When Isaac Salm got a call in 2001 from his younger brother, Jaime, asking him to quit his corporate job and help start a furniture design business in Philadelphia, the elder Salm immediately started brainstorming about profit margins and outsourcing production to China.
So he was a little taken aback when Jaime, the design half of the brothers’ Philadelphia-based firm Mio, insisted the venture would feature local production and only sustainable designs.
“At first it was a business culture shock,” recalled Isaac, the company’s business managing director. “We could multiply our profit margin by 10 if we manufactured abroad.” But, he said, he gradually came to realize: “that’s not who we are.”
Fourteen years later, the Colombia-born Salm brothers and their company are thriving examples of Philadelphia’s sustainable, hyper-efficient, urban lifestyle. The brothers live together, ride matching orange-and-blue bikes to their studio a few blocks away and finish each other’s sentences — complete with identical Latin hand gestures — as they describe their serendipitous rise to becoming Philly’s hottest young Jewish design team. Their renewable-wool lampshades, locally manufactured steel chairs and recycled-paper wall tiles are sold all over the world. The duo even scored a place in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, a major coup for such young designers (Isaac is 37, Jaime 36).
Here in Philadelphia, the Salm brothers are credited with being pioneers of the city’s so-called maker movement — a post-industrial era renaissance of local production that includes not only furnishings, but also textiles, books, watches and jewelry. “Manufacturing actually didn’t leave Philadelphia,” said Hilary Jay, director of Philadelphia’s Center for Architecture and co-founder of Design Philadelphia. “It just transformed. And in the wake of that, you’ve got Mio and all these different companies — because of our real estate situation and because Philadelphia is relatively well placed in the world, the maker movement has become enormous here. And it’s the takeoff of what Jaime and Isaac were at the beginning.”
I caught up with the Salm brothers after a half-hour of fruitless circling in an attempt to locate their cavernous, industrial-chic Spring Garden studio on a lonely block of North 13th Street. Had I come a few days later, I would have found it more easily: On that recent afternoon, the brothers were unpacking a metal sign in the company’s signature color, “Mio green” (Pantone 368U), a vibrant shade somewhere between leaf and kelly. They were also unwrapping a factory-fresh set of Mio-logoed mezuzot to be installed, which would certainly have stood out amid the block’s worn brick facades and security-grated windows.
In naming the company, Jaime explained, “I wanted something that could be graphically translated into forms easily. And something that can be in various languages,” he added of the concept behind Mio, which means “my” or “mine” in the brothers’ native Spanish.
Personalization is a driving concept behind Mio, which promotes the idea of “green desire” — consumer lust for appealing products that just happen to be sustainable in every sense, from the materials used in production to the local economy that produces them. There are fabrics that began life as soda bottles, wooden tables built by Amish craftsmen in nearby Lancaster and decorative bowls made from wool felt recycled from a Philadelphia-area millinery — one of the few local hatmakers still in existence. The steel that Mio twists into sling-chair frames comes from an American factory that pays union wages; wool is biodegradable and sourced from Pennsylvania sheep farms. Every product on the website lists not only materials and measurements, but also “environmental and social information” specific to its provenance, and “philosophy” — the ideals behind the design concept.
“ ‘Sustainable’ is not about finger-wagging,” explained Isaac. “It’s not about guilt. It’s about the consumer having desire for the product.”
So it helps that Mio products embody not only a righteous ethos, but also a clean, urbane aesthetic that combines elements of Asian and Scandinavian minimalism. Wall tiles are in abstract, geometric three-dimensional forms that can be assembled as discrete decorations; primary-color lamps, bowls and organizers can double as sculpture. “Nomad” paper modules divide and customize rooms, and nearly everything comes in neutral white with a paintable surface. As Jaime noted: “Our products are about customers transforming their spaces, making them their own.”
The brothers have been making things their own since growing up in Medellín, the industrial second city of Colombia, where their European Jewish family had settled for a generation. Jaime, in particular, was always “tearing things apart, putting things together,” he recalled. When he was a teenager, while other boys got video games for Chanukah, his mother bought him a professional-grade welder.
Business inspiration came from their father, who owned a cardboard-packaging company and gave Jaime and Isaac their first taste of business on an equipment-buying trip to Germany. “He thought it was a good opportunity for the kids to see Europe,” recalled Isaac. “We were 13, 14, and he just told us to sit very quietly while he was negotiating in German.”
The Salms are cognizant of their place in a long Jewish entrepreneurial tradition — one in which flexibility and resourcefulness come with the role of Diaspora outsider. “Being Jewish has infused how we think about life, how we think about family, respecting different points of view,” said Jaime. It comes as no surprise that the influences both brothers cite — from Sir Richard Branson to Elon Musk to Antoni Gaudí — share a flair for the iconoclastic.
As members of a small Colombian Jewish community, “it did give me a bit of a different perspective,” Jaime reflected. “Being independent — being part of the larger society, but also a little apart.”
“You had to learn to be comfortable being a minority,” concurred Isaac. “Being able to adapt requires creativity.” It’s a lesson that has served both Salms well, equally relevant to the immigrant experience and the challenges of sustainable entrepreneurship.
The brothers learned resourcefulness firsthand from their mother, who had lived in Peru, and their father, who had studied in Germany and who encouraged Isaac and Jaime to venture outside Colombia. Isaac studied business in Miami before heading to South Carolina for a job at Kimberly-Clark; Jaime had his eye on New York, but ended up at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which turned out to be a fateful move.
Several of Jaime’s professors were pioneers in championing green design, which at the time was novel in a field dominated by imports. “People were like, ‘Green design, what shade of green?’ ” recalled Jaime. But he and his mentors viewed design through the lens of anthropology, as he explained; sustainability — the conservation of resources, from human labor to natural materials — was emerging as the context for how people ought to live in our trash-filled modern world.
“It has all changed radically,” Jaime said. “Today, people want to know what’s in their shoes, what’s in their food, everything.”
After a thesis project constructed from recycled waste paper — “We were fascinated by the idea of taking trash and making a product out of it” — he sold a bowl and a chair to local Philadelphia stores and scored a job designing signs for Anthropologie. That early break, along with their pooled Bar Mitzvah money, provided the initial capital for the brothers’ entrepreneurial vision.
The Salms freely admit that despite their respective educations, they were fairly clueless about the furniture business. But they agreed on a concept — to make high-quality, beautiful things in the United States that people could afford. In the age of Ikea, Mio’s credo is less a business plan than a testament to the brothers’ determination. “Affordability is just another design challenge,” Jaime declared.
Mio has prospered while remaining true to its mission, a reality that probably owes as much to the brothers’ infectious positivity as to any business plan. In person, both Salm brothers radiate optimism, bouncing around their studio with the energy of teenagers. (After offering me coffee, they volunteered that despite hailing from the land of Juan Valdez, neither has ever been a coffee drinker — not that they appear to need the caffeine.)
“Come, look at this lamp,” Jaime said with evident pride, displaying an origami-like form in brilliant orange metal. “It folds up flat, and the shade is made from recycled bottles.” Isaac, meanwhile, sprinted past the Apple workstations to show off a screaming-yellow production room, where cardboard prototypes offered a preview of upcoming designs.
As in sync as they evidently are, Isaac and Jaime are more yin and yang than two peas in the proverbial pod. Jaime is dark-eyed, dark-haired, clean-shaven and a neatnik; Isaac is blond, blue-eyed, bearded and messy “but getting better,” he said earnestly as his brother nodded, laughing. On the day I visited, Jaime was dressed in a sporty manner — hoodie, jeans, sneakers — while Isaac looked the part of the urban designer in skinny jeans and a multicolor scarf. Asked about their individual tastes, Jaime volunteered that although he is the designer, his is a more pared-down aesthetic: “I want things that are very elemental, very simplified,” he explained. “Isaac’s style is more ebullient and a little more fun. He likes adding things, and I like taking them away; when we finally agree on something, it means that product or idea has really been vetted.”
For both Salms, Philly is an ideal laboratory for exploring a modern, sustainable lifestyle. “People don’t appreciate what we have right here,” Jaime said, referring to the city and its compact, walkable neighborhoods. “I don’t drive a car. I ride my bike everywhere. I have everything I need within a very small perimeter.”
For a while, Mio had a walk-in store at 12th and Hamilton streets, but at the moment, the business operates primarily online (customers can make appointments to tour the studio). Having promoted Mio at major trade fairs internationally, the brothers find that a majority of customers are actually outside Philadelphia — in New York, California and Texas — and that running an Internet business requires a very different set of strategies from a brick-and-mortar store.
So far, their most mass-market venture would seem to be the very opposite of what Mio stands for: The brothers were hired by Target to design a line of garden products. Adapting Mio’s local, sustainable philosophy to a company that produces on a global scale was a challenge, both men recalled.
“But for me, there is no other way to design,” Jaime said of the principles that inform every product Mio sells. “You can’t separate sustainability from good design. It’s a common sense thing. To design sustainably is a logical, beautiful thing, an elegant thing.
“You have to think about the product in context,” he added. “If you look at the world we’re living in and you decide not to make things sustainably, it means you’re not looking hard enough.”
Hilary Danailova is busy trying to accommodate a Bendant lamp. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.