How would you like to be a college undergrad and already have designed something that’ll be appearing in the Olympics? Or two things? That’s the case with Ryan Muraro, who, thanks to a lucky series of connections, ended up designing the suits worn by speed skater Phil Brojaka and by the Ukrainian speed skating team. He recently chatted with me about how he ended up in this unusual corner of uniform design.
Uni Watch: How old are you?
Ryan Muraro: I’m 21. I’m a junior in the industrial design program here at UW Stout.
UW: Do you have a specialty in terms of the kinds of designs you do, whether it’s furniture or packaging or whatever?
RM: I kind of run the gamut right now, because I haven’t found a niche. I originally came here because I wanted to be a car designer. But that’s probably not gonna work out, because there are so many car design schools. I enjoyed doing a lot of furniture last semester, and I also like doing athletic apparel. I’ve got to say, though, I really like doing chairs.
UW: Yeah, you sent me some photos of a pretty interesting chair design.
RM: My suspension chair? Yeah, that one gets some pretty weird feedback.
UW: Tell me more about that.
RM: The whole point of it was that I wanted to make a chair that was kind of egotistical, like you had to pay attention to it.
UW: The chair itself is egotistical, or just the person sitting in it?
RM: The chair itself — and also its creator. The other day I was showing it to one of my friends. She kind of jumped onto it and almost flew off to the side! People compare it to a claw game, a bear trap.
UW: What grade did you get on it?
RM: Technically, I got a B-plus, but it was a week late, and the teacher said he docked me a full letter grade because of that.
UW: So it would’ve been an A-plus.
UW: OK, enough about chairs. Growing up, were you always a big sports fan?
RM: Yeah. And I played Little League baseball. I didn’t wear stirrups, though — sorry.
UW: That’s OK. In an e-mail you sent me earlier, you said you’ve basically wanted to be an artist or designer since you were very young, because you figured out at an early age that you could draw well, right?
RM: Yeah. But at the start I wanted to be a cartoonist, or an illustrator. But then I started to want to design actual things. At first I wanted to design airplanes, but then I realized that’s more of an engineering thing. Then I wanted to be an architect, but I figured that required too much math. So then I worked my way back to product design.
UW: So when you were a kid, were you combining your interests in art and sports? Did you doodle logos and uniforms and such?
RM: Oh, yeah. When I was in fifth grade, I entered a Campbell’s Soup contest. It was a bunch of anniversaries all converging — the 10th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death, and the 25th anniversary of his Campbell’s Soup can paintings, or something like that. I don’t remember all the details. Anyway, they held this drawing contest for kids, and I entered, and what I did was a Green Bay Packer catching a ball, only he’s thinking the ball is a Campbell’s Soup can. And I won third prize.
UW: OK, now let’s talk about these speed skating suits you’ve designed. First of all, were you even a speed skating fan before this whole thing went down?
RM: No. I’d watch it in the Olympics, I guess, and then not care about it any other time.
UW: Can you even skate?
RM: Yes, although I didn’t actually learn how to do that until high school.
UW: Had you ever done apparel design before taking on this project?
RM: I’d do random sketches of uniforms, but that’s it. I’ve done a couple of sports logos, though — one for the Stillwater High School lacrosse team, and one for the St. Paul Stars synchronized swimming team. I don’t have that one anymore, though.
UW: Did you burn all the evidence so nobody would know you were associated with something as lame as synchro swimming?
RM: Kind of. If you want to edit that out of this interview, that’d be fine with me.
UW: How’d you get connected with Philip Brojaka, the speed skater dude?
RM: My sister was working at the Petit National Ice Center outside of Milwaukee, which is one of the two U.S. training facilities for speed skaters — the other one’s in Salt Lake City. My sister basically had a gopher job, meaning she had to shadow the skaters.
UW: What do you mean, “shadow”?
RM: Escort them around town, keep them occupied, make sure they’re on schedule so they don’t miss their heats, that sort of thing. And one day she had to do this for this Phil Brojaka guy, who was training there. And they hit it off and they’ve been dating ever since.
UW: But Phil isn’t American, right?
RM: His background is Ukrainian, but he was born in England and he skates for the British team.
UW: But he was training at the American facility?
RM: Great Britain doesn’t really have any long-track speed skating history. Phil holds all the records, but they’ve only been keeping them since, like, 1991. He says he always had to compete with the curling team for ice time, so that’s why he came over here to train.
UW: So they hit it off and started dating — and when was that?
RM: The fall of 2006.
UW: And they’re still dating now.
UW: And how good is he? Like, is he going to the Olympics?
RM: Yeah. He’s really good.
UW: And how’d he end up coming to you to design his suit?
RM: He was originally a short-track skater, and short-track suits are different than long-track. They have kneepads and stuff. He didn’t have a long-track suit, and he was borrowing them from other skaters. Anyway, he has an agent, this guy named Sander, who sets up sponsorships for him and stuff like that, and he got Kia to agree to sponsor Phil if he put up a World Cup qualifying time.
UW: Kia, the car company?
RM: Yeah. They’re a big speed skating sponsor. And part of the sponsorship agreement was that he’d be able to get his own suit. And he could pick his own designer, but he’d have to pay for the design, so my sister told him to come to me.
UW: So when did he approach you? Or was it your sister who approached you?
RM: It was both of them, in a joint phone call, which was somewhat awkward.
UW: And when was this?
RM: January of 2007.
UW: Did he give you any guidance in terms of his likes and dislikes and so on? Did he spell out any preferences?
RM: Absolutely not. I was asking him different things, asking if there were other suits he liked that he wanted me to base his design on, and he said no. He gave me free reign, because he wanted it to be completely original.
UW: Did he even look at your portfolio first, to make sure he thought you were a good designer?
RM: Nope. He just took my sister’s word for it.
UW: Did he, or anyone else, pay you for this?
RM: No. I just got a piece for my portfolio.
UW: So what kind of research did you do? Did you go on YouTube and start looking at lots of speed skating video to get a feel for the way the suits typically look? Did you try on any speed skating suits yourself?
RM: No, none of that. He said he wanted it to be totally original, so I didn’t look at anything speedkating-related. I did look at other things, like the British flag, Chelsea kits [the EPL team], because at the time I thought he was a Chelsea fan.
UW: So you didn’t want any preconceived notions about speed skating. You kept your mind pure and unbiased.
UW: Did you know what company would end up executing your design?
RM: No. All I knew was that I was doing it for Phil, and I figured he’d be handling the logistics.
UW: Did he give you a template, or any information on fabrics or dyes or anything like that?
RM: Oh, no. None of that came up until about nine months later, when it was time for the suit to go into production.
UW: OK, so all you were dealing with was the graphics. What kind of thinking went into your design choices?
RM: I wanted to keep it pretty close to the British colors — red, blue, and white. And then I thought it would be good to introduce one additional color, silver. So I had a basic color pallet, and then I created basic templates for the front and back view, and then I started doing sketches. I tried about 20 ideations [the first eight of which are shown here, here, here, and here], and he ended up picking the first one, which made me wonder why I bothered doing the other 19.
UW: How long did all of this take?
RM: I did it within a night.
UW: One night?!
RM: I don’t really sleep, Paul. I just stayed up and sketched and sketched until I couldn’t think of anything more, and then I scanned them and sent them to him.
UW: So then what happened?
RM: It basically sat on the shelf for nine months until he got that World Cup qualifying time, because until then the sponsor wouldn’t pay to have the suit made.
UW: And once he got the qualifying time, what happened after that?
RM: I was put in contacet with Sander, the agent guy. He forwarded the design to the manufacturer, which was Lorini — they make cycling suits as well as speed skating suits. And they said they liked the design, but it wouldn’t work at all.
UW: Why not?
RM: On speed skating suits, they use different materials in different areas, depending on friction and stuff —
UW: In other words, all those things I was asking you about a few minutes ago, which I guess it would’ve been good for you to have known about beforehand.
RM: Yeah. Phil didn’t really know about it either. Anyway, they sent me this diagram that showed all the zones where I couldn’t have any graphics or color changes — from the knees to the stomach area, and from the top of the shoulders to across the chest. And I could only use four specific colors in those areas: black, dark blue, marine blue, or red.
UW: Because those areas use a particular fabric?
RM: It’s not even fabric, really — it’s like this rubber compound. It’s strange stuff. Anyway, in those areas they can have a solid color, but they can’t print a graphic. Except for the sponsor logo, oddly.
UW: Hmmm, interesting. Was Phil disappointed?
RM: At first, yeah.
UW: So did you have to revise your design, or did any of those other 19 concepts fit into the guidelines they gave you?
RM: I thought about going back to one of those earlier designs, but I decided to revise the one Phil liked and make it fit within the parameters they set.
UW: And then you were good to go?
RM: Almost. Instead of using the version I provided, they had me create a “flat” version that would show how the suit would look if it was lying flat.
UW: And once that was all settled, how long did it take to go from art to part?
RM: About a month.
UW: And did they literally make just one of these?
RM: Yes, there’s only one.
UW: And what does that cost?
RM: I have no idea, and I don’t really want to know.
UW: And by now, Phil has worn it in competition, right?
UW: Were you nervous the first time he put it on?
RM: I was nervous the first time he got it. They added some moisture-wicking side panels that ended up changing some of the graphics, so I was worried he wouldn’t like that, but he ended up loving it. Although I’m still slightly bitter about it myself.
UW: Have you actually been present for any competitions in which he’s worn this suit?
RM: No. I have seen the suit in person, but not during a race.
UW: What does your sister think of it?
RM: She likes it.
UW: Would you say this whole process has enhanced or strained your relationship with her?
RM: I don’t think it’s done anything one way or the other. But I think it’s helped my relationship with Phil, because it gives us something to talk about.
UW: If you had to do this whole thing over again, would you do anything differently?
RM: I would like to have known about those side panels, because they ended up changing my design. But I took those into account when I designed the Ukrainian suits.
UW: Let’s talk about that. How did you get that gig?
RM: Sander came back to me and said he liked what I did for Phil and wanted me to do more designs. It was kind of a short schedule, because the World Cups were about to happen.
UW: When was this?
RM: Last fall.
UW: Was this also for free?
RM: Yeah, because the Ukrainians don’t have a lot of money. But at the time I was thrilled, because I really enjoyed doing Phil’s suit. So sure, why not?
UW: Is there a connection that Phil comes from Ukrainian heritage, and then you end up doing the design for the Ukrainian team?
RM: No, that’s a complete coincidence. The only connection is that Sander is involved with Phil and with the Ukrainians.
UW: Why did the Ukrainians want their old design replaced?
RM: They had that one for a couple of years and they were just ready for a new one.
UW: And how many Ukrainians will be wearing the design you did for them?
RM: Technically, it’s the entire team. But I’ve seen photos of two different skaters, and that could be the whole team right there.
UW: And did they give you any design parameters for this one?
RM: No, again, I was on my own. Except this time I knew about those areas where I couldn’t have graphics or color changes.
UW: So they just turned you loose.
RM: Yeah. I probably shouldn’t get too used to this, because that’s not how it works out in the professional realm, but I’m gonna milk this one as long as I can. I like the freedom.
UW: So how many versions did you do for the Ukrainians?
RM: I only did five ideations, then I picked the one I liked best and did a few color options for it. Then I sent it to Sander [along with the flat version] and figured he’d come back with some requests for changes. But by the next time I heard from him, they already had it in production!
UW: And was this another one-nighter?
RM: Yeah, just a couple of hours. I work really fast.
RM: No, I’d be rooting for Phil.
UW: And what if either Phil or the Ukrainians are skating against the Americans.
RM: Hmmm. I’d definitely root for Phil, but I’m not sure about the Ukrainians. I just wouldn’t want them to make asses of themselves. Maybe they could just lose by a hair
UW: Has this whole experience made you more of a speed skating fan?
RM: Yeah, I’m actually keeping track of it now, mainly because it’s possible that I might do more designs for Sander, so I want to stay in touch with the sport.
UW: Do you think this could end up being a new career avenue?
RM: It seems like unless you’re working for Nike, you don’t make much money on these things. So I don’t know.
UW: Don’t you think it’s weird that speed skaters don’t wear socks? I mean, I know the skates are specially custom-molded to fit their feet and all, but it makes me uncomfortable just looking at it.
RM: Yeah. That’s probably why I didn’t take up speed skating myself.
Yeah, I knew there was a reason I never took up speed skating either…. Anyway, big thanks to Ryan for sharing his story.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Thanks to everyone who explained that the number on Dave Brown’s hip in this photo is the Seahawks’ 10th-anniversary logo (also visible here). This logo isn’t shown on Football Uniforms Past and Present, which makes this another reminder that we shouldn’t rely on such sites as the last word on uni history. … Here’s a new one: punishment by uni number. … And here’s yet another new one: changing your uni number due to adverse fan reaction. … Speaking of uni numbers: The Mets have put a countdown tracker on the outfield wall, counting down the number of games remaining at Shea. Prior to each game, someone gets to pull down the previous day’s number to reveal the new number (it’s currently at 74). Last night, play-by-play radio man Howie Rose mentioned that as the numbers get down into the range that includes baseball uni numbers, the team will have former Mets players remove the numbers associated with their uniforms. In other words, Tom Seaver will probably get to pull down the 41, Jerry Koosman will no doubt pull down the 36, and so on. Steven Colbert held up a Philly mashup jersey the other day. … Glenn Stern reports that Texas A&M’s practice jerseys now have NOBs –with huge lettering. “This is the first time the practice jerseys have had names,” he says. “The only thing I can figure is that the new coaching staff needed some help keeping track of all the players and learning their names.” … The minor league Kansas City T-Bones will be wearing prison-striped jerseys on May 28th. Why? Michael Vick Welcome to the Neighborhood Night (Vick’s prison is 15 minutes away from the T-Bones’ park). … The visiting clubhouse at the Trop has a hat stretcher (with thanks to Doug Simpson). … Peter Kaszczak forwarded a particularly nauseating case of logo creep. … The much-discussed blog Stuff White People Like (discussed primarily because its editor just landed a huge-ass book deal) has finally weighed in on uniforms (with thanks to Jonathon Binet). … Major milestone in this week’s New Yorker: this cartoon, which I believe marks the first instance of a NYer cartoon showing a baseball player with low-cuffed pants. … What’s the deal with that shadow on the Staples Center court? … This company appears to be a soccer version of Ebbets Field Flannels (as forwarded by Peter Kurilecz). … PBS’s excellent The American Experience series will air a Roberto Clemente documentary next Monday night. Man, check out the texture on that undershirt — I love that. … The Louisiana-Monroe baseball team will wear camouflage jerseys on April 29th for “Military Night” (with thanks to Chris Mycoskie). … Remember Packers seamstress Marge Switzer? Here’s another “team”-specific seamstress, of a more disturbing bent (fascinating find by Hugh C. McBride). … The Twins almost didn’t get to tribute Jackie Robinson on Tuesday, because their 42 jerseys were sent to Minneapolis instead of Detroit. Fortunately, equipment manager Rod McCormick managed to improvise — full details (plus info on third base coach Scott Ullger burning a hole in his pants) here (with thanks to Karl Anderson and Jon Marthaler). … “That’s Deion Sanders on the left,” says Greg Riffenburgh. “He’s wearing a pair of Nike’s football cleats on the baseball field, though I’m sure they were customized (metal spikes instead of replaceable conical cleats) for the diamond.” … This trend of giving jerseys to coaches is so lame (with thanks to Anthony Congi). … Josh Homan reports that Adidas has come out with a new lacrosse stick, the AdiStrike, complete with lots of triple-striped details. … Max Weder wrote in to mention that the cover of last fall’s Ebbets Field Flannels catalog was painted by his wife, Jennifer Ettinger. A gallery of her baseball-related work, which features lovingly detailed uniform elements, is available here, and you can see some of her hockey, golf, and other paintings on her web site. … Pretty amazing sneaker site here (with thanks to Don Montgomery). … Rare photo here of Stick Michael in a Bosox uni — he never actually played for them, although he was went to spring training with them in 1976. That photo is yet another gem from Steve Dewing’s mind-blowingly great photo site. Speaking of which, Steve says, “The Expos had the whitest home uniforms, followed closely by the Dodgers” — a reference to the slightly off-white hue of most pre-polyester uniforms. … Here’s yet another insight from Steve’s collection: You probably know that the 1973 Pirates wore a “21” sleeve patch in memory of Roberto Clemente. What you might not know, however, is that they wore a completely different memorial during spring training: a black rectangle, which looks like it was affixed with Velcro. That last photo also shows a bygone protocol: a catcher keeping his shinguards on while on deck with two outs. That was a fairly common sight in the ’70s, kids. … In volleyball, the libero usually wears a contrasting jersey. But Jeremy Brahm has found something different: a libero wearing a colored bib. “I’ve never seen this before,” he says. “It’s supposedly from the 1996 World Grand Prix, but the libero was only adopted by the FIVB in 1998, so maybe this was a trial in a tournament.” … Chad Moeller wears No. 19, so why does his catcher’s helmet have No. 6? (Screen grab courtesy of Michael Romero.)