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Through the woods

Beaverton sunglasses maker transforms unlikely vision into stylish profit
by: Jaime Valdez Eric Singer shows off a pair of wooden shades his company creates in Shwood’s Beaverton workshop off of Southwest Allen Boulevard.

When Eric Singer hit upon an idea to design, create and sell wooden sunglasses, he had his mother's unconditional support from day one.

Kay Singer was so behind her son's creative impulse in fact, she chose to overlook sudden changes in her home accessories. Wooden items with tiny hinges were frequent targets.

'I started noticing little jewelry boxes in the house, the doors would be missing or the lids wouldn't work,' she recalls with a chuckle. 'I knew then he was really serious and getting ideas together. I thought it was funny.'

Now, only a few years beyond that experimental phase, it's Eric who's laughing - that is, when he gets a rare moment to himself.

Singer and his crew of 20-plus employees, many of them old friends, toil like Santa's elves in a warehouse off Southwest Allen Boulevard to keep up with orders for Shwood-brand sunglasses.

Creating his prototype frames from a Madrone tree branch and dollar-store lenses, demand for Shwood shades has been fierce since he first marketed them in 2006. The naturally stylish, surprisingly lightweight sunglasses quickly became a word-of-mouth - and blog - hit, initially among Singer's friends and family.

'We were swamped from the get-go,' Singer, 25, says from the cluttered loft of Shwood's Beaverton workshop just before Thanksgiving Day. 'We had 200 orders in the first week. And we were only making five pairs a day at the time. It was just me in a little shop trying to make sunglasses.'

Before Singer knew what hit him, the snowboarding fanatic whose only previous 'real' job was at a movie theater was a budding entrepreneur with a vibrant business at his feet. Realizing he was more right-brain artistic than left-brain analytical, Singer assembled a four-person team of business-savvy partners to complement his creative impulses.

'We didn't know what we were doing,' he says. 'It was all trial and error. We hired more employees and brought on more help as soon as we could.'

A good pair

One of Singer's key partners-in-shades is Jeff Lancial.

A Keizer native and fellow snowboarder, Lancial, 28, decided he could best help Singer's mission by augmenting his industrial design background. He learned graphics design skills at the Art Institute of Portland.

Now, Lancial says his and Singer's talents complement each other.

'Eric is an artist, in the purest form. He doesn't have an agenda or a solution to get to,' Lancial says. 'That's good for us, because it keeps the product unique.'

'My job, besides testing, is making the product better,' he adds. 'I take what Eric puts into the designs and translate what he's made with his hands into something we can mass produce without losing any integrity of the art.'

Shwood shades come in five styles, with names derived from Singer's favorite Oregon locales. There's The Canby, which evokes his hometown; The Ashland, with an aviator-type design; The Oswalt, named after one of Singer's favorite state parks; and The Neskowin, a favorite beach.

Function meets fashion

Singer isn't shy about touting the virtues of his brainchild.

'I love the way they feel,' he says. 'People think they'd be heavy but they're really light. The feel of wood is nice, and they have top-grade Italian lenses. They're great to look through, and not just a fashion piece.'

It is the fashion market, however, that's truly taken a shine to the Shwoods. After all, it takes a certain fashion-mindedness to embrace, amidst ongoing economic uncertainty, sunglasses that cost from $125 to $210.

'We didn't know who wanted to sell them in the beginning,' he says. 'But the high-fashion scene has taken a liking to them. We have a price point that fits and matches (that).

'We are open to a much broader market. Right now it's high fashion, and luckily there's money in that.'

Despite the earthy nature of its product, Shwood is also gaining notoriety in the technological world. In October, the company's submitted video clip generated enough email votes to win Dell computer's 'America's Favorite Small Business Contest.' Shwood walked away with a pre-loaded $50,000 credit card and $25,000 of Dell equipment.

Framing the world

Even with more workers and a larger workshop, it's still a challenge to keep up with consumer demand for Shwood shades.

With the workshop cranking out as many as 125 pairs a day, customers find what they want through Shwood's website. Four boutiques in the Portland area carry them, with two more about to come online. Singer and company do their best to fulfill other orders from more than 70 specialty shops around the country and the world.

That's right. The world.

'We've gone global,' Singer says, noting Shwood's retail outlets in countries including Japan, Greece and Australia. 'The majority of our retail locations are in the U.S. We focus on boutiques and smaller-end shops. We don't sell to any chain stores yet.'

Singer says he's been at shops where he witnessed excitable customers trying on Shwood sunglasses.

'I try not to let them know,' he says of his inventor status. 'I'm not much of a talker. I am more so now than I was before. But it definitely humbles me to know other people are taking an interest in what we're doing here. Those are the people who keep breathing life into what we're doing.'

While never questioning her son's vision, Kay Singer, who lives in Milwaukie, admits she didn't see designer sunglasses as a surefire career path - particularly amid global economic turmoil.

'I've always tried to be real supportive,' she says, 'but I have to admit, I wondered, 'How can people afford to buy these things?' It seemed kind of out there. But you have to support him.

'It's been an amazing ride. It's a lot of fun to watch.'