Meet Helga. She comes from Austria and has a stare that vaporizes wood. She's intelligent, extraordinarily precise and big. If you were to welcome Helga into your home, you first would knock down a wall. She weighs 2,600 pounds.
That was one of the first things Josh Powell and Nick Mauer, the duo behind MTRL Design, needed to do. They needed to get Helga — also known by her technical name, the Trotec SP 1500 — into their work space at the Mastercraft Building in north downtown.
Easier said than done.
Helga is a commercial-grade laser cutting machine that's the size of a Prius. She's powerful enough to split wood without batting an eye and delicate enough to engrave a love note on the edge of a glass.
Powell and Mauer are two thirtyish humans. They're on a mission to harness Helga's might and plant the seed for a new kind of micro-manufacturing company.
In late 2012, with help from their landlord, Powell and Mauer welcomed Helga — so named for her Austrian roots — into their lives through a 10-foot-tall windowed garage door installed just for her arrival.
They've been busy ever since, working on projects for artists, designers and architects enamored with feeding ideas to Helga and watching her laser-cut them into being.
But for MTRL Design, the big step comes next. After months of designing and prototyping, Powell and Mauer are launching their own line of laser-cut furniture and accessories. At the same time, they're starting a campaign through the crowd-funding website Indiegogo that will raise money for their long-term goal: to grow their own fields of bamboo, the surprisingly strong, naturally antimicrobial and sustainable material at the core of their “eco-responsible” business philosophy.
Powell, 33, and Mauer, 31, grew up in Iowa — Council Bluffs and Emerson, respectively — before migrating west to the music and arts scene in Omaha, where they played in a band called Felt. In 2005 they parted ways. Mauer moved to Portland, Ore., worked as a graphic designer and picked up experience with laser-cutting technology. Powell studied art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, showed his paintings and sculptures around the metro area and, more recently, started curating art shows.
But they kept in touch. In late 2011, Powell and Mauer started a monthslong Google chat that became the blueprint for their new business. Back home, Powell obtained a space at the north end of the single-story Mastercraft Building that in recent years has become a centrifuge of Omaha startups. In November 2012, Mauer moved back.
“The next day, I was working here,” he said.
MTRL Design is in a long, rectangular workroom that smells like wood and benefits from natural light for most of the day. At the center of the room sits Helga. When she's working, a laser head darts back and forth across a five-foot surface area, beneath a clear, protective shield. An adjacent cooling system calms her, and she vents through a substantial fume extractor. Powell and Mauer believe in wasting little if any material, so when Helga first arrived, they designed, laser-cut and assembled a standing computer desk out of her wood packing crate.
Their startup cost for equipment alone, including Helga, her accessories and various finishing tools and machines, ran close to $220,000.
Bob Grinnell, owner of the Mastercraft, didn't hesitate tearing down a wall if it meant landing MTRL as a tenant.
“I could see they'd be a good fit,” he said. “They're a couple of great guys — great personalities, very accommodating themselves. When I'm looking for tenants, that's always a feature that pays off well.”
It's been a warm welcome. Other tenants have been eager to put the two-men-and-a-laser operation to work.
“Once they learn that we have this, they come up with some excuse to use it,” Powell said.
When the new seafood restaurant and oyster bar Plank opened in the Old Market earlier this year, MTRL created some of the standout elements that diners notice. They fashioned hundreds of distinctive wood coasters for the restaurant's patio. They cut and finished restroom signs using wood reclaimed from a home built in the 1870s.
In one of their more adventurous projects, they etched Plank's branding onto the restaurant's house wine bottles, wrapping them first in wet paper towels to prevent cracking and potential exploding.
“That was fun, seeing them experiment with the bottle,” said Dave Nelson, head of Secret Penguin, the branding agency that hired MTRL for the job. “For our line of work they open up so many fun possibilities and give us confidence that we can pull off these things and have it done with the utmost quality and care.”
In a matter of months, Powell and Mauer have produced custom items for a variety of clients, including companies and individuals. Furniture. Business card holders. Interior and exterior signs. Laser-engraved drumsticks, film canisters and key chains. For a local architect's side project, they're creating miniature prints from extremely detailed computer-assisted drawings. They look like modern art paintings for a squirrel's house.
Because different materials react differently to Helga's hot beam, Powell and Mauer keep a logbook of their findings for future reference. Some things are fine to cut and engrave; others, including petroleum-based materials — not so much.
Acrylic is OK. PVC is not. Slate, when laser-cut, sweats tiny droplets of lava — which turns out to be both OK and pretty cool.
“Didn't expect that at all,” Mauer said.
Like any anthropomorphized object, Helga has her quirks. Powell and Mauer say she seems to work better when her exterior is clean, so they'll give her a once-over with Windex.
After several months, Powell and Mauer are still smitten with the idea of working with a laser. Even when she's running on autopilot, they'll watch Helga cut.
“When people ask what I did today, I just say 'played with lasers,' ” Powell said.
The power of Helga is obvious in her size, but she can work small, too. Powell has started a series of wood-engraved artwork in which he takes a map of the United States and rearranges the states to create a new shape, such as a heart. A friend and collaborator, Tyler Paulson, works with MTRL to create jewelry from old skateboard decks. Rings start at $20. For a few extra bucks, you can have a word or phrase laser-engraved.
“It's just weird how fast you can take something from the computer and have it,” said Katrina Stoffel, an interior designer with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, who has worked with MTRL to generate custom-design materials for clients. “The amount of time it takes to do this stuff by hand is insane.”
Earlier this summer, Stoffel organized a cocktail party for the local chapter of the International Interior Design Association at the MTRL workspace so Powell and Mauer could show off what Helga can do.
“As designers, it's neat to see new products. But in this situation, they're introducing a service no one else has,” Stoffel said. “You can kind of introduce your own products.”
In the weeks ahead, Powell and Mauer will unveil their own bamboo product line, including a dining room table, coffee table, bookshelf, chair, end table and stool, with prices ranging from $250 to $950. The pièce de résistance is the LXR (pronounced “laxer”), a fully loaded turntable console, priced at $2,750.
They also have a stand for pet food bowls, photograph frames, a kitchen cutting board and a set of dominoes they're calling “Bamboo Bones.”
What's with all the bamboo?
The answer is sort of the MTRL Design mission statement. Bamboo is strong — more so than steel, in fact — and replenishable. Cut down a tree, and it's gone; cut down bamboo, and it grows back in as little as a season, with a positive impact to the surrounding ecosystem.
Right now, Powell and Mauer order their bamboo from a single company in China that meets their requirements (certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, soy-glued, formaldehyde-free). But getting bamboo from northern China is hardly sustainable. So they hope to grow their own. Despite its exotic reputation, bamboo thrives in various climates. Powell and Mauer estimate it will take four to six years to get to a point when they could start making panels from their bamboo. An investment of $25,000 to $40,000 would put them on their way, but the campaign is scalable. The more they raise, the more sophisticated they can get.
To raise money, they'll sell their furniture at a discount to supporters through Indiegogo.
In the end, they want their “Made in the USA” label to be without an asterisk. Products made locally from start to finish. No outsourcing. No cutting corners.
“We're kind of excited about growing our own furniture,” Powell said.
“It sounds weird to say, but it's true,” Mauer added. “A table really could start from a seed.”