Many things about Dave Badman seem improbable if not impossible. He’s a globally-recognized metalsmith and designer celebrated for his work with small pieces, like catalog jewelry and Christmas ornaments, but also massive outdoor installations, like fourteen-foot-tall mixed-metal tree sculptures. During the day, you can find him peering through a magnifying glass soldering a pinhead size bit of copper onto a new custom art piece no bigger than a quarter. During the night, you might see him tumbling or sparring at a Jiu-Jitsu gym (for a while he was a practicing Mixed Martial Artist). He was never a dog guy, but now his girlfriend’s dog is a staple at his 5,000-foot showroom and design studio in downtown Grand Forks. He works for major commercial developers to help them bring art into new buildings. He also works with retired farmers that need a new piece for their long-time sweetheart. In the brickwalled basement of his studio he stores unused T-shirts meant for an art-based organization. Five-feet away from the shirts is a custom Harley Davidson motorcycle and close to the bike are a pair of jasmine trees he moves inside every winter. The contents of his office reveal his love for the Minnesota Twins, "The Office," sitcom and famous artists or architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. He loves eating, but always prefers cooking his own gourmet meals (he has his own Instagram account showing his chef-escapades).
After thirty years of owning his own metalsmithing and design business—which has included stints on QVC, surviving the historic flood of ’97 and managing a team of other creatives—Badman lives like a real-life embodiment of the most interesting man in the world. He’s the type of guy you would associate with anything you think is cool. Aside from his accomplishments and justified confidence in what he’s done and the life experiences he’s attained, he acknowledges that today he’s still striving for more. The inspiration to create has never waned, he keeps saying. In fact, it's just the opposite.
When he talks about that creative desire in combination with the future, it comes out a bit begrudgingly, but mostly with the type of excitement a young CEO has when they are about to launch a product they think will change everything in their lives and others. In the coming months, big changes are actually coming for Badman. That is what Badman has created and where he exists now: a situation that requires the Badman as we know it, him or the team, to transform into something they all believe could be so good.
Inside the Showroom/Design Studio
Hung above the main showroom near the entrance of the Badman building, a series of custom-made and painted mesh-material ceiling tiles are hung to create an artistic atmosphere. Among the company of wine-racks, benches, jewelry pieces or wall art installations, the tiles are the least impressive, even if they might be the most telling of what the Badman team is. A prolonged glance at the tiles reveals the presence of used wine bottle corks numbering in the hundreds. According to Badman, the team has had many memorable moments, positive client experiences and recognized pieces over the years to celebrate. With each noteworthy moment, the team has tried to participate together in a quick, rewarding sip of something that regardless of taste, year or type, has helped or forced them to step back from their daily task to recognize the success they created, a success that was linked to a physical piece they always knew would someday be gone from their hands and eyes forever. When their sippable moments are over, Badman says with a smile and a glance towards the tiles, one of them has always made sure to toss the cork onto the tiles.
Badman was first recognized for his own work when he was young. After growing up in the United Kingdom, he moved to the U.S. with his Air Force family at 15. For most of his early years, he was always creating. He credits Legos for his early realization that he loved to use his hands as a tool connected to the visions of his mind’s creative eye. “I remember a time when my dad, a weatherman, brought home a weather map,” he says. “I drew a jail cell on the map and put it on my door. The drawing was so good my parents didn’t get mad.”
After finishing high school in Grand Forks, Badman enrolled at the University of North Dakota. Soon after he started working with jewelry an instructor at the time liked his work so much Badman was encouraged to take it—the jewelry and everything else—more serious. Near the end of his undergrad career, Badman decided on a whim to buy a small jewelry store owned by three other makers. The store’s footprint was six-foot by thirty-foot. Badman thought he could make jewelry there, run the business better and leave it all behind at any time. Soon after opening the store it was 1988, and Studio 18 was open for business, according to the plywood sign above the door.
A major part of Badman’s success stems from his willingness to show and talk about his work. To describe a single earring, Badman my require an hour to explain the intricacies of it all. Early on, Badman knew he would have to venture away from the region to ensure Studio 18 wasn’t a short-lived venture. With a portfolio of jewelry, he traveled to Chicago, New York and other major cities to showcase his talent. A meeting with a major jewelry representative in Chicago got his pieces into Nordstroms. A personal meeting with a Dayton’s rep got him into Dayton’s. “My friends asked me back then what I would have done if Dayton’s would have said no. I guess I never gave that any thought. I never thought about that outcome,” he says.
After creating, designing and supplying for every major retailer across the country, Badman has moved away from the catalog and big-box establishment approach he says, due to choice. His commitment to the region has been recognized by a North Dakota Governor. One wall of his studio acts as a library for the stories that have been written about Badman by every entity from local news to national design experts.
The QVC Story
The first experience Badman had with QVC was on a live television stage. He was there to talk about his earrings. He sold 1,600 pairs in four minutes. The major television selling conglomerate had embarked on a “50 products in 50 states” tour. As part of the tour, QVC selected three makers from each state and gave them the chance to go on a regional stage, explain their product and sell the goods. Of the three makers, QVC planned to bring one to its national headquarters to film live. After selling those 1,600 pairs in four minutes from a show filmed in North Dakota, QVC chose Badman over a fire extinguisher product maker and a bird feeder system.
From the main QVC studio, Badman sold another 1,500 pair of earrings in short time. It was nerve wracking, he explains, and exciting and stressful all at the same time. His main thought after each order wasn’t linked to fulfillment or justification of design choice, but instead about filling the orders. After working long hours with little help from his tiny shop in Grand Forks, Badman fulfilled the 1,500 order. But, QVC’s quality control team found the proverbial needle in the haystack during a random check of an earring sent to fulfill the order. QVC rejected the lot and Badman had to start over. “I remember going through that second order so close. I put a rubber band across all of the earrings so they wouldn’t touch and none of the finish would be compromised during shipping,” he says. The new products passed. Soon after, an order of 2,000 came in. Badman had most of the order done. That was in early 1997. Then the floods came and washed out his store, including the order of 2,000.
Despite the large financial gains made from the orders, Badman decided he didn’t want to shape his future on huge orders made by only him and a small team. The rush to produce had taken away the joy of creating, he says. “I was never really able to celebrate one of those orders,” he explains. “I was too busy wearing off my fingertips polishing each piece. I learned then that if I just chased the dollar, I would get tired.” For Badman, the QVC story is more of a feather in the designer cap, a reminder that his work is cherished by the masses and that his pursuit is, and always will be, about more than the revenue. He hasn’t sold on QVC since. Everyone knows he could have.
The Designer’s Life
Ask Badman or anyone on his team and they will all say the same thing about their true skills: they help people bring a vision from their head into real life. It might not always be the exact vision that existed within the client, but in the best cases, the vision or idea will become a physical thing that they will never want to be without. As an accomplished designer, Badman can’t describe a normal week, let alone a day. Some days he draws. Others he works on metal or builds with clay. An intense-plus-passionate-plus-caring-plus a bit anxious person, Badman’s day-to-day is always under construction. He’s accepted that. What he cares about today, and what he has always cared about, is achieving a certain lifestyle that suits his inner workings.
He’s never been able to copy previous work or reduplicate. Sometimes he’s truly in the moment and inspired. Many times, he’s not. No matter what, he’s happy with what he’s created in his business. “I’m happy with the freedom of what I’m doing,” he says, even if the business side, pricing art and offering his non-studio time up for potential clients, can be daunting. From the number of pieces he’s created in more than three decades of work, one might think he does it all to get lost in the enjoyment of his work. That is certainly part of it, Badman admits, but his most enjoyment and fulfillment comes from the people he works with and the clients he creates for. “I love being part of traditions. I love helping people understand what is possible and then delivering that to them. I want to overachieve every time,” he says.
The showroom in front of the store is an ode to the diversity of the Badman team. The number of products, furnishings or items for sale is almost unbelievable. It seems unlikely that a small team of designers working in downtown Grand Forks could have such an extensive showcase of work. Even if you’ve known Badman and his team forever, it doesn’t seem possible that they could even fit so much good into such space. But then, as we did over the course of a few days, you will get lucky enough to catch Dave or Holly in between a job or task.
You ask them about their work, what inspired them, why they choose to put copper over metal and add clay. You point to a tool and shake your head to indicate you have no idea what they are doing with it. If they do what they did for us during our time there, they’ll pick up the tool or the piece of copper and start talking about it.
Then, sometime later, you’ll be walking through the showroom with them while they explain everything they’ve done, where it has gone, who it was for and why each piece was memorable.
Then, sometime later, you’ll be a step away from the front door. Outside the door there are probably cars driving past or people walking by. Behind you, a designer will be buzzing away with a grinder. There might be a hammer pinging on metal over the big butcher block. From the back, you might even hear the welding machine sparking away. None of it will matter though. You won’t notice any of it. You’ll be a foot from the door, reaching for the handle, lost in your own head. Something you saw in the showroom caught your mind’s eye. You are thinking about something that Dave or Holly could design that could become something you would never want to live without. You don’t know where it came from, but you are sure. It could be for you, your loved one, a home accent piece, maybe even a dog collar. Then your body just naturally takes you through the front door and immediately you want to turnaround (most likely you do), walk back in and start talking again with someone from the Badman team about the thing in your head you want to create. You feel inspired, excited and a bit nervous. It almost sounds like you can hear used wine corks pattering against a colored tile over your head. Then Dave, wearing his designer’s apron to keep his drawing pencil and small ruler on hand at all times, starts talking and gesturing with his hands about your idea and what he might be able to create from it and you feel like anything is possible. G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 1, 2020
PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography