ROLF Spectacles: Synonymous for Wood, Heart and Chutzpa
The beautiful town of Lechaschau, nestled in the idyllic Reutte district of the Tyrol region, is home to 1,900 souls. Spanning a total of six square kilometers, Lechaschau lies at an elevation of 846 meters above sea level. The small town is a natural preserve area; rural, and full of interesting natural sights. But make no mistake – this is no boring backwoods hick town. After all, Lechaschau is home to the winners of the 2009 and 2010 Silmo d’Or award, whose creativity continues to inspire eyewear design around the globe.
Like almost all really good stories, this one starts with romance. It starts with the love of Marija “Mary” Iljazovic and Roland Wolf for each other, and their shared vision of style and design. Together with their siblings, Christian Wolf and Martin Iljazovic, the couple boldly steps out into a world of innovation in 2007. Full of passion – but lacking in credit – the four bank on the simplest resources and their expert craftsmanship to realize the design and production of eyewear frames made 100% from wood. In the basement of their parents’ house, the four labor for months with jigsaws and an old, repurposed mechanical milker to get their creative endeavor, ROLF Spectacles off the ground. In the following two-and-a-half years, the team members test, saw, rasp and hack their way into their own style. Through trial and error, they hold on to their vision; also because of the sustainability angle. There is no doubt in their mind: Wooden eyewear frames are the future.
In 2009, the four creatives roll into Paris in a camper holding a self-made tradeshow booth, as well as their last savings and a suitcase full of prototype glasses. They have no idea that visiting the industry tradeshow Silmo will change their lives forever. Out of the blue, the rookies from Austria end up winning the Oscars of eyewear design – the highly coveted Silmo d’Or – in the Frame Technological Innovation category. It is the start of a new life. Upon returning to their small village, the four have no time to relax and enjoy the picturesque mountain idyll of Lecheschau. Before the first order lists from Silmo are processed, the next eyewear design awards start rolling in and since then, the only way for ROLF Spectacles has been up and away.
Today, the company has outgrown its roots in the basement workshop. ROLF Spectacles has shifted production to a large warehouse with new employees and a growing train of machines. And let’s not to forget ongoing product innovation; including the first-ever wooden eyewear frame covered with stone, the “Woodstone.” Here at Eyewear Magazine, the meteoric rise of ROLF Spectacles has sparked our curiosity. To find out what makes this brand tick, we spoke to Roland Wolf about his take on eyewear design.
Roland, why did you choose wood?
Wood is an interesting material and we’ve always used it heavily for private applications. When we started out, it was barely used in the eyewear industry. Only few materials are as timeless as wood. Wood has always been processed in the most varied ways, from arrow tips to picture frames, sculptures and furniture. It is a highly relevant material. Who would prefer a chair made from metal to a wooden one? And great wine always comes from a wooden barrel…
What are the challenges and problems when working with wood?
Throughout its long growth phase, each tree develops its own unique structure that is different in terms of consistency, size and texture. Which is why the material needs to be treated on an individual basis. Wood is not a homogenous material. You need to choose the right tools for optimal results in order to get the material into shape and process it.
But is wood not an extremely “lively” material and prone to undergo transformative processes?
Exactly. Wood is alive. This characteristic also makes it interesting. Some kinds of wood will lighten over time, others assume darker shades. And when wood collects moisture, it will swell. If moisture is extracted, the wood will fade away. So in order for eyewear frames to maintain their shape, raw materials need to be chosen with great care. We have developed our own technologies to bring wood into the desired shape while eliminating warping and torsion of the material.
What kind of wood do you prefer and why?
We prefer wood that is native to our region. Unfortunately, we cannot just use any random type of wood for eyewear productions. From the very start, we’ve been attracted to fumed oak. It’s the darkest kind of wood in Europe with a very intriguing history. While the tree is embedded into swamps for centuries, it creates a connection that leads to darkening at a later point.
Does wood create a more rugged overall look?
The overall appearance depends on the kind of wood. While fumed oak, for instance, has a rough texture and almost rustic surface, maple is very smooth in terms of structure.
But isn’t wood perishable? Meaning, will my glasses have a limited lifespan?
Naturally, even ROLF glasses are not immortal. But with a bit of care, ROLF glasses are trusted companions for a matter of years. In order to slow down the aging process and guarantee longevity, our frames are coated with specific material protecting them from moisture and UV-rays. After accidental breaks or chips, customers can take ROLF glasses to their optician or our eyewear clinic for repairs. We are committed to repairing every set of frames and returning them to their owners in full health.
How long did you experiment until the first prototype was ready?
In 2007, we started out carving eyewear frames in our basement with the simplest tools. The first prototype was ready after only a month, but results were not satisfactory. We needed to learn lots of things. CNC machining, press processes and creating new machinery… At Opti 2009 we showcased additional prototypes and for the first time we were able to gauge responses to our product. People were thrilled, but the desired quality was lacking because of imprecise processes. Without support from the banks, our project seemed headed for failure despite the positive feedback. But thanks to our families, we were able to continue and invest in new machinery and optimized production processes. Finally, in August 2009 we could submit the first perfect set of ROLF glasses for the Silmo d’Or. Being nominated was incredible for us – winning was beyond comprehension!
Are you using specific machinery? What is the deal with the mechanical milker? Is that still in use?
Our glasses are unique in terms of materials and production techniques. Almost all machinery needs to be built or retrofitted specifically. In the early stages, we used moped breaks, old actuators and other items provisionally because we lacked money to outfit machines for production. One example is the Silk-Cut 300, which produces the special thread for our glass fittings. It was made entirely from scrap parts from our friend, the junk dealer, and still manufactures all ROLF threads. And in order to be able to bend the first parts into shape, we pressed the first pieces of wood from a living room table with the mechanical milker of our neighbor, who had retired from farming. We still use the press today. Even the stone frames had their start this way. Nowadays we use precise machines up until the point where the frames are passed on to highly sensitive additional processing by hand.
Who is responsible for eyewear design in your team?
For the most part, Mary is responsible for designing the eyewear frames. Christian and myself also try our hand at drawing new models occasionally.
How did the Austrian market respond to the first wooden frames?
Cautious. Austrians only adopted the wooden glasses gradually.
And what about the international response?
Opticians in foreign countries showed more willingness to take risks on a new product. After winning the Silmo d’Or in 2009 we were able to win customers on a global scale. Since then we have leveraged this start to define our place in the eyewear market.
The imagery of your campaigns is very characteristic. Who comes up with these ideas?
Christian is mostly in charge of our marketing. We have lots of fun working together with another creative mind, Robert Eder at runimation.com who captures the scenes on camera.
What is the underlying philosophy behind your brand image?
We are banking on regionalism. It is important for us to show people who we are, where we are and that we are connected to this picturesque landscape. Regionalism is more than just a marketing tool for us – it is also backed by our in-house production and regional jobs at the company. Our motto is: “Where others stop, we are just getting started. We are delighted to show other creative minds that you can build something from the circumstances here and even contribute to the entire region. Outsourcing is not always a requirement…
You are far removed from the classic “model look” with your advertising imagery. Why?
We want to honestly communicate who we are and what we do. For once, we aren’t models; we are just having fun with what we are doing. Also, it’s not “only” about eyewear for us. There is much more behind it.
There is a rural theme throughout all campaign images.
We want to give our campaigns a unique character by combining our cultural roots with new photographic techniques. We also want ROLF to be recognized by its imagery.
How would you define your target group?
Artists, doctors, architects, technophiles, individualists. People looking for something special and wanting to treat themselves to something unique outside of the mainstream. We see the WOLF wearer as an individualist with finely tuned attention to design and technology; hailing from all social classes from artists to mechanics to bankers.
By now, competition has grown with a wide number of wooden eyewear manufacturers. How do you exceed the competition?
We take no compromises when it comes to realizing our ideas of perfect wooden eyewear. Neither in the choice of materials or in the functionality of the hinges. The latter are crafted without screws, maintenance-free and replete with a stop-function to stop the temples from touching the wood. Additionally, the hinges also stop the temples in the right position when they are closed or unfolded to stop unwanted movement of the temples. Our glass fitting method affords tension-free fitting of the lenses without opening up the frames. We also excel through the precision with which ROLF frames are crafted. The size of our collection, our design, our image and continuous progress are also distinguishing factors.
Last year you released new glasses that were coated with stone.
We are always searching for new materials that correspond with our philosophy. The challenge for us was to try out a material that was not yet used on the market. The idea to create glasses from stone started about a year ago.
How difficult is the “pairing” of wood and stone?
Shale is prone to splintering and breakage. These characteristics made us doubt the viability of the project. In order to avoid destroying the stone during pressing, we had to come up with new technologies. The wear on our tools and the processing timeline for making the “Woodstone” are higher than our entirely wooden glasses.
How is this model different in terms of quality from “simple” wooden glasses?
For us, stone is the perfect addition to wood and bamboo frames, since stone also offers unique characteristics, which have grown over thousands of years. The layered structure of shale lends a lively, upscale surface to the frames.
Talking about production processes: How long does it take to create one model?
Between the blank stages to completed set of frames there are 78 working steps. Crafting a pair of ROLF glasses requires several hours of work and a high degree of craftsmanship. The rasping stages require lots of concentration and precision, which we leave to experienced hands.
Which parts of the process are done by hand, which are carried out by machines?
Seamlessly functioning hinges require a large amount of precision. These and other parts are milled by machines. The most elaborate parts are the processes carried out by hand.
How many models do you release per year?
Every year we present about ten new models.
If you had to explain your glasses, which characteristics would you emphasize?
Unique, light, high comfort, expressionistic, sustainable, screw-less, maintenance-free, authentic, lively, innovative technology, high-end quality, anti-static, anti-allergenic, produced in-house, handmade in Tyrol.
Do you not use branding? Or is your logo placed so subtly that it is not noticeable upon first sight?
We hope that people will recognize our glasses even without a logo. We also believe that a logo would disturb the structure and flow of our frames. We often spend hours discussing whether the inside of the temples should feature additional information and most of the time we all agree: the frames should be “hurt” as little with information or branding as possible.
How much of your brand presentation is understated?
Glasses are not symbols of status, but should genuinely complement the wearer’s personality.
You have already mentioned that the hinges are made from wood entirely without screws. How is that possible?
It was our goal from the very start to create a maintenance-free, screw-less hinge from wood. At first, this seemed to be an insurmountable task. But after endless tries and failed attempts, we finally arrived at the optimal solution. Wood is a layered material, characterized by hardness and stability. We process it with precision machinery at tolerances in the quadruple digits. This way, we are able to achieve optimal functionality that is apparent when opening and closing the temples.
What about the weight? How “heavy” are your glasses? And is wood lighter than plastic frames or even heavier?
The frames weigh between nine and 15 grams. In relation to its mass, wood is one of the lightest working materials. What else will swim when you throw it into water?
The very first ROLF store is housed in an old gas station. What was the inspiration?
The gas station in Reutte is at a very central location and was about to fall apart after years of abandonment. It offers its own characteristic charms with its gold-plated window frames and large windows. For us, it offered the perfect location for introducing people from our region to our wooden spectacles.
What is the feedback from users? Has there been criticism?
The feedback regarding longevity and comfort has been entirely positive. But people who expect to have bought a set of titan flex glasses will not be happy in the long run. It’s important to explain the glasses sufficiently during sales talks.
It’s within everything surrounding us. For example, all our frames are named after vintage cars – one of our passions.
Where is the journey headed?
Towards lots of new technical innovation, materials, models…
We want to continue as a small independent operating and keep making glasses according to our own philosophy.