Interviews POP-IN@Nordstrom

Conway Electric: Power to the People

With Pop-In@Nordstrom: TMRW TGTHR, curator Olivia Kim and team discovered dozens of ways we can all help make the world a better place: Feed the hungry by buying a handbag. Plant flowers with the flick of the wrist. You can even support the fabric of American manufacturing by purchasing a handmade, high-quality power strip.

Regarding that last point, we navigated the boat-lined north edge of Seattle’s Lake Union to visit the modest production facility of Conway Electric—a brand led by a man who quit his day job in order to build a better extension cord. Keep reading for a Q&A with founder Kevin Faul about industrial design, leaps of faith and the power of American ingenuity.

THE THREAD: What inspired you to build a better extension cord in the first place?
CONWAY ELECTRIC FOUNDER KEVIN FAUL: “Every day, we interact with things, and we have so much going on, so many inputs coming in, that we can get distracted and frustrated by things that aren’t easy or enjoyable to interact with. Before doing this, I was an exec at a tech company, and for fun on the side, I was making furniture and studying architecture and industrial design. I went to a hardware store to get an extension cord, and the only options were like six dollars, nine dollars, and made in who-knows-where. It seemed kind of crazy, so I started looking up whether or not there was such a thing as a well-designed extension cord for a home like I had—more of a modern loft in Boulder, Colorado, reclaimed bamboo floors, view of the Flatirons—and there was nothing in the market for a house like that. There are a lot of people who have amazing spaces, and the worst thing in their space is the electric cord. So at the time, I just did something that I needed.”

How would you describe the Conway Electric aesthetic?
“I think that when a design is too modern or space-age, it can sometimes age not-so-gracefully. We want to be more like Nikola Tesla meets Thomas Edison, where we have technology and the functions that you’d find in a modern product, but it’s in a design that’s classic and friendly for everybody. People see things that we don’t even see sometimes—we were in a design magazine in Denmark that was like, ‘How to get the Copenhagen look in your home’. Other people see the cork accents and their imperfections and striations, and they see wabi-sabi and Japanese design. Others see traditional Americana, with the braided cord that you may have seen back in the ’30s and ’40s on a fan or something like that.”

Besides looking good, what are some of the practical design advantages of a Conway ‘Exto’ extension cord?
“It’s specifically meant to function better and be more convenient. It’s cast aluminum, so you can actually put one on top of the table, instead of under it, and it’s heavy enough that it’s not going anywhere. It’s not going to flop around like most power strips, and fall off when you plug something into it.

“It’s also the only extension cord with internal tamper-resistant outlets. I’ve got a nephew who just turned four and a niece who’s four months old, and the last thing I’d want is to put something dangerous in their home. Nobody else has these—everything else, you have to use those little plastic plugs that get under your fingernail and are so hard to pry out.”

“The four holes on the bottom of the casing will accept self-tapping screws, allowing it to be mounted anywhere. We’ve got commercial clients who will put them on the walls or on top of tables in their cafés or restaurants. When was the last time you were in a coffee shop trying to type something up, and you were like, ‘Uh, excuse me,’ bending down between someone’s legs to plug in your electrical thing?

“We use the highest-quality plug we can get—it has a large, rubber over-mold, much easier to grab. The rubber feet on the bottom are custom-made for us. We use cyanoacrylate [better known as Super Glue] so the feet won’t pop off, because I hate that. And we attach the face plate using a single, stainless steel Allen-head bolt, because flat-head bolts are just ugly if they’re not lined up right. It’s also less prone to child-tampering—you can’t open it up with a butter knife or a coin. So it’s all meant to not only look great, but also function better.”

Once you had this idea, what steps did you take to really go for it?
“The whole business started with four prototypes that cost me $300 to make. They weren’t wired properly, but they looked cool [laughs]. I was doing some other stuff at the time—I ended up quitting my job as an executive at a technology firm because I wanted to pursue some other opportunities, my own businesses, that I’d been thinking about for a while. I’d been a fan of industrial design and architecture for a long time, and so I built a few of these for myself. I posted a couple pictures to Facebook, and people just raved about it. So I took it to five stores, and my deal was: If three or more stores want it, I’ll do a small line, but if fewer than three want it, I’ll kill the idea and move on. And all five wanted more right away! So we did a small run a year ago—but actually, the next step was, we had to figure out how to get the units Underwriters Laboratories-certified, because they’re an electrical product, and we didn’t want to put something out there with a liability.”

…And what is Underwriters Laboratories, exactly?
“It’s a multibillion-dollar business that tests and specifies consumer products of all types—everything from fire systems that spray water in a building all the way to your TV or your microwave. They test everything—you’ll see UL marks on just about any electronic. It stands for Underwriters Laboratories. They have a strict standard for testing electronics so that they’re safe. They’ll test for ampacity in the cord. They have to pass a certain burn test—they’ll burn the cords to see if they catch on fire and how they burn. They have to not crush under a certain amount of weight. The length and the height that our outlets come up above the cover is within a specified number of millimeters. The box is connected to the outlets so that it’s grounded, in case of a short circuit. Even the way the wire is attached, it has to be completely solid between the cord and the box itself. We actually exceed all the Underwriters Laboratories specifications, and UL told us that we were the smallest, youngest company they’ve ever put through the process—and the fastest. So we started from zero and went through their process in about four months, and they said they’ve never seen anything like that before.”

How did you do that? Did your previous career experience help?
“Not at all! Most of my background was in business—I had to get involved in tech details now and then for patent-licensing deals and things like that, but when I started this, I knew nothing about wiring. I had some electrician consultants come in early and teach us some basics about how to wire something up. And then, it was like—you jump off the cliff, and you can’t go back. So once we jumped, UL gave us some help, or at least pointed us in the right direction, and everything else was just a lot of reading and a lot of trial and error. The UL specifications are 180 pages, and I’ve read them like three times. That’s what I do for fun: UL specs [laughs].”

One of our favorite things about your products are the colorful, cotton-covered cords. Besides looking nice, what are some of the functional details of the cords?
“We’re the first company to put a cotton over-braid onto a wire cord and get it certified by Underwriters Laboratories. People have been doing lamp cords and things like that, but nobody’s been doing high-ampacity wire. This wire is capable of handling 13 to 15 amps, which means you could basically run anything off of it. A vacuum cleaner is 12 or 13 amps. You could run a power drill off of it. There are a lot of musicians who love our stuff and use it for their gear. I don’t know how they find us, but they come to us, and we’ve had guys order 10 or 15 units at a time. I asked, and one of them said that yeah, they use it in their recording studio. You can also tell the cords apart—if you’ve got a bundle of cords and they’re all different designs, now you know which is going where just by looking at it. It gives us more ideas about what we can do in the future.”

The story behind where the cords are woven is pretty unique. How much work went into achieving what’s become this signature design detail?
“The cord was one of the hardest things for us to do. We had the concept, but we had to find a company that was capable of doing variable-diameter weaving over electrical cord—and was willing to maintain a certain level of quality over hundreds of thousands of feet at a time. It took us about five months and 205 phone calls to find the factory. I was sitting there at 204 phone calls, like, ‘You’re at a dead end. We can’t do it.’ Finally, I got a tip from a company in Ohio that sells thread. The 205th phone call—I call the guy, I tell him what I want to do, and he just says, ‘Oh yeah, just bring it over.’ And that saved our business.”

[Please turn your volume down before playing the video above! The rare, 50-year-old machines that coat Conway’s power cords in cotton braiding are pretty loud.]

“…I asked if I could please come and visit, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, come on out’. It turned out to be about a five-hour drive from where I was in Seattle. I walk into a room, and they’ve got like 10 of these machines going—they’re 50 years old, made out of cast iron, and they’re really loud. You need earplugs or you’ll lose your hearing. But they’re also gorgeous. You have a bunch of bobbins with different colors on them spinning around all at once—it’s mesmerizing to watch. The machines can handle variable diameters and multiple bobbins of thread, so we can specify any pattern. If you look closely at the cord on each of our styles, the braiding method is slightly different—one looks more like a checkerboard pattern, another is more like a herringbone—so you can see the craftsmanship there. The guy who owns the factory now started out sweeping the floor, and eventually bought it from the original founder. They’ve had a business for 50 years serving a certain niche market. They believe in what we’re doing, and we’re a whole new source of business for them, so we’re helping to build their company, too.”

Where do the rest of the materials that you use come from?
“Not only are we making it in the USA, but we’re trying to source it from the USA as well. We use parts from 25 different companies to build this product. Crazy, right? The wire companies that we use, one of them’s in Wisconsin, another’s in Illinois. The rubber plugs on some of our models come from Maryland. The cases are powder-coated near here, outside of Seattle. The housing itself comes from China, but we’re working toward everything coming from the United States. We could save 40% of our cost simply by shipping the whole production to China—basically just writing a purchase order, sending them a spec, waiting for the container to come in. We wouldn’t have to inventory anything or hire anybody. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to decide why you really want to do something. We hope to invite people to become part of the American-made movement, and support growing businesses trying to make it in America.”

In general, do you think the world is ready to own items that are a bit less…disposable?
“I think that what we’re doing is right in line with designs that are starting to pop up more and more—not ‘throwback’, but a bit more traditional. Everything from a wool tie that’s really bespoke to shirts that are cut and sewn by hand. Things that are maybe a little more expensive, relative to what you can get in cheaper stores—but they’re high quality, they’re tactile, they look great, and you form a relationship with them. So you might have fewer things, but the things you do have are more personal. What people are really looking for is higher quality, made more locally, with a great story behind it—something you can believe in. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Shop Conway Electric’s ‘Exto’ extension cords in 5 colors,
and discover more goods that do good at Pop-In@Nordstrom: TMRW TGTHR.

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—Justin Abbott
Photos by Krista Fredricks. Video courtesy of Conway Electric.