Bradley Price is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and the founder and owner of Autodromo, a company that makes watches, sunglasses, and driving gloves that express the spirit of motoring. He loves vintage car racing and puts his 1980s Alfa Romeo through much agony.
From the moment I saw Autodromo’s Stradale watch, I knew I had to own it. I had never fallen in love with a thing so badly. A quick email to my friend Ben Clymer, the editor and founder of watch-enthusiast site Hodinkee, and I was soon exchanging emails with Price. As luck would have it, I was flying to New York, and we decided to meet up.
Price invited me to his office, and soon we were deep in conversation about watches, startups, greed, the Apple Watch, Marc Newson, Italian vintage cars, industrial design, and Apple’s design philosophy and why others fail to get it. Eventually the conversation zeroed in on the notion of time in the networked age. The Apple Watch makes us challenge our notion of time — if not in its first iteration, then in a few years.
And if you’re challenged for time in a more traditional sense of the word, check out this short video of Price discussing some of his design philosophies.
Om Malik: Tell me about where you come from. How did you fall in love with cars, especially since you live in New York, where there is no car culture?
Bradley Price: I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. My father is a car guy, and he had an old Austin-Healey when I was little, and then later on he sold that and got a Jaguar XK140. Those were the cars I remember from being little, and we used to go to a lot of British car events.
We lived on a busy street. I’d sit by the window and watch all the cars going by, and at a young age, I knew every brand of car. By the sound of them, I could identify different cars.
I was pretty much hooked on it from such an early age. I can’t even tell you where it actually started from, because it’s before I have any memory of it. My brother, incidentally, has no interest in cars, so don’t think it’s just because of my dad [laughs].
Anyway, my dad also loves vintage Bugattis. We used to build model cars together. One aspect to the watch that ties into my childhood is also that I love miniatures and models. We had a train layout as well. I love this idea, this little object that there’s a whole world inside of it and it’s all these details. You look at something from here, but then when you get closer to it, you have to be even more delighted by it rather than being let down by the lack of detail. Those are all ways that the watches tie back to my childhood.
I went to the University of Michigan after graduating from high school, and I studied the history of art and industrial design there.
OM: History and industrial design — oh my.
BP: Yeah, I have two degrees. It was a five-year program.
OM: That explains a lot.
BP: Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to do just the straight-up art school degree. I wanted to go to art school to be a car designer. My parents were totally right in the end. Learning how to do research, learning how to write — these are things that people don’t put enough value on, especially in the designer world. There are so many people that care about sketching but then can’t even talk about their work.
Then, through my twenties, I was an industrial designer, and I was obsessed with modernism. I am a modernist. I guess you could say I was even a futurist at that time. I was obsessed with pushing the boundaries of technology. I didn’t wear analog watches or any kind of traditional watches. I was wearing futuristic digital watches, if I wore a watch at all.
I was a technology and design person, but I always had a strong interest in the history of design, art deco, modernism, and also, of course, the history of racing. There is this combination of being obsessed with doing the next thing but also almost wishing I’d lived doing the next thing in the 1920s or 1930s. It’s looking backward to go forward.
[topic]Early days & roots in Industrial Design[/topic]
OM: What kind of industrial design did you do?
BP: Cell phones, appliances, and furniture. I used to work in a branding agency before; that where I was doing food concepts and branding concepts. But then the next job I had was much more production-oriented, so I learned a ton about engineering constraints and actual production techniques and process. Then my second phase of my work was in producing things, getting things made, working with engineers, working with factories, going to Asia. All that stuff has together informed my starting of this company.
I can’t be thankful enough for the training I had in my twenties of first working in this branding environment where it was all about creating a brand, creating a concept of the story.
OM: Those companies all go to design experts and designers. And then they design the device. This is so different from what Apple does, where engineering and design are in sync and ultimately guide the product. The design can leverage the gains from system-level engineering, and vice versa. I find they have a different view of thinking in products — of vertical integration.
BP: Then all these companies would be like, “We want to be like Apple” or “How can we even more be like Apple” or “We want a product like Apple’s.” I don’t know if it’s still like that, but this was five or eight years ago and Apple could do no wrong. But the thing was, they weren’t looking at the whole process. They were just looking at the end product. They weren’t looking at how that product got to be that way.
The key things that Apple does, aside from what you’ve mentioned, is that the decision-making is a lot more autocratic, and it’s a lot more direction given from specific important people that are tasteful, thoughtful people. That informs the whole world. It’s not just a bunch of middle managers and committees and stuff. You have one guy who was like “This is good or bad” and “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” That’s hard to replicate, but that’s what makes something great versus just OK. You need that person to be the arbiter.
OM: There are only a few watch people close to doing that vertical integration. The engineering, the user interface, the overall design.
BP: I agree. People focus so much on the movement, and they don’t think enough about the other aspects of why a watch is beautiful or special. People get so fixated on specs and not on what is special about these watches as a thing.
That frustrates me a little, because I put so much into the rest of the watch. I don’t have the wherewithal to develop my own movement, as many watch companies don’t. In fact, 98 percent of watch companies don’t have that wherewithal.
Let’s focus on the case finishing, the design of the case, the design of the dial, and the concept. What is the watch trying to say? What is the meaning of the watch? What’s the emotional content? I don’t ever see people internet forums discussing those types of things.
OM: Why don’t people pay attention to the emotional aspect of things we own? If you own a lot, like, there isn’t a lot of emotion around it. But if your ownership is restricted and constrained, it has a lot more emotion. I definitely agree with you that people don’t ask the question why as much as they should, like, “Why are you buying this? How does it make you feel?”
BP: They just snap it up. Having spoken with many of my customers, one thing that is special about this brand is that people get that there’s an emotional content to it and it resonates with specific people. It’s interesting to me, because it’s not just people from one economic background or another.
It could be the guy who has 10 Pateks and he bought one of our watches too, or it could be the college student that saved up for four months to buy the first watch he’s ever owned. Those two guys are from different worlds, but they are linked together on an emotional level about how they respond to this watch and what it says to them. I find that really gratifying to get feedback from customers.
[topic]Apple Watch: What is it good for[/topic]
OM: What do you think about the Apple watch, the concept of it?
BP: It’s beautiful. As someone who designs consumer electronics and watches, the more I looked at it the more impressed I was. It’s got Marc Newson’s fingerprints all over it.
It’s clearly something he designed rather than Jony Ive. It’s funny they announced he was working with them after the watch. But to me that was the Apple way of underhandedly giving him credit for the design without actually saying he designed it. But it seemed to me very Marc Newson.
OM: Why do you say that?
BP: The most obvious giveaway was that the rubber strap had the exact closure method that the Ikepod had. But the way the strap integrates with the case is so him, this sort of inflated square.
Now, obviously any designer could do an inflated square. But Marc Newson’s Ikepod watch is a really influential design. I certainly have been influenced by it. If you look at the Monoposto [Autodromo’s first automatic watch], they’re that sort of bowl-like case. There was a little bit of that Newson flavor in that watch, even though it’s not a modernist watch per se. The Apple watch certainly is in that idiom, a lot like his other work.
OM: Getting back to your path to making watches, how did you go from what you were doing at ECCO to what you’re doing now?
BP: It’s nothing against ECCO or anything. But after working in a studio environment for 10 years, I was getting the edge to do my own thing and was tired of following orders all the time. I wanted to express my own aesthetic sense.
Also, I’m a lifelong car nut, and I was starting to get upset about not having anything car-related in my life. I started a blog called Automobiliac around 2010, which was partially an outlet to talk about cars with people, because I didn’t know any car people in the city.
I had recently bought an Alfa Romeo from the 1980s. I was driving and I thought to myself, “I love the typeface on this gauge. It would be such a cool watch gauge.” Then I thought, “Why doesn’t someone make car-gauge-inspired watches?” You have Bell & Ross making aviation-gauge inspired watches. Then I started to research it, and I found no one was doing that well, if they were doing it at all. I feel, personally, that many of the big companies that do automotive-related watches — there is a complete lack of emotional content.
[topic]Products with Emotional Connection[/topic]
OM: I agree. Few watches are emotional. There are few people who make watches that you can actually have a connection with. I have one manual watch that is just basic. It suggests the hour and minute, and no seconds, no numbers, nothing.
BP: Just the essentials.
OM: The iPhone is like that. When it’s shut off and the screen is dark and I don’t have to see the software inside and can just look at it as an object — that’s beautiful. And then push of a button later, it is like magic.But when you look at it as a thing of beauty, it makes you think, How can you make something so amazing, so complex, and yet it is just one thing? It’s like a dark black screen and the metal body, and that’s all you see. It forces you to imagine the amount of work that engineers have put into it. That’s part of the emotional connection with this thing I have. I have emotional connection with a lot of things, mainly when I know who made them. Maybe that’s what we like about Apple — the magic of Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive.
BP: Yes, I completely agree.
OM: So are you a one-man operation?
BP: I have a publicist that helps me, but he’s a consultant. My initial thing is that when I need help with stuff, I can hire consultants rather than taking on a staff member. My wife helps me as well if I’m swamped with stuff.
If I’m really behind, I have a friend who can come over and help me pack things. I am trying to keep it at a pared-down, simple level, and it’s working well. There will be a point to this in the future where I finally get an office space, because I would love to, for example, have people like you over in an office that’s not in my house.
But when you’re running a small business, you need to keep your overhead low. Right now, this is an appropriate site base for what I’m doing. The company is doing well, and we’re profitable, but wasting money can make a huge impact in your bottom line. I’ve had a lot of entrepreneurs say the best time for them was that early stage where they didn’t have the office yet or they didn’t have a whole bunch of people and they were just doing it. Once they started to structure things, it became less fun for them.
OM: The key to success in life, in my opinion, is not to measure yourself against how society measures success — you know, how famous you are, how rich you are, how big your company is, or how your movies do at the box office. My idea of success is about finding your level of greed. Then it is fairly easy to define. If you’re happy with a one-bedroom house and don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need to be running a $100 million company. There is a fine balance between the struggle of an early-stage company and being a gigantic operation. Finding that level is the most important thing. A lot of founders don’t think about that. They keep chasing this unreal dream without knowing what they are chasing.
BP: They keep chasing easy money. I don’t seek easy money. I own this company 100 percent. It’s completely funded through bootstrapping to cash flow. There’s no borrowed credit at this point. It’s 100 percent owned by me, and it is about being fairly priced. I like that, because I don’t have anyone that can tell me to do this or that. I don’t have anyone questioning me if something’s the best use of money. I can make all my own decisions.
When I go to meet with other entrepreneurs and stuff or whatever — they’re more obsessed about telling you how much capital they’ve raised instead of what the company’s actually producing. It’s like, “Yeah, we just got like $16 million in funding” and they want to have a bigger office and they want to hire more people. Then if they get it, they suddenly have 150 employees and God knows what they all do. That’s the opposite of what I want.
OM: You should do what makes you happy. If you own 100 percent of your company and you pay your bills and you live independently, as long as you don’t feel like you’re missing out or something, then it’s OK. Then you don’t have to worry about what other people think.
BP: I don’t worry about it too much. I mean, I’m a lucky man, to be honest. I’m happy with my life and my lifestyle. It would be nice to have an office, sure. Eventually that will come, though, so I just have to keep going.
[topic]So what’s your story?[/topic]
OM: How long ago did you actually start this?
BP: 2011, so this is my third year in business. It’ll be three years in November 2014.
OM: How did it all get rolling? Was it like, “I’m going to do this,” and you quit your job to chase the dream?
BP: No. That’s the ideal myth. You’re like, “Screw this. Bye!” And then you start your company.
No, I worked in secret for two years. My boss was nice about it when I finally told him what I was doing. He actually let me stay on part-time. I was making money, but I was still afraid to quit my job. He was kind to let me stay there. I went down to part-time at one point and took a bit of a pay cut, but I still had the stability of a paycheck. Eventually, after about six months, I left.
When I say 2011, that’s when the company launched. But I started this project in 2009. I was designing the stuff in secret and went to Asia, to Hong Kong, to the watch fair and all this other stuff. I was doing all that in the evenings. I didn’t tell many people I was doing it and then launched the company in November 2011 with Hodinkee. They wrote the first post about Autodromo ever.
The response was great right out of the door. Within six months, I had made back my initial investment. It’s been going well since then. During the first six months, there was money coming in, but I didn’t pay myself a penny. I was still living off my salary as a designer.
OM: What was your first month like?
BP: The first month was this giddiness of being like, “I can’t believe people like this.” As a designer, you always have this ego. Well, it’s not so much ego. It’s like you put your heart out there. When you design something you’re proud of, you want people to like it, because you’re an artist. You’re a creative person. You want an audience to respond to your work.
To put this work out there and have people buying them. The first holiday season, people bought the watches. It was this giddiness of feeling like, “Wow. I’m actually seeing money coming in. I’m actually seeing people excited about what I did.” That was a great feeling. Never before in my career had I ever gotten any public credit for anything I’d ever done, because I was working for other companies and other people. That was pretty exciting.
OM: How many watches did you sell in the first month or two?
BP: I’d have to go back and check. It was a couple hundred.
OM: Oh, wow.
BP: I think we did $50,000 of sales for the first holiday season or something. That was a lot of money to me. That made me realize I was onto something.
I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible in terms of reaching an audience. People know about us now, especially in the watch industry and, to an extent, within the vintage car world, but we’re still an open secret. There are people who know about us, and then there’s still a huge, vast number of people that have never heard of the company. I like it that way, though. I like being the brand you have to know about.
OM: It’s fun to be in that phase, where you’re actually trying to not live up to somebody else’s expectations of you.
BP: We don’t have a legacy to live up to [laughs]. We’re not like AP or something, where we have this whole heritage and anything we do could be a letdown. But I do have pressure now.
We have had a number of successful products, and there have been things that have sold out. When the Stradale [the 2014 model] came out, I felt a lot of pressure about making sure this watch was successful, making sure it would be well-received, doing things I hoped the customers would like.
It was a big investment to do this watch, and it’s our new flagship watch. I’m phasing out the original quartz collection in favor of these automatic watches. Even though it’s a small company, this is a big piece for me. I definitely felt pressure to make sure this watch would be something special.
[topic] Bradley & his Design Process[/topic]
OM: From concept to finished product, how long does it take you?
BP: It takes about nine months from start to finish to have the idea, design it and prototype it and then receive the merchandise after production. I only come out with one new watch a year. I can’t do more than that, because there’s too much and also the investment becomes burdensome. Now that I have more models, I come out with new colors periodically. We’re going to have a new color of protype coming out in November. Then we’re going to have a new special dish and another protype in the spring, which is going to be with another driver. That’s going to be awesome.
OM: What is your design process?
BP: It’s the opposite of the way I was taught to design things. I had always felt like the methodology that I was taught in design school didn’t suit my personality, but that’s how the professional world expected you to behave.
In the professional world, you want lots of options. You want to explore every possibility, and then you want to present all those options to the client. Then they pick one, whatever they think is the best, which may not be the one you thought was the best. Then you refine that from there, and then you go back and forth and finish it.
For me, I don’t do options. I ruminate over things. I don’t draw anything for a while, and I have it tumbling around in my head.
It’s almost like, you know in an old spy movie when there’s a lock tumblr? One tumbler clicks into place, and then the next tumbler clicks in. For months, it’s this thing spinning around, and then the tumbler will click over. I’ll be like, “That’s good.” Then, a while, and then another one clicks over. Finally, this [makes a clicking noise], and then the safe opens.
That’s how the design process is for me. It’s much more about ruminating until there’s this aha moment, and then it becomes easy. Then I start sketching on a theme, and I usually go fairly quickly into CAD from there, because I like to think in three dimensions. Sketches lie, especially with watches. You could have some detail you think is great, but then it doesn’t actually fit, physically, with the scale of the watch or where the movement has to be.
The sooner I go into 3D, the more I can be true to what the watch would eventually be, and from there, I refine the 3D. Then I go away from it again. You can fall in love with your idea, but you need to go away and come back and see, “Does it still excite me? Does it still hold true?”
Maybe I show it to a few people that I trust, to see their gut reaction. For example, I might show it to Ben Clymer [the founder of Hodinkee], or I might show it to a car friend of mine. Sometimes I’ve backed away from something and thrown it away, and then other times, I’m like, “OK.” Even if they say they don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do it.
It’s information. It’s feedback I can use for my own purposes. It’s not necessarily like I want to know three out of four people like this. That’s not how I think. It’s just, “This person liked it for this reason. This person didn’t like it for that reason. Maybe the right answer is over here.”
OM: What’s the thought process behind Stradale? How did you come to this design?
BP: First, from a utilitarian perspective, I knew I wanted to do an automatic watch. I knew I wanted to do something that would be a new flagship watch, and I wanted something that would relate back to the Monoposto, which was my first automatic watch. That was a limited edition of 500 pieces, and it sold out in about seven months. That was the first piece that made a lot of people take us seriously as a watch company, because there was a certain level of refinement. All the things I had learned from the first collection improved the second watch.
With that one, I had so many customers saying, “Please make more of them!” I didn’t want to do another edition of the same watch. I knew I wanted to take elements of the Monoposto, though, that would flavor this new watch, but then I wanted to do something new.
I also wanted to do a gauge-inspired watch, because our previous watch, the Prototipo, was a 1970s racing chronograph, and I didn’t want to do another racing watch. I wanted to do a gauge watch again, because that’s the core of the brand.
I had those basic parameters to start with, and then, from there, it was like, “What time period do I love right now? What kind of cars am I excited about?” I kept thinking about these Berlinettas, which are from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s. It’s a fastback style of Italian sports car.
What’s cool about the Berlinetta is that it’s a car you could drive at high speed across the Continent, race it hard, then throw some water on it, drive it to the finest hotel in whatever town you were in, have dinner in a tuxedo, and drive home. That car represents this high point of sports car design for me and a level of sporting elegance. The Stradale comes out of the aura of that time period and that type of car.
I started looking at gauges from those types of cars. One of the salient features of that time period was these plastic rings that would have the numbers molded into them that floated over the dial. I always loved that three-dimensional effect, and it’s very, very period.
I thought to myself, “What if that was a crystal ring inside the watch? Instead of just printing those numbers on the dial, the ring floats over the dial.” I thought, “Wow. I haven’t seen that done before. I’ve seen watches that have sapphire crystal disks or something, but those are usually expensive watches, like a Harry Winston.”
I thought it would be cool to offer something at our price point that has this crystal ring that floats. That became a central focus of how to execute that, how to make that look the right way. Then there was the packaging. The packaging is always a way to complete the story. As the customer gets this package in the mail, I want there to be this pathway of discovery that you’re drawn into the story as you’re unwrapping the box.
Also, the name Stradale means “road-going.” What I like about that is it implies a road-going car, but it also implies a race car, because usually the name Stradale is given to a detuned race car that’s for the road. If you have a pure race car, then sometimes to homologate them, they would make a barely legal road version. I like the idea of the Stradale because it implies you’re driving around in this high-performance car.
I love the age of Gran Turismo, which we don’t have anymore, the idea that you would drive across Europe and every drive is an adventure. It was a romantic time.
[topic]What Is The Meaning of Time[/topic]
OM: New technologies like the internet, the network, airplane travel have accelerated time. All those things we are nostalgic about are essentially about slowing down time to have more meaningful interactions.
BP: Yes. On top of that, the impersonality that comes with the acceleration of time. There was this American who went to Modena in the 1960s. He showed up at the Maserati factory. They were giving him parts, and he started building his own sports car, in a barn, in the countryside, using parts that he would get from Maserati shelves. That would never happen today. I wanted to capture something about that in the watch.
When you start unwrapping the watch, the first thing you see is a vintage map of the city of Milan. I like the idea that you’re basically starting in a town. Then inside the box, you have the instruction booklet, which is now a road map of northern Italy and the French Riviera. The idea that you’re going on this road trip in this Berlinetta and you have this beautiful gauge—I wanted to create this atmosphere about the product.
OM: Of that time.
BP: Of the time and place and the spirit of what the watch means. On the back are maps that are all scanned from period maps, and then I put in my own fake ad, a period ad for Autodromo gloves and sunglasses. Then there’s also the actual instructions themselves. It’s a combination of new elements combined with vintage elements.
OM: Have you thought about starting maybe a website where people can do their own Stradale selfies? They’re driving, and they can upload two minutes of video.
BP: I would love that. I’ve definitely encouraged people to tag us on Instagram with their watches, and some people do. I have customers that send me photos, which we post on Facebook. I wish there was better way. One thing I lack is — I have this artistic side, but I’m not good with the technology. I wish I could make an amazing website that had this clubhouse aspect where customers could log in. It would be like a forum for customers to share stuff, privately. Sometimes when my customers get together in a physical room, it becomes like that.
OM: It seems you are a guy who likes to slow down time a little bit, whether it is working alone in your house or making products.
BP: Yeah. My parents always like to tease me that I like to take my time on everything, but it’s more of a sense of doing things right the first time.
I started racing this year. I have a vintage Alfa that I bought recently, that I’ve been campaigning in the Vintage Racing Series here in the East Coast. One of the things I’ve been doing is historic recreation. It’s not about “I’m going to buy a cool car and race it.” I like to try to live the history of what I’m interested in. I drive the car to the track and race it. A lot of the old-timers are like, “I remember in the ’70s, I used to do that. Then I got a trailer” [laughs].
But I like to put all my stuff in the trunk of the race car. It’s a street-legal car, and I drive it to the track. I drove it for five hours up to Vermont once for a hill climb, and the drive up there was as magical as driving the hill climb. A beautiful mid-summer with mild weather.
Those experiences inform the work I do. I wear the things I design. The driving gloves we make, I’m wearing them in a 1959 Alfa Romeo while driving to a hill climb, so I’m not making stuff because some marketing survey told me I should make driving gloves.
I make driving gloves that I want to wear in a vintage car. I know when someone else buys these gloves and they wear them, they’re going to love them, because they’re going to know someone made those for them.