In the beginning, Ryden Rizzo was a team of one.
“I started my company in 2013, when I was still in school,” he says. “I was doing a project, making a new object every week, and initially, I’d planned to invite my peers to contribute. What I didn’t know was that when you’re just starting, it’s hard to convince people to participate.”
He’d called the project Allied Makers. But, he says, “It was just me. So I had to change it.” Thus: Allied Maker.
These days, the company—which produces high-quality lighting out of a 4,000 square-foot facility in Glen Cove, New York—may be better suited to its former title. Rizzo now employs a team of ten, and his widely acclaimed wares (made by hand in collaboration with a carefully chosen network of local fabricators) ship to locations worldwide. But it isn’t just that—or the quality of its materials and painstakingly applied finishes—that sets Allied Maker apart. “We’re not just a design studio,” Rizzo says. “We’re a manufacturing studio, too. Upstairs, we have design and assembly; downstairs is what we call ‘The Engine.’”
Though the company has advanced far beyond its secluded beginnings, its founding principles remain steadfast. “The brand is growing quickly,” Rizzo says. “But what I’m focused on right now is delivering the best quality we can.”
First things first: how did Allied Maker get its start?
Allied Maker started in my parents’ garage. It’s sort of a classic American success story in that way. I’d just finished school, where I’d been concentrating on digital design, and I was interested in making things—I grew up in my dad’s jewelry shop, which was a very tactile world, and I wanted to get my hands dirty. So I started teaching myself basic woodworking and metal skills. I was really drawn to a craft lifestyle—the idea of waking up to a wood shop and a project.
In the beginning, there was a lot of tinkering. Then one day, I made a light fixture. It was a simple piece of wood with a brass socket and cotton cord. A blogger picked it up, and the next thing I knew, I had 70 orders. From there, I had to figure out how to produce the pieces on my own at what seemed like a mass scale.
In your opinion, what is it about your designs that continues to resonate so powerfully with your audience?
When I started, I wasn’t looking to create complex forms. I was looking to make fixtures that were expressive, and that’s still the case. At the time, I wanted to combine materials like brass and solid American hardwoods with hand-crafted finishes for a very straightforward, modern, high-quality aesthetic. In the end, the work comes across as simple, but the techniques are actually quite hard to master.
Your process is extremely hands-on. How does an idea take shape in the Allied Maker studio?
We produce 3D drawings for clients when we need to, but generally, it’s a quick sketch and then we move straight to the tools. Sometimes I’ll start with a shape and think about how to expand it in a couple of different ways—the dome is a good example of that. But ultimately, a lot of the work in our studio is in the finishes. We pride ourselves on our blackened brass finish. That’s taken a long time to perfect, but we’ve really gotten it down.
Tell us more about that. What does the process of blackening entail? And what makes it worth the time and difficulty?
Blackening originated in the gunsmithing industry as an alternative to paint, which adds thickness. Basically what we’re doing when we blacken is forcefully aging the brass. It’s a process that helps us remain honest to the material. We’re not just covering it. We’re altering its chemicals, so when you touch it, you’re still touching brass. But it’s not an easy thing to do. It takes a skilled artisan. The blackener here is the rock star of Allied Maker.
As for what the process entails: first, we get our brass, which starts out very raw, dirty, and scratched up. We sand it, strip it, polish it. Then, we clean it with a special solution, because the blackening won’t penetrate if the brass isn’t perfectly clean. It’s a dirty process, but the blackener has to keep a very clean workspace—that’s an interesting contrast. Then, we heat the material and apply an acid that turns the piece black. We do several coats and then seal it with a secret formula of waxes and oils The end result is a very deep, rich black. It’s not a pure black. There are so many different colors within it. One of our Allied Maker signatures is a two-tone finish: brass on the inside, blackened finish on the outside. Hand-applying allows us the level of control we need to do that.
What else would you name as Allied Maker signatures?
The combination of metal and wood. We’re also drawn to gentle arcs, which is something that’s consistent in our work. Also, the fact that all of our components are American-made. Whether we’re working in-house or collaborating with a fabricator, you can see the difference in quality when you compare our work to products at a big box lighting store. A lot of brass nowadays is produced in India. Our fabricator is in Long Island, 30 minutes away. You can see that. As modern and crisp and geometric as our products are, you can really see the artist’s hand in everything we make. Nothing’s coming off of an assembly line.
Besides proximity, what draws you to working with local artisans?
The relationships are better. I work with two metal spinners, and I consider them friends. I’ve gone to their houses. I’ve met their children. When you know your makers, you get better work.
In terms of orders, we have a special number right now at Allied Maker. We do fill commercial and hospitality orders, but it’s within this magic range of around 200 to 300 pieces. We choose to collaborate with fabricators who operate at similar numbers, because when you’re working with people who are turning out tens of thousands of pieces at a time, the quality control is different. This is where we’re comfortable. At these numbers, we’re able to produce the high-quality work we want to be making.
How well do you know your fellow makers in the New York design community? What, if anything, unites you?
We’re in a bit of a bubble here in Long Island, but whenever we do a trade event or a show, everyone comes together. There’s a very strong design community here in New York. There are a ton of expanding companies that are only continuing to show signs of growth. It’s incredible. Not surprisingly, there’s also a very strong manufacturing community here: metal spinners, metal stampers, wood turners. There’s a huge community for us to work with to meet the demands of our orders.
When it comes to what unites us, I’d say New York designers are drawn to materials that age well, that last. We’re all on a similar mission to just make better stuff. We’re doing that differently, but we’re doing it together.
2016 is just around the corner. What are some of your goals for the coming year?
Our goal is to get through our orders. (laughs) Other than that, we’re going to be coming out with new fixtures for our second year at ICFF. We’d like to expand our Plug and Play collection. And it would be nice to do a collaboration.
That would definitely be new territory for you—is collaboration part of how you see Allied Maker evolving?
We’ve always talked about linking up with a great furniture maker. It would nice to see if that could come together, but it’s still just a loose idea. Moving forward, we just want to stay committed to quality as we continue to make more. That’s an interesting challenge. We’re expanding, but we’re setting the bar high—so that as we grow, our philosophy and our culture stay the same.