INTERVIEW: MONO’s Daniel Kushner

Have you seen what MONO is up to? They offer a range of environmentally, zoologically and aesthetically friendly cases for we guitarists, as well as plenty of other items too – wallets, laptop sleeves, iPad sleeves, backpacks, pedalboard cases, DJ storage stuff… The company has a clear and identifiable design style  too, which gives their products a lot of character. Y’know how products by companies like Apple and Fender always feel ‘Apple-y’ or ‘Fendery’ yet retain their individuality as an item? That. I had a chat with MONO founder Daniel Kushner about the company’s philosophy, product offering and jam-friendly company culture.

How did Mono begin?

MONO was born out of 3 colliding factors: 1. My desire to build a design-driven company, 2. My desire to reconnect with my musical side, and 3. My frustration at the time with the state of soft goods in the music industry. I felt I could really make a difference in the industry designing pro level products for my favorite activity – going to play music. “Go Play” became my mantra, and continues to be our mantra!

What’s your musical background?

I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs (PA, USA). I fell in love with drums at around age 13 after my older sister starting dating a drummer. He was so cool. I had to learn. He gave me a pair of drum sticks. I practiced in my room using the sticks with my bed as a kit. I’d put my And Justice For All tape on replay and pretend I was called onstage to sit in for Lars who had fallen backstage. (Thankfully the roadies would have a lefty version of his kit on-hand.) In high school I washed cars all summer and saved up for my first kit. It was used and mismatched, but the cymbals and hardware were good. I got into funk-meets-metal and technical playing. My idols moved beyond Lars to include: John Stanier (Helmet), Chad Smith (Chili Peppers), Mike Bordin (Faith No More), Will Calhoun (Living Colour), Tim Alexander (Primus) and Danny Carey (Tool). In my senior year I convinced my high school to let me go on work study to prepare for my career. That meant leaving school at noon to practice playing drums. I still don’t know how that worked. But it rocked. When I heard The Roots I was floored. Live hip-hop had a huge influence on me. To this day I see some of the most exciting innovation among drummers coming from live hip-hop. It’s interesting to see the pendulum swing where digital music starts to influence live playing styles instead of the other way around. Art mimics life mimics art. Present day I would like to be playing more, and I still have on my bucket list recording an album and touring. But I sneak in jam sessions with people and play regularly at my church. It’s just enough to keep the calluses on my hands.

The Mono design sense is very clearly defined. What’s your design background? What are some of your favourite examples of design?

After a year of trying to become a professional musician I decided I needed a new career path. I enrolled in The University of the Arts in Philadelphia to study Industrial Design. My grandfather was an inventor. My father a carpenter and architect. I like to invent things, too. I had an amazing cast of professors and my top was blown off by design: the design process, the role of design in society, the effects of design on our environment, and the psychological effects a material, process or product can have on us. I felt I had found my calling in the space where art meets science. Social and environmental responsibility was a big part of the curriculum. Those who just wanted to design cars, blenders and cell phones quickly dropped out. We were shown that our decisions as designers have a great impact on the world weather we know it or not. The designer may decide to make something disposable in order to sell more of them. The designer may decide to power an engine with fossil fuel. The designer may decide to make a squirt gun look like a real pistol. We have a responsibility to consider the effects of our actions at all stages of the design process. I became less interested in “what” can be designed and more interested in “why” something is designed. I try to design with a philosophy of lightness. This has social, environmental, aesthetic and other implications. It’s a process I am still working on defining and probably always will be. My favorite examples of design tend to have the purity of Dieter Rams, the poetry of Naoto Fukasawa, and the lightness of Andy Goldsworthy.

Tell us about your efforts to be environmentally (and zoologically) friendly.

It was a humbling experience starting my own company, knowing that I would be directly responsible for mass production. After evaluating the manufacturing processes behind bags, cases, and other soft goods I realized there are 2 things I can do that would have a major impact in reducing our environmental footprint as a company. #1: Avoid animal products, namely leather. The amount of land, grain, water and fossil fuel that goes into industrial farming is staggering. Also, when I see a cow I see a beautiful creation of God – a sentient being. Witnessing the mistreatment of these animals has a big effect on me. I’m wearing a leather belt. My sketchbook has a leather cover. Aesthetically leather is quite nice. Life is full of compromise and contradiction. But when it comes to my own decision making, engaging in the leather industry is not something I care to do. Making MONO a 100% animal-free company is simply a design challenge. It means we must seek high-performing synthetic materials. As a result, our products are lighter, more durable over time, and more weather resistant. There is an unfortunate misconception that leather=luxury. I love challenging these types of assumptions. The MONO aesthetic of Industrial Elegance provides a fresh definition of luxury – an appreciation for technology and consideration for our planet and its inhabitants. #2: I realized making high quality products would also greatly reduce our footprint. So much of the “gig bag” product landscape is landfill after several short months of use. By making products that last for years we stand to be better stewards of the resources we are using. This is also more fun. We get to design products that we actually love to use. This of course comes with a premium price, but we cater to those who see that buying something once is better than buying 4 cheaper versions at 1/4 of the cost. We also encourage a culture of repair among our players. Sometimes a simple fix at a shoe repair shop will add another 3 years to the lifespan of your MONO case.

So your corporate culture includes good old-fashioned jamming? Great! How does this fit in with getting work done? Obviously it’s a great way to inspire musicians to think creatively, but do you ever find yourselves jamming on “Black Sabbath” for three hours?

Hmm, is it a coincidence that we currently have a drummer, bassist and 2 guitar players in our team? In our corporate DNA is the belief that if we are not playing regularly then something is broken. We all work really hard, and we are all responsible for reaching our own goals, deadlines etc. Sometimes blowing off an hour or 2 in the studio is a much needed break from the intensity of our jobs. I think it’s fair to say that we would all rather be jamming at any given point. But we’re also all really excited about what’s happening at MONO. Jam time is sort of self regulating at this point. Who knows, maybe we will need a corporate policy on this down the road, lol. One thing we’ve been doing recently is recording our own tracks for videos. We had a blast with this for the Vertigo Making Of video. We needed a backing track and decided to go record one. This way there is no issue with the rights to the music, and we all get to use our gifts in the workplace. There is our new corporate policy – all videos will have an in-house track. Go Play!

Do you ever happen to see someone in the street with a Mono case and feel like tapping them on the shoulder and saying “Hey! We did that!”?

Yes! We approached someone in the Chicago airport last year during Lollapalooza. This guy was a super stylish guitar player and obviously a pro traveller. We said “hello, nice case!” and proceeded to tell him that we are MONO. He was so excited, went on about how much he loves “their stuff” and kept referring to us as “they”. That’s when we knew things were starting to tip for us. We had become bigger than just us. We had become “they.”

What advantages do your cases have over hardshell cases? 

Hardshell cases are bulky, heavy, uncomfortable to carry and subject to breaking due to their rigidity. When we set out to create the ultimate travel gear for guitar players we realized the need for a “hybrid” case that would give players the protection and peace of mind that comes with a hard case, but make the instrument much more ergonomic and portable. Airlines also don’t allow hard cases as carry-on luggage, but they will 80% of the time allow a MONO case onboard. In the event that they do not, gate checking is an easy option and ensures the instrument is hand carried back to you upon exiting the plane. Hardshell cases, on the other hand, are often required to be checked in as luggage even though they are not designed for this. Only a flight case should be checked in that way. The smallest misalignment of a hardshell case hinge will make the case unusable. MONO cases can take an enormous amount of abuse and impact with no damage to the case or the instrument inside. For most scenarios, the MONO case is better and offers superior protection. But it often comes down to the psychology of the player.

You’ve just introduced Guitar Tick. Great idea! How long has this one been in development? Was it tricky to nail the ideal size and the location to attach it to the M80?

Thanks. We love the Tick. Since day one we have gotten requests for more storage space, and we’ve been reluctant to provide it. It’s like a desk – the more space you have on it, the more you will fill it up with piles of junk. The guitar case should focus on protecting the guitar. That said, any hands-free travel we can provide for our players is a big win. We’ve been talking about attachments and modules to the cases since the start, it was just a matter of prioritization. We have a full pipeline of design and we tend to prioritize things that will have the biggest benefit to the biggest range of players. This year, the Guitar Tick was up. The decision to move the module up to the neck area was something we all really like. It takes the weight of the contents off of the bridge of the guitar, so there is no sacrifice of protection for the added storage space. And the decision to use a proprietary attachment method was something we went back and forth about. We could have made the Tick fit any guitar case (not just a MONO). But in order to do that the user would have to unclip and detach the Tick every time they access the guitar. There would also be too much play in where the Tick would sit on the face of the guitar case, and the center or gravity. By using the proprietary D-ring attachment, we can ensure that our players have a seamless, integrated design experience. The guitar can be quickly accessed without removing the Tick. And the Tick always sits in the right place for balance. The overall effect is a slim profile and ergonomic access to the contents of the Tick as well as the pockets of the M80 and Vertigo guitar cases. We’ve been getting some great photos from players with their Tick setups. We’re looking forward to discovering how people will be using this out in the wild.

Thanks to Dominant Music for arranging this interview.