Local Business: Man of Steel

Eric Allen melds function and form in his Kensington design studio 
by Claire Connelly

Most free publications are housed in metal boxes or sit on generic wire racks. Not Grid. We want our racks to be eye-catching extensions of our personality. Their production also offers a unique opportunity to support local artists who utilize sustainable materials in a creative, functional way.

After a successful run of vinyl record racks last year—created by local artist Machele Nettles—we were looking for a new model. Grid racks have to hold a bunch of magazines, fit in tight spaces and withstand a lot of wear and tear. We needed a problem solver who could mass-produce pieces of art. Enter Eric Allen.

Allen, a Belmar, NJ, native who’s called Philly home for eight years, loves making things. “I’ve always been good with my hands,” he says. “When I was young, I was always taking things apart and then rebuilding them.” Allen studied graphic design at the College of New Jersey, but eventually decided the field wasn’t for him. He moved into a workshop with some friends and transitioned from graphic to industrial design. “I realized I could make things that don’t exist in the market, or make them better than stuff that’s imported,” he explains. “I’m always looking at the world and trying to figure out how things are made and how they can be better.”

Frustrated by the fact that typical “U” bike racks only hold two bikes (four if well-orchestrated), Allen decided to pursue his own design. As an avid bicyclist who worked in bike shops for years, the project seemed like a natural progression.

Allen’s racks are a far cry from the standard variety found around town. They’re multi-functional—his installation in front of The Coffee House at Front and Girard is bright red, can fit multiple bikes, and features a bulletin board and shelves for planters. The series of racks he designed for Honey’s Sit ’N Eat include built-in menu displays with solar-powered lighting. And his creation outside the Green Rock Tavern boasts a drink rail and umbrella mounts for bike parking convenience. Allen’s also planning a run of smaller “hitching post-style” racks for houses with courtyards, providing a better option than a nearby street sign.

Designing under the moniker Industrial Art Lab, Allen doesn’t limit himself to racks. He recently began making furniture using found objects. Highlights include a couch made from a discarded van seat and stools made from parts of an old steering pump. He’s also planning a series of chandeliers with his shopmates—they’re gearing up for the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours in October.

Allen is proud of our city’s rich industrial history, and is enthusiastic about the resurgence of design and production in Philadelphia. “I feel like the city is moving in the right direction,” he says. “There are a lot of people who want to put their money back into the community. They appreciate craftsmanship and quality versus stuff that they’re going to throw away in a year.”

For more information about Eric Allen’s work, visit industrialartlab.com.