M//E Design's Seat at the Maker Table | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

M//E Design's Seat at the Maker Table


Published November 2, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 2, 2016 at 12:57 p.m.

Erik Cooper, left, and Matt Flego in ALTernator
  • Erik Cooper, left, and Matt Flego in ALTernator

What do these items have in common: a set-piece for Phish's 2015 Magnaball festival, a device to hold staples, a high-end motorcycle frame, and beautiful stools with reclaimed-lumber seats? They were all designed — and some were manufactured — by Matt Flego and Erik Cooper of M//E Design.

The name of their game is industrial design and prototyping — with cutting-edge technologies and sustainability in mind. Translation: Flego and Cooper use three-dimensional modeling software and an assortment of computer numerical control (CNC) machines to help clients design new products. Their tools range from a 3D printer to a CNC machine dubbed "Roughy," which carves upcycled wood into stool seats for M//E's Queen City Furniture line.

The duo recently graduated from the Burlington maker space Generator and took up residence in new digs in a studio on Pine Street called the ALTernator. They share the space — former home of Burlington Furniture — with four other makers: Pete Talbot and Ben T. Matchstick, creators of the cardboard pinball machine Pinbox 3000; computer whiz John Yasaitis of Prolucid Technology; and woodworker Timothy Peters. ALTernator won't officially open until January; meanwhile, the founding members are finishing up old projects and building out the new space.

Before their transition to being Vermont innovators, Flego and Cooper spent nearly a decade honing their skills in design and fabrication in New York City. Both graduated with degrees in industrial design from the Pratt Institute, where they were studio mates and next-door neighbors.

After school, Cooper fabricated complex set-pieces for Broadway shows with Hudson Scenic Studio. His jobs included making the stage where Pope Benedict XVI delivered mass from Yankee Stadium in 2008 and crafting cars for the musical Grease. Meantime, Flego worked for Brooklyn's Ferra Designs, plying his trade in upscale homes.

But, Flego says, building pieces for wealthy clients wasn't enough for him. "Part of the reason we started M//E Design," he says, "is that we wanted to get out of [that.] We were getting paid pretty well, but it just wasn't satisfying work."

Five years ago, Cooper left the unaffordable city to live with his then-girlfriend and her family in southern Vermont. He helped them with their organic vegetable farm and roadside stands. A year later, Flego left New York, too, and joined Cooper on the farm.

The pair started taking on clients under the name M//E Design. One of the first was a woman who asked them to help her manufacture a specialized walker she had patented. "That's when we started realizing we have to have terms and conditions," says Cooper with a laugh. M//E eventually succeeded in designing and fabricating the walker, and over time and various jobs, the duo began to develop business sense, including an awareness of how to set boundaries.

Their company didn't really take off, however, until they moved to Burlington and got involved with Generator. Flego moved up from southern Vermont in June 2013. When Generator opened in March of the following year, he was the first to sign up for membership.

A year later, Cooper also made the move north. "At that point," he reflects, "we really decided to pull the parachute and make this our full-time job."

Cooper set up shop alongside Flego at Generator, where they made connections that helped justify that leap of faith. "I think we met just about everyone in town from sitting at that desk," Flego says.

M//E Design's portfolio offers a preview of the duo's future works: diverse projects with an emphasis on sustainability, innovative technique and beauty. The stools they made under the name Queen City Furniture caught the eye of Room & Board; Cooper is currently working on the second iteration of those seats for the furniture giant.

The pair has shown a penchant for supporting local businesses and innovators at every step. Their jobs include creating a mobile bar for Alice & the Magician, the Burlington-based purveyor of edible scents used in cocktails and fine cuisine. The bar was made with locally sourced wood and tailored to the client's needs. And it has a smoke machine.

Then there's the Lake Brite project, which now hangs in the entrance of ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The 3D display, consisting of 7,500 precisely arranged lights, was designed as a data visualizer with the capability to display trends in lake temperature or weather. It's one of Flego and Cooper's favorite projects to date.

"It had all the elements of a good project: stress and theory and a giant sculpture going into a small space," quips Cooper.

QOR360 ergonomic chair - PHOTOS: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Photos: Matthew Thorsen
  • QOR360 ergonomic chair

One of the duo's more recent undertakings involves Turner Osler, a professor of surgery at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. The makers at M//E Design have been creating prototypes for Osler's QOR360 chair. The ergonomic seat provides a healthier sitting experience with the aid of a destabilizing element — a bisecting cylinder rocker — under your butt.

Osler met Cooper and Flego through Generator. "I walked in on a Saturday morning and got [given] a tour of the place by a sharp, quick-witted guy who had a proof of the Pythagorean theorem tattooed on his forearm," Osler recalls. That turned out to be Flego. Later, Osler took a class with Cooper in computer-aided design, gaining the skills to create what he calls "the digital expression of a physical object." He wanted to perfect the rocker component of his chair so he could 3D-print it.

"I managed to miss three out of four classes [due to work]," Turner says, "but Erik was quite kind. All I wanted to do was make one shape, and he said, 'Let me work on this a little more,' and then one thing after another, and we're injection-molding the [rocker.]"

That was just the start. To date, M//E Design has dreamed up six winsome models. Recently, Osler went to Germany to meet with furniture manufacturers. "I walked in with a [model of the rocker] in my pocket and walked out with a deal from them to license the design for one of our chairs," he says.

It's doubtful Osler's chair would be where it is today if not for that fruitful meeting with Cooper and Flego. "I could never have [reached] this scale without some serious help," the professor says.

Chairs seem to be a current focus for M//E Design. Room & Board wants 700 stools, and that's an order Cooper and Flego aren't taking sitting down.

The original print version of this article was headlined "ALTernator Current"