Blake Tovin discovered his interest in furniture design working summers in an architectural mill during art school. When he graduated, he found that there was a market for handcrafted furniture and one for large-scale production, but that he didn’t quite fit into either camp. He eventually got a job working with Jack Lenor Larsen’s textile company in New York. Larsen applied hand weaving techniques to production textile manufacturing, and Blake ran the furniture division of the company. He learned a great deal about how to make high-quality furniture at scale in German and Italian factories, and found many parallels to what he wanted to one day create on his own.
Blake eventually developed his own furniture collection, and found himself on the licensing path: selling to retailers such as Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. His business grew with the success of these companies, but he eventually tired of designing for someone else’s brand. Wanting to get back into making things, but not yet sure what, he bought a warehouse in Nyack, New York and converted it into a design studio, prototyping shop, and multi-purpose showroom/gallery.
“The idea for Symbol Audio came out of a lot of soul searching about what kind of product I wanted to make,” says Tovin. “I spent a good year toying with different ideas.” He was interested in music, and found himself frequently engaged in conversations about vintage audio equipment. A rekindled interest in vinyl and the ability to stream high quality music files emerged as two concepts that he imagined could be creatively incorporated into a single product. The idea started to unfold: reinvent a console stereo system that combined modern technology with a vintage amplifier, and house it all in a beautifully handmade piece of furniture. “The whole thing seemed like a really exciting idea, and we were suddenly off and running.”
It took Blake and his team less than six months to put the entire concept together, including branding and photography, in order to launch at the 2012 ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair). Symbol Audio made quite a splash at the fair, and they were immediately picked up by major design blogs. By Monday, their website–a site that didn’t even exist a week earlier–had received over 50,000 hits! The company’s been on a roll ever since.
Blake attributes the brand’s immediate success to so many years of experience in large scale production. “We approached it like grownups, which I probably wouldn’t have done, had I had done it when I wanted to 20 years earlier,” Blake says.
The Modern Record Console is Symbol’s flagship product, and brand-defining design. The idea is an all-in-one unit: an entire music system built into one well conceived, crafted, and executed package. It’s scaled as a piece of furniture, with the footprint of a sideboard or dresser, and is meant to appeal to the quality-phile (as opposed to the audiophile).
In creating the console, the team constantly overlaid the design aesthetic on the technological one. The speakers are intentionally exposed, as the cones are part of the visual appeal. They could have hidden all of the amp tubes, but instead revealed and highlighted the inner workings as a design element. They even built custom powder coated cases for the transformers. The team considered every electronic and structural aspect to create one seamlessly beautiful and functional product.
Each Symbol product is designed as modular units, so that components can be made entirely independently but easily and quickly assembled. A large part of design process was figuring out how to assemble each unit without a sophisticated construction environment, as each one comes together in the Symbol Audio studio. Most components are local, from suppliers in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, with only a few things (the turntable and amplifier) traveling a bit further. Even the internal cables are custom designed and handmade by a local supplier whom Blake stumbled upon on Etsy.
The assembly team in action in Symbol Audio’s studio:
Shipping is the final but incredibly important piece. Perhaps the team’s best local partnership discovery is the shipping company, based in Long Island, that specializes in fine art and antiques. They hand pack every unit into custom padded plywood crates, which are then sealed and delivered directly to each customer—traveling as far as Lebanon and Mexico City. According to Blake, almost every Symbol Audio console has been sold to people who have never even heard one, but are confident that the quality will meet expectations. “We haven’t had any complaints. So… so far so good!”
The core team is small, occasionally bringing in a larger crew for assembly. However, they frequently collaborate with factory production experts and audio consultants to ensure the best quality product possible. Meet the makers behind Symbol Audio: