicago bidding for a renovation contract. The main character stood out to me as someone who had an adventure every day for doing what he loves all while making a large impact on a Chicago icon. It was after that movie I had realized that I wanted to become an architect. For me, the profession was about the ability to create, design something people see, to imprint my DNA in the world, all while having an adventure learning things that never get old. I always wanted to meet new people, learn new cultures, put smiles on faces and help as much as I could. I felt I had found a profession that was able to combine everything I enjoyed. My mother had always instilled a level of empathy for people that I would always follow, and the thought that I could one day help design a hospital for kids, or a bridge to connect families, was what had really begun to intrigue me.
As with many paths that have twists and turns, I was actually two years into a school of architecture that I first learned about industrial design. I had learned of many famous architects who had also designed furniture. The connection happened when I learned about architect / industrial designer / writer George Nelson. His ability to observe, and recognize how to improve the lives of families with his work was a big inspiration. When I first learned about him, the lines that separate disciplines of design began to blur. His ability to deduce human behavior and current cultural phenomena as a basis for pointing towards the future was something I admired. His work on Tomorrow’s House where he famously asks the question “What’s inside the wall?” leading the innovation of inset wall storage, was a light bulb moment for me. The products in our world have an ability to shape our lives. Culture and humanity is fluid while artifacts are not. It was that part of design innovation that I had not found in other disciplines. For George, design was less about style and more about impact and improvement.
Industrial design to me is about improving things at a faster pace. The industry may not have the legacy or heritage of architecture but while architects walk, industrial designers run! Technological advancements, material science, and manufacturing processes are always on the up and up while new possibilities are always on the horizon. Over time I saw more and more opportunity to make an impact and help others with industrial design. When I was at Coventry University in the U.K., I worked on a theoretical project collecting rainwater for villages around Budikote, India. I learned about “appropriate technology” and how the ideology applies to helping communities around the world. The more I learned the more I would discover how much the sociological and psychological impacts would be to a group. Something amazing happens when you can give an object to a group of people who look at it as a beacon of hope.
How do you apply these philosophies to create products in the real world?
It is no secret that my favorite project at ROBRADY has been working on third world stoves for Envirofit. They are an organization that is making an important and noble difference in the world. Their projects are where I can put my passion into practice. Working with them I have gained some new insight into the difficulties of introducing help into a population, as well as the innovative economic benefits to the families through that help. Part of the difficulty lies within cultural and historical limitations. How do you introduce something that will help another when that individual has been tricked and lied to before? How do you show a family that a stove will not only improve their health and safety but also help them financially through fuel efficiency as well?
There are a lot of hurdles to overcome when designing for a community that have so many barriers between us and them. These aren’t manufacturing issues, cost issues, or material issues (while all those certainly are problems that need to be solved as well) but these are cultural issues and sociological issues. What I find beautiful is how much design can help and influence these problems. We talk about designing products with a manufacturing process that cannot be replicated locally. On the surface that may seem counter intuitive, but in practice it helps prevent locals from making replicas that won’t perform or last as long. This requirement not only helps to keep the integrity of Envirofit as a brand, but it helps build trust in the community as locals begin to realize when they see that logo they know their stove will last X amount of years. Building that trust in a community is extremely important for product integration and to help break down the historical barriers that would normally prevent us from having a presence in the community. Trust is such an important key that is difficult to manifest and crucial to maintain.
Something that is often overlooked when helping third world communities is how powerful the psychological impact can be. When a community see’s a well, it is not just a source for water, but a symbol. A symbol of reliance, of unity, togetherness, and connection. They are sharing a resource amongst themselves. You can give someone a solution to their need, which is always a good thing; but when you can also give them something they are proud of, that is something bigger than yourself.
"It’s been great working with Chris on our designs. He has the ability to take engineered designs and transform them into consumer products. He is great at taking feedback from multiple groups (engineering, manufacturing, sales, etc.) and integrating them into a unified design"
~Nathan Lorenz, Vice-President of Engineering, Director & Envirofit Co-Founder (www.envirofit.org)
I was born in Michigan, and raised in Florida. My dad’s family was from Hungary and I carry that culture with me. I played guitar for 6 years and ice hockey for over 10 years which is somewhat unusual in Florida. I’ve travelled to 11 other countries and lived in three.
I have a favorite quote, although I can’t remember who said it. “You cannot control the world, the length of our lives, or the decisions of others. The only thing you can control is who you will trust.” That is something that always sticks with me.
Fun Fact: I have been in an elevator accident. I was in a lift in Dublin, Ireland when it broke and crashed two stories into the basement. I wasn’t injured but was stuck in it for an hour before anyone finally heard us and got the fire brigade to pry the doors open and get us out.