Sound and Vision: Leon Speakers embraces the art of design

Most companies look awfully similar. Visit the offices of any of a dozen firms in the Ann Arbor area and you're bound to find only variations on a theme. Whether it's open work spaces or cubicle farms, the aesthetic tends to say more about how things run than the vision that fuels the company. Leon Speakers' new home in Ann Arbor is a notable exception.

Walk into the industrial building just south of the airport and the first things you'll find is a vintage television, one of the coolest you've ever seen. Turn to the left and walk a few feet and you'll find Leon Speakers' 21st Century version of it. Both speak volumes about what the company is about, according to its founder Noah Kaplan.

The first TV is a circa-1958 Philco Predicta, which was advertised as the "world's first swivel screen television." The screen has no frame. It sits in a swivel much like a globe might, allowing users to turn it in any number of different directions. It sits on a combination speaker and radio unit, all made in the U.S. It's a reminder that American tech once was as much about art as it was innovation.

The second TV is what the Leon Speakers team is calling the Trithon. It's a 42-inch flatscreen wrapped in a black walnut case with real python skin edge band and an integrated Leon Speakers soundbar behind vintage grill material. It's all mounted on a swivel, which rests on a surveyor's tripod from early 20th Century. Like a mashup of the steampunk aesthetic and 21st Century technology, this TV was a labor of love. Kaplan can't say enough about it. But he also believes that the Trithon is ahead of its time, so it stands as a one-off piece of art in the main hallway of the Leon Speakers headquarters.

These two televisions encapsulate where Leon Speakers is right now. The high-end electronics company draws upon its Made-in-America roots to make home entertainment products that are both cutting-edge and high-end. And all of its products are dreamed up, designed, engineered, manufactured, packaged, and shipped from Ann Arbor.

"The culture of this company is really steeped in American manufacturing," Kaplan says. "But even more so in its culture and design aesthetics."

To put it simply, Leon Speakers is about art, music, history, and technology. And its new home exudes that. There are century-old wood foundry molds scattered everywhere. Pieces of art line the walls. As Kaplan escorted me into the office of Anastasia Deinera, Leon Speakers' visual director, she was opening a box of vintage tools she had ordered.

"I just opened a box of hammers," Deinera says. "I am thinking this is the craziest thing I have ever seen. Who orders a box of hammers?"

The hammers and chisels and saws will be used to build a vignette of vintage tools against reclaimed wood. The art will go on the walls of Leon Speakers manufacturing space.

"We're going to carry this curated aesthetic on through the manufacturing side of the building as well," Deinera says. "We're going to set the stage to make the place feel a bit more like a retail space."

Humble beginnings

It took Kaplan 18 years to get Leon Speakers to this point. The native New Yorker had just graduated from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design when he enlisted some friends to help him turn his art into a commercial enterprise.

"We knew we wanted to start business," Kaplan says. "Back then my business was art and music only. I would paint all day and play music all night."

His first commission was painting portraits of 40 scholarship athletes at U-M. That gave Kaplan a taste for turning his passion for art into a profitable venture. So he and his pals started a collective called Leon.

"We come from extraordinarily humble beginnings," Kaplan says. "We started in a room."

Specifically a room on the second floor of an off-campus rental house on East University Avenue. Kaplan's father lent them $600 so they could learn some woodworking techniques. They bought a table saw, some wood clamps, and some glue.

"That was the core our business for years," Kaplan says. "We expanded to having a chop saw and some paint."

Leon tried to make guitars but that proved to be an unprofitable venture. They eventually found their niche with custom speakers. Soon Leon Speakers was doing custom jobs for Zingerman's and Grizzly Peak. Kaplan was honing his craft in Whitmore Lake, working with an ex-Marine turned master carpenter. 

Leon Speakers evolved over that time, finding its footing over the course of a decade. They moved into ever bigger commercial spaces, eventually taking over a 5,000-square-foot structure that had originally been built for an RV company. At the time, the move seemed like a big deal. But soon it too proved to be too small, sending Leon Speakers to its current building. At first, it leased just 12,000 square feet, sharing the structure with a handful of other companies. But over time they consumed more and more square footage, until this last year they outright bought the entire building, expanding to all 40,000 square feet of it. They've needed every inch.

"It definitely sped up over the last five years," Kaplan says.

Kings of Leon Speakers

Each employee is encouraged to personalize their own space in Leon Speakers. One has a cattle skull hanging over her computer. Another has a window that leads through a hatch to the roof. Deinera has an 19th Century couch that anchors her entire office. Everyone is encouraged to be themselves so they can maximize their passion for what they do.

"Everybody here is hired or fired or vetted by how they believe in the core values of the business," Kaplan says. "The vision everybody understands. The mission they all interpret differently. Our core values spell out a word, CORDIAL. It stands for creativity, optimism, responsiveness, dedication, initiative, accountability and loyalty. All of the people have that in common. Everybody is massively creative here. They're all optimistic."

This business mission permeates every inch of its new space. For Kaplan it is a necessary ingredient in his recipe for becoming the best. For instance, Leon Speakers recently upgraded its production capabilities by implementing lean manufacturing. It has made the company efficient enough that Kaplan now claims he can locally produce home entertainment electronics on a level that is cost competitive with imported electronics. When you consider how much of the electronic market U.S. Companies have ceded to China and southeast Asia, that's no small accomplishment.

Even Leon Speakers' manufacturing space is infused with art and music, so that all of the company's 50-plus employees are inspired in their work. There is a full-on musical cafe in the space above the factory space where bands occasionally perform. They have even worked with NPR's Acoustic Cafe to record there.

Kaplan's ultimate vision is to create a complex that is focused on the arts, manufacturing products that are as inspirational as they are functional. He likes to call Leon Spoeakers' headquarters "a landmark size piece of art and sculpture" and "a monumental art complex." 

From everything I witnessed on my tour, it seems that Kaplan is succeeding. Leon Speakers is without a doubt an inspiring place to work. You could sense the enthusiasm and passion its employees had for their job. Kaplan summed up his ambitions in way that only he could convince.

"I hope to be able to do some really fun stuff here," Kaplan says.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation & Jobs News Editor of Concentrate and its sister publications, Metromode and Model D. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He was blown away by how cool Leon Speakers home was in an otherwise bland industrial park on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.

All photos by Doug Coombe


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