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Plywerk
Simplicity and ingenuity power Portland's digital photography framers
by Adrienne So
on 10 January 2013
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These days, everyone seems to have a DSLR and a point-and-shoot, or at least a camera embedded in the smartphone in their pocket. What most of us don't have are a C-type printer, glossy paper and mounting materials—not to mention the skill, know-how and motivation to get our Instagram photos off the computer and onto our walls.

That's where Portland, Oregon-based mounting company Plywerk comes in. The concept is simple: Upload a digital photo to Plywerk's website; select either bamboo or maple plywood, glossy or luster paper and a mount size—within two weeks you will receive your image, mounted on a piece of hand-cut and polished, sustainably harvested wood. "The simplest ideas are the best ideas," says Plywerk co-founder Kjell van Zoen. In addition to the craft and ingenuity behind the idea, their ostensibly simple business model covers a host of thoughtful practices that has led to exponential growth since Plywerk started in 2007.

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Van Zoen's wife and co-founder, Kim Oanh Nguyen-van Zoen, is a Plywerk photojournalist who sold her artwork at Portland's famous Saturday market. In 2007, she used a piece of discarded plywood to mount prints for sale. From there, the business expanded, with their staff working out of the van Zoen's basement and dining room until Plywerk moved their entire operations to an office space next to their shop in Portland's Industrial District.

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"We provide a service that fits a need created by digital photography," says van Zoen. We all take hundreds of photographs and post them to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, but it remains difficult to get those photos off the computer and into the real world. Between finding a printer and a mount, the process can become costly and time-consuming to display a simple snapshot.

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Plywerk streamlines the endeavor by simply allowing photographers to upload images to the website. They contract with Portland's Pushdot Studio for exceptionally high-quality prints that they then mount on bamboo or maple panels that they have cut, shaped and polished by hand. The results are simple, minimalist and chic—and so affordable that many professional photographers and artists have gone the Plywerk route. Marketing director Garrett Bishop estimates that nearly 50% of their rapidly expanding business consists of orders from professional and wholesale clients.

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Some of their products for individual customers include simple and beveled mounts and holiday ornaments. Small details, like Plywerk's embossed logo and custom-made hot-iron stamping tools, add a handmade touch to each product. Currently, you can upload almost any digital photo for mounting and in the spring, they expect to roll out Instagram and Facebook integration in order to print photos directly from those services. In the summer, they also expect to be able to re-mount panels that have already been printed. "It's just a matter of figuring out how to do it efficiently," Bishop says.

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The latter is in keeping with Plywerk's sustainable and community-minded business practices. "We have a triple bottom line model," said van Zoen, meaning that they consider how the company affects the larger community and the planet, as well as profits and margins. They feature independent artists on their website and blog, use recyclable and reused materials for their packaging and use alternative energy to heat the building.

"We're constantly figuring out continuous improvements on the process," says Bishop. "As a local manufacturer, we're constantly competing against price points. We have to be crazy efficient to bring American manufacturing back home." As their business is expanding exponentially, it appears that a focus on American ingenuity and simplicity has paid off.

For more information visit the website.

Photos courtesy of Plywerk and Adrienne So

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