In 1992, while in architecture school at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the class assignment was to take a graphic element from the mini-project prior, which was a cementitious sculpture, and transfer a square of it into a 2D space. My sculpture was very curvilinear and fluid in form, so the 2D square also had those traits. The new project would be to take the square and repeat it in a grid, rotating the squares randomly to form variations in positive and negative space. This was easily identified because they were to be black and white only. Upon repetition of my square, I was displeased with the way the black and whites didn't line up with each other from tile-edge to tile edge. So I tweeked the square tile so that no matter how the tiles were rotated, the black would always line up with the black, and the white with the white. It's one of the few projects I've kept from all my work in university. You can isolate one of the individual tiles by locating the white dots, which are formed in the corners where the tiles come together:
The teacher and other students were intrigued by what I'd come up with, which led to further exploration of the idea. I found myself doodling many different tile designs that employed the concept pretty much all the way through 1995. While studying abroad in Florence, Italy, I made my first prototype out of foam core and spray paint. I remember one of my roommates asked me what I was doing and I said, "Making tiles with a design on them that work no matter how they are rotated." To which he replied sarcastically, "Oh, like every other tile that's ever been made?" But when I showed him how the design actually changed upon rotating tiles he "clammed up pretty quick", as Brando would say in a Streetcar Named Desire. My roommate, JH (I'll only be using initials for the most part here), scratched his head saying, "That's pretty cool." I furthermore knew I had something with a wow-factor. Given they were my first prototype, I kept them all these years. Here are just 4 of them:
When I got back to the States, I decided to take the tiles another step further and I bought un-fired ceramic tiles and glazed them with a different-yet-conceptually-similar design. After processing them in a kiln, I had myself a more professional prototype in a 6" x 6" ceramic tile format. A friend of my roommate's girlfriend thought I would be a millionaire... this was 1997. The drawback to the ceramic tile format was that the grout space caused an interruption in the overall design that I felt was unappealing. Furthermore, once they were assembled with mortar, they could no longer be rotated, which I felt was a drawback because one of the cool factors of the tiles was seeing how the design changed upon rotating the tiles. I installed them permanently to the dining table of a 17' RV trailer that I bought in '98 before graduating. The RV was later used for a Summer road trip, then ultimately abandoned at my Dad's house in Dallas since the V6 Explorer I was lugging it with didn't have the muscle to pull it up big hills, and Colorado had been a destination. A few years later it was donated to Father Joe's Village (yes, there's one there too - I say this since it's based in San Diego, which is where I live now). Somebody could very well be eating cheeze-its on that tile table surface in a trailer park as we speak. I have no pictures of that installation, unfortunately. Again, I wasn't very amped about it since they could no longer be rotated after assembly.
In the meantime, during the Winter and Spring quarters of '98 architecture school, I began communicating with a patent attorney in Southern California with the initials NT who turned out to be a complete ass and idiot. Upon meeting with him and showing him the idea, he was intrigued and said he'd never seen it before. He said he'd conduct his standard research and file the patent if he didn't discover anything. Maybe he looked under his pillow and up his nose, but he didn't find a patent and we began the costly process. While at a college party with a fair amount of beer in me, I found myself playing with those poetry word magnets that were all the rage at the time. You know... form whatever immensely clever grammatically incorrect sentence you want for all passers-by to read. The epiphany struck that I could create refrigerator magnets with my tile idea. Magnets would allow the tiles to be rotated to change the design, and they could be used to hold photos and notes and stuff. It was a novelty item that seemed to have potential, so I developed a few prototypes and made plans to meet with a magnet manufacturer in Portland, Oregon called Off The Wall Magnetics. My friend JG and his Dad were planning to fly to the same city at the same time in his Dad's personal plane... a little un-pressurized 4-seater where you need headphones to talk to each other. Fun flight, for sure. The manufacturer was flabbergasted at the concept, and once again everybody thought I'd be a millionaire. I paid for the production of four different styles, which I called Cocoon, Clockwork, Etruscan, and Discovery. Here is each one as a single tile and composed as groups of 16 tiles:
(The story continues after them.)
Tile above, groups below
Tile above, groups below
Tile above, groups below
Tile above, groups below
During this time, I had graduated and the patent attorney was still doing his thing, waiting for the patent office to have their reply. The product packaging read "Patent Pending" proudly. I signed up for and attended my first trade show to proudly showcase my innovative novelty product. FreePattern Magnets were a hit! (I came up with the name FreePattern for the concept in the Summer of '95 while using my brother MB's computer to generate different designs and compositions; a much better use than what he was using it for... essentially a paper weight - he's very computer literate now though.) The first trade show was in Seattle, Washington, and pretty much everybody thought Cocoon was the coolest design. I was so stoked on the reception that I even got a tattoo of it on my back the first night. By the end of the three-day show, though, I'd only placed about 10 orders at most for different types of retail stores that carry novelty-like items. It may not have been a lot, but I was excited about the prospect of re-orders from those stores and continued growth while doing more shows. So I made the absolutely idiotic decision to quit my job at an architecture office (The Luckman Partnership inc in LA) and focus all my attention on creating a website and doing trade shows.
Several months into the trade show circuit I got a phone call from the dumb ass patent attorney NT. He told me somebody else already had the patent... a guy named AL in Louisiana. I thought, "It couldn't be!" and asked him to send me a copy of the abstract. The concept description was - exactly - the - same... practically. Holy crap... somebody else already had the patent. The only word of mild intelligence that NT uttered was that I could probably still copyright my specific designs. So that's what I went ahead and did. Of the volumes of different tile designs that I had come up with, I isolated what I thought were the best, and copyrighted them. Obviously, Cocoon, Clockwork, Etruscan, and Discovery were on the list. There would later be the likes of Buggin' About, Escer, Goin' Ape, and eventually many others. They are copyrighted as Surface Cover and a copyright lasts 99 years, which is actually longer than a patent, but carry less weight.
Simultaneously, I discovered that if I grouped some tiles then repeated the group, a specific pattern would emerge; and if the tiles in the group were rotated, a new pattern would emerge. I would come to call the concept the Pattern Palette. Here are some select examples:
(The story continues after them.)
This next series of tiles went unnamed, so they are just referenced by a number:
As you can see, I spent a decent amount of time generating tiles that created nice designs when utilizing my Pattern Palette concept. Regardless, I was pretty bothered that NT didn't find AL's patent when he conducted the research; after all, that's what the research portion of a patent application is all about. Seems he just figured he'd take me for his attorney's fees and be on his merry way. But since I'd already invested so much in a product of which I now had an inventory waiting to be sold and shipped, I continued doing trade shows and making efforts to get the magnets in stores. In the end, there were indeed more stores that bought, but unfortunately no store ever placed a reorder. This bummed me out, but led me to take the magnets a step further. I decided to create a game with them. So I asked my friend DD, who lived in Venice Beach at the time, and I was in Santa Monica, to meet with me over a beer so we could come up with some rules to a few games. We succeeded and I found a new manufacturer to make a new set of magnets with all new packaging. This is the one I called Geckos, which is based on the one called Escer (after MC Escer, of course):
At this point it was the year 2000 and I would debut the new styles at a trade show in Pomona. It was a flop. I'm sure I did at least one more show after that, then decided the costs of marketing the magnets was simply not worth the return, or lack of return I should say. I decided to take a breather and pull my attention away from FreePattern for a while.
Sometime during this period, my friend NR in Beverly Hills showed me a catalog for FLOR carpet tiles and said my tile idea might be good for that. I sort of shrugged it off at the time because the concept had really beaten me down by now. Over the ensuing months though, the idea must have percolated in my subconscious, because I began to think that maybe carpet tiles would indeed be a good product for the idea. After all, they did not have a grout space like ceramic tiles did, and they did not need to be glued down, which would allow them to be rotated even after installation. So I found myself back at the drawing board creating a booklet that would demonstrate graphically how FreePattern could be used as carpet tiles. Soon enough, I registered as an attendee at a trade show in Las Vegas called Surfaces to hunt down a willing manufacturer. This was around 2001. Every single manufacturer I spoke with either said they had enough of their own products to market, or that the idea just could not be done. They argued that the carpet tile manufacturing process was not precise enough to cause the design to line up well from tile-edge to tile-edge. Alas, there was one wonderful manufacturer by the name of Joy Carpets Inc out of Tennessee near Georgia that was willing to take a closer look at my idea. The president of the company was intrigued by what I had to show him and said we could discuss things further over the phone after the show. I had found my needle in a haystack. Over the course of the following months, we had an agreement in place and they were conducting their Research and Development. After they produced a prototype, they decided the idea was very innovative and could indeed be a hit. Their carpet tile format would be a square yard (which turned to a square meter years later) and have a non-glue installation method that would allow the tiles to be rotated as desired after installation in order to change the design. This would be the perfect union to produce I great product, and they would incur all production costs, while I would receive a royalty on all sales. This arrangement was satisfying, but I was concerned that only I would be the right distributor of the product that could properly demonstrate to buyers how the concept worked. After all, you couldn't just show a picture of one of the tiles and expect people to understand what happens when many are grouped together in different ways. So they agreed to join me outside the box and set up not only a royalty agreement but also a distributor agreement. I created a new website and began planning a new circuit of trade shows. Around this time, AL, who held the patent on the idea, contacted me. Turned out the patent expired which means it was public domain, so I wouldn't need to worry about any legal issues regarding copyright law vs patent law.
Cocoon manufactured in 9 colors:
Clockwork manufactured in 3 colors:
Etruscan manufactured in 3 colors:
FreePattern Rotating Carpet Tiles was the name I used to launch the idea, and there was now a new drive in me to sell some product to finally achieve something worthwhile after all I had devoted by now to the idea... in time, money, and even career. While I was at a Designer trade show in LA, I found myself continually demonstrating how the idea worked by rotating the tiles on the floor. One of the passers-by mentioned it would be cool if I had some sort of automated way to do the same thing. Given doing rotations constantly with square yard carpet tiles was strenuous after several hours, and took me away from being able to talk to customers, after the show I began a dialog with a trade show display manufacturer. We came up with a trade show display that included a flat screen TV that could play a DVD that showed my photoshopped "room scenes" (I had gotten very good at photoshop by now, after all the material I produced for the magnets), and an upright robotic display that would automatically rotate 6 of the carpet tiles in a particular sequence, or at will with the push of a button. Needless to say, Cocoon was the tile design on display, and the Navy/Beige color combination was the color combo I chose. It was an incredibly hot trade show display.
One of the most important things to convey to customers was the variability of these carpet tiles. They could be assembled in many different ways to create different looks, and it was all possible with only one tile design.
After a year of doing trade shows in different cities, which were incredibly costly each time, and with an unimpressive number of orders, I decided I could no longer invest in continuing along that road. Instead, I would purely focus on my website and driving as much traffic to it as possible. By this time, I guess after seeing those 6 tiles of Cocoon rotating so much on the robotic display, I decided it could be interesting to market the carpet tiles as a "modular area rug" instead of a wall to wall carpeting product. This would allow a more common consumer (home owner) to buy some product at a relatively low cost, instead of relying on commercial buyers to order large quantities to cover an entire space.
It turned out, though, that a customer complained that the tacky coating on the back of the tiles wound up leaving a sticky residue on her nice wood floor, which it was believed would not be the case. The carpet tiles were not designed to be assembled on a finished floor, instead they were designed to be installed on the subfloor, which is typically plywood or concrete. I came to discover this same tacky residue on my own wood floor where I had 6 tiles of Cocoon. With a mix of vinegar and water, I was able to clean it all away, but it was a painstaking process. So I discontinued marketing the carpet tiles as a modular area rug.
With all the work I'd put in so far for the carpet tiles, I thought maybe I should consider the tile concept for another venue... this time as mosaic tiles. I generated some designs and found a manufacturer in Mexico that could custom make them for me at a good cost. In the end, they sent them to me and I installed them in a bathroom. I made efforts to market them online, and tried to get local manufacturers interested, but nobody was having it. This is a video of the bathroom installation:
Wondering if there was another way to utilize the tile idea, I began creating interactive art. By stenciling the tile design on a piece of wood in a checkerboard fashion (skipping a space), and also stenciling it on square pieces of plexiglass that I mounted in the center of the square on the wood using magnets, a person could alter the design of the art by rotating the tiles. I developed a number of works on wood, and some also with plexiglass as the background:
With the carpet tile website for Cocoon, Clockwork, and Etruscan still acting as product distribution but with less-than-adequate sales, I decided to bring some attention to the tile concept by entering a design competition. I created an interactive art piece and sent photos of it with my application. The response I received was that the tiling concept had already existed, although it wasn't extremely well known. I didn't bother entering since the judges wouldn't see it as a novel design idea. Here is the work:
Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that perhaps an electronic approach could be the right application for this tiling concept. And given the new age of mobile apps, I decided to try my luck by creating a game using the tiles for use on mobile devices. First step would be to come up with a few ideas, and here are some images of them:
Now it was 2011. I found a few mobile app designers on craig's list, got a variety of price quotes, and went with the Russian guy. Over a period of several months, I created and sent to him pdf files of game instructions and the graphics for the tiles. He, AS, would provide me with progress builds, and I would provide feedback. It was a fairly lengthy process, perhaps taking as long as a year. In the end, he helped me create Tile Spin and Tile Spin 2, for the Apple iPhone, iPad, and android smart phones. Now came the not-so-easy task of marketing a whole new product.
With the apps live and accessible through their respective app stores and through my website, I created Tile Spin Tim as a mascot for the app. Tim's head was made by a guy named JO who I also found on craig's list. Tile Spin Tim is a young, hip guy with a shirt that reads "Grab The App." I also made a couple videos to help promote the puzzles.
With the advent of social networking sites, I began to do some free marketing of both the carpet tiles and the brainteaser apps... along with several million other entrepreneurs. I continued in this space for quite some time. In 2012 or so, a designer out of Florida with the initials SN contacted me because he discovered the same tiling concept. His interest was more in stencils and textiles, and given the difficulty I'd had to date generating revenue with the idea, I didn't mind someone else in the mix to promote it in his own way. He told me he was also in contact with AL; I'm glad he did some adequate research, but we'd both soon discover that neither of us had really done enough.
Around 2013, AL contacted us to talk about somehow joining forces to create a sort of exhibit to better launch the idea into the design community. He did a lot of work putting together ideas, and it was extremely recently, in 2014, that he came across a paper written by RK in Illinois that covers the history of the tiling idea... and it all began with a religious fellow named Truchet. The paper includes the additional efforts in the more recent history that numerous designers have exerted, and it also references AL's patent. I was intrigued to read that there were at least two different designers, around 2010, who used their own tile designs employing the same concept, but as magnets. Recall, my first product, FreePattern Magnets debuted in 1999. The side of the packaging that Off The Wall Magnetics printed for me read "A '99 Design." Of course, I designed the packaging as well.
So this story concludes with the revelation that this simple tiling concept, which I had come up with in 1992, but had already had a patent from '91, had actually been discovered by Truchet in the 1700's. Truchet's tiles were far simpler than the rest of ours, and I'd say computer technology had a lot to do with that. (Thanks again Adobe, but this time for Photoshop.) It's now clear that numerous designers have come up with the idea, but there are really only a handful of us that have products that are available for sale. In addition to SN's stencils and textile, there is a KG in California who markets cement tiles on her website. AL is currently driven to bring me, SN, and KG together to bring awareness of this innovative tiling concept, but it's now clear that there are a lot of people that already know about it.
In retrospect, I almost feel like I would have been better off never coming up with the idea back in '92. I've spent over 20 years now intermittently putting attention on an idea that I thought was quite innovative, but really wasn't. Neither AL, SN, KG, the other designers from RK's paper, nor myself understand why there aren't more products on the market that employ this concept. After all, you can create many different designs using only one mass-produced tile. But sometimes a great idea doesn't make it big until it's done at the right time. I don't think Elvis or The Beatles would have taken the world by storm if they had begun their music at any other time than when they did. Or, it's all about blow-out marketing and PR. Nonetheless, the adage "Don't quit your day job" echos throughout my story... I surely would not have stopped working at The Luckman Partnership inc if the tiles were not on my mind; and so perhaps I'd have a great career as an architect right now. But since "hindsight is 20/20" and "everything happens for a reason," I'm content with all the efforts that I've put in, but now I'll need to shift my attention back to Architecture. The carpet tile website, which I now call Adaptive Rugs, and the Tile Spin puzzle site, are both going to remain live and deliver their products as designed.
So to all those entrepreneurs who are thinking of quitting their stable job to go at it on their own... try to figure out a way to do both. And most definitely do massive amounts of research to make sure nobody else has already tried to walk the path you're considering. Let's face it, there have been a lot of intelligent minds that have walked this earth before us... discovering true innovation that will be received by the public at large is like finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe you'll find the diamond, shine it, cut it, and make millions with it... but it may turn out to be a CZ.
If you've actually read all this, my God, thanks. Share my tale of struggle, and walk the path that was meant for you with prudence and wisdom.
- Edward Borlenghi
PS: Check out the carpet tiles or the brainteaser app :)