It’s hard to keep your finger on the pulse of a place that is rapidly changing.
Colorado is the definition of change. The population is booming as young professionals flock to the city for jobs in tech, a breezy downtown brewery or even a legal marijuana dispensary. One thing is for certain, Colorado is going to work. With new population comes new construction and with new construction comes innovative design. Distinctive Mantel Designs, Inc. is situated right in the center of this design community. While they are hardly the new kids on the block, this small Denver fireplace and mantel company is going through some changes of its own.
As an industrial design student Eric Walden always thought he would design shoes but after an internship with Distinctive in 2003 he quickly fell in love with all things fireplace. He helped the company grow to include more modern designs and pioneered an expansion to add fireplace sales alongside their mantel line. In 2017, former owner Rita Henry retired from the business she started from scratch and Eric took over, hitting the Denver pavement running. His fireplace mantel and surround designs feel both completely original and entirely of this new and evolving Colorado. As it turns out, it’s much easier to keep your finger on the pulse of a place when you’re a part of its heartbeat.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Eric to talk about his history, design work and where he sees his fireplace company heading in the future.
Cory: So Eric, how did you first cut your teeth in design?
Eric: I always grew up being interested in constructing and designing things: playing with legos, drawing, art, all of it. I began studying mechanical engineering but it wasn’t creative enough and I found out more about industrial design. My dad was an engineer, and my mom is more artistic, It’s a good mix and it definitely helps define who I am today. The fireplace business has its roots in architectural and industrial design while also maintaining the engineering side of things.
Originally, I was interested in designing athletic shoes which led me to more hands-on model making, furniture making, and working with wood. I really enjoyed that, then I started my internship here (Distinctive Mantel Design) in 2003 and I enjoyed it. I didn’t have plans to stay around at first, but it was fun. Being a small business gave me the opportunity to wear different hats, I could be involved in design, manufacturing or installation, so I stayed on and ended up working with another designer alongside the original owner, Rita.
Cory: Tell me about your mentors coming up, I know Rita was probably a pretty inspirational figure pretty early on.
Eric: Rita was a big inspiration for the energy and interest I bring to the work. She showed me how to really be involved with clients, caring about people and how things turned out for them. She definitely had a lot of influence in terms of my aesthetic taste. My wife also was a good motivator and influence in business and design.
Cory: What was the atmosphere like in those early years of Distinctive?
Eric: When I started we were just doing cast stone mantels, there were three of us and a small showroom, actually it was about 7,000 square feet but we only managed to use about 400 of it. We slowly started expanding, growing the showroom, using more of our space, and then eventually we created our own manufacturing team.
Cory: As a young professional, how did you leave your fingerprint on the company during those early years?
Eric: I solidified myself as the all-around sales, marketing, design, operational manager, pretty much everything for that period of time. I changed our design style, moving from predominantly old-world traditional, cast stone that was more decorative, towards the wall system, using a modern aesthetic, new products, and new finishes. Eventually, I brought on the fireplace sales side in 2008 which has been very good and has seen the most growth for us. We ship our mantels all over the country now which is huge expansion for the company; however, local fireplace installations remain our biggest area of growth and has brought us to where we are today.
Cory: Tell me a little more about your fabrication process. You do it all right here on site right?
Eric: Yes, we do everything locally, all of our fabrication is done below our showroom and warehouse.
Cory: Nice, a lot of mold making then?
Eric: We make a lot of permanent molds, some temporary molds. Full custom, adjustable, modular systems that are either a cast plaster or limestone, marble, something of those sorts. There are also some concrete mixes we use as well to achieve different finishes.
Cory: What sort of mark do you want to leave on this company?
Eric: I just want to keep pushing design, especially on the fireplace side of things, pushing limits to make the product better. A lot of the times most of the products we sell are designed by engineers, that have an aesthetic that aims more towards functionality, and there is definitely a place for that in fireplaces, but I’d like to lend thoughts and experience towards making progress in fireplace design and installation.
Cory: How does your design process work now? Do you start with simple sketches?
Eric: I often work off of a plan or measurements we get, sometimes we take quick sketches when we are meeting up with clients or building something from our catalog on Sketchup. We can do quick 3D renderings for clients so they can visually see things that they want to change in terms of scale or size. It’s easy for us to do things on the fly. From there once we work up a final design we just make up our final shop drawings from those 3D files. It can really go anywhere, from sketches to quick ideation on different programs.
Cory: Finally, Denver, and Colorado by extension, seems to be an up-and-coming in so many ways. Can you talk about the design culture in Denver? How are you a part of this community?
Eric: We’ve worked with most of the designers in town, especially some of the higher-end designers in Denver. It is a pretty tight-knit group of people, and it is a good community of people that really stay informed with what they are putting out and what they are doing for their clients. Denver seems to have a culture of very intentional, personal design.
Posted by: Cory John Ploessl
Cory is the Marketing Manager for European Home. He has an MFA in Sculpture from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. One of the greatest joys of his job is talking with architects and designers about their modern design projects all around the world.