TAIT Design Co. founders Matthew Tait and Audrey Elkus recreate nostalgic toys such as the model airplane and yo-yo for modern times.
By Julie Yolles
Photography by Dan Lippitt
Growing up, Matthew Tait’s favorite toys were broken phones and VCRs that his parents gave him to play with.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been weirdly obsessed with taking things apart and seeing how they are made,” Tait, 35, says. “My goal was to be able to design anything and build something incredibly iconic.”
During Tait’s off-hours as a full-time graphic designer and associate creative director, his hobby of metal and woodworking was burgeoning into product development.
“I got tired of making ads and apps on the computer. I wanted to make something physical and experiential,” says Tait, who recently moved to an apartment complex for artists in East Dearborn.
A lover of vintage toys, Tait decided to redesign the classic balsa wood airplane kit. So, by day, he’d work at his advertising job and, at night, he would cut and screen-print by hand the Turbo Flyers. In 2013, he launched his taitdesignco.com website and sold out all 100 units in the first day at $18 per Turbo Flyer. He’d package the kits himself all night from his apartment in Detroit and ship them out in the morning on the way to work.
“I didn’t know anything about mass producing,” says Tait, who sold 5,000 airplanes that first year.
“Based on the success of making the balsa airplane kit, I decided that my next nostalgic toy launch would be the YOYO — the oldest toy invention in the world,” Tait says. He introduced the solid maple hardwood Sling-Slang YOYO in 2014.
The next summer, former Cranbrook student and Bloomfield Hills resident Audrey Elkus was home — having just finished her freshman year at Wellesley College — and working for The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit nonprofit.
“I saw Matt’s website online and reached out asking if there were any summer positions available, thinking there was a large team behind everything they made,” says Elkus, 22. “Then I found out it was a one-man show. I was excited to work with Matt. It was perfect, really, because we were both weekend warriors.”
By the time Elkus went back to Wellesley, she had aborted all plans to be a business consultant in California or New York after graduation.
“I saw the opportunity to help make the company really grow, and it resonated to source locally and design products that would make people have more joyful, playful lives,” says Elkus, who started talking with Tait about making TAIT Design Co. a full-time reality for the two of them after Tait quit his day job in September 2015.
Since that time, they have won several awards for the Sling-Slang YOYO — “We beat out Barbie when we received a first-place Dieline Award for Consumer Product Packaging Design,” Elkus says proudly — the Perpetual Calendar and a kinetic sculpture called the Precision Mobile.
“The Precision Mobile was made as a showpiece and a chance to experiment working with metal. It wasn’t planned to add to our product line,” Tait says.
Elkus graduated a semester early in December 2017, moved to the West Village neighborhood a week later and became a full 50/50 partner with Tait on Jan. 1, 2018. Their in-house team includes Tait, Elkus and three paid students from Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies who handle all the design, prototyping and final assembly themselves at TAIT’s Jefferson-Chalmers studio in a refurbished Detroit post office.
“What’s unique about our line is that all of our products are 100 percent USA made, with 75 percent of our vendors in Detroit,” Tait says.
More than 250 stores across the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum in New York, Restoration Hardware, CB2, West Elm and The Conran Shop in London, carry TAIT’s toys and expanding home and office goods. Tait and Elkus are busy for the holiday season, having just released a solid maple and aluminum wall clock in five colors and a nostalgic Turbo Flyer hand screen-printed plywood ornament.
As TAIT Design Co. continues to flourish, a large part is due to the Quicken Loans Community Investment Fund. In June, Quicken Loans held the second Detroit Demo Day competition at the Music Hall in Detroit. More than 500 Metro Detroit startups, small businesses and nationally expanding companies applied to pitch their company for an opportunity to win their share of $1.2 million. TAIT Design Co. made it to the final cut of 15, where each company made a 90-second pitch to a hometown audience of 1,500. Seven ultimately won in three categories. TAIT took second place in the Grow division, earning a $200,000 zero-interest loan.
“Because of this award we are able to double the amount of orders to the Detroit manufacturers we currently work with, expand our product line, increase our marketing efforts and strengthen our customer experience,” Elkus says. “It was definitely nerve-wracking to pitch in front of so many people, but we practiced for weeks nonstop, so I knew we’d be ready to do our best.
“It was a great night for Detroit all the way around, and we were just so happy to get to be a part of it.”