By Ryan Hayter
The Lunch Room (TLR): Shelter is a basic need for mankind. What exactly do you do?
Terry Breaux (TB): I design tents. It’s not just about stopping the rain from getting in or about deflecting cold weather. It’s more about how you feel when you’re in the space – the livability. How easy is it to get in? How do you function inside? Is the natural lighting plentiful and pleasant? Does it make you comfortable? All of this goes into the design process. For four season tents you’re looking for security and strength while three-season backpacking tents need to be airy and light. Every design is different.
TLR: You’re probably one of a handful of tent designers in the world. How did you get into it?
TB: I went through the architectural program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I like the design training that they give to architects. You can design anything from a teacup to a skyscraper. I knew I wanted to do product design from an architectural standpoint. One of the visiting professors in our program went to work for Moss tents in Maine. The work they were doing with tents impressed me so, midway through the program, I took 2 years off to work for Moss before coming back to graduate.
TLR: Moss is an iconic tent brand. What was it like working for one of the early innovators in modern tent design?
TB: Moss was a smaller company so you got to wear a lot of hats. This was before computer design so I got my start with hands-on patterning, sketching on paper, sewing prototypes together and overseeing final designs through their in-house production. REI acquired the Moss tent brand in 1994 and I followed them to Seattle.
TLR: Where did you go from there?
TB: I was with REI for five years then took time off to travel. I jumped on my bike and rode for three years. I started in the UK, worked my way through Iceland then Scandinavia to Estonia, cut through Europe, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, China, and Pakistan. When you first leave everything and start traveling you’re nervous but after a couple of years of traveling it’s all you know.
TLR: Then you decided at some point to start working again? That had to be tough.
TB: It came to a point where I wanted to work again. I had to get my head around the transition back into the working world and not traveling every day. It wasn’t easy to jump back in where I left off so I went to another fabric design group in Portland, Maine, and worked with them for three years. In 2006 a design job opened up at MSR and I’ve been here ever since.
TLR: What are your priorities on a day-to-day basis on the job?
TB: My goal as a designer is to consistently meet customer needs, produce the product properly and ensure it gets delivered on time. Beyond the recreational group, I also work with the emerging market division and explore ways to improve shelters for disaster relief, the military, smoke jumpers and specialty groups. There is always something new in the works.
TLR: Does the job require travel and product testing in the field?
TB: Once or twice a year we go out and visit suppliers. It’s a hands-on visit working with the fabric companies, pattern makers and manufacturers. In the end it’s important to find the right suppliers who are equally innovative and can provide solutions to the new directions that we require for future products. Not all suppliers can do that.
I spend at least two straight weeks a year testing new products in the field in the Cascades and sometimes even in the mountains in the backyards behind some of our suppliers in Asia. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I’m out testing new designs.
TLR: What’s different about MSR tents?
TB: We come at it with an engineering approach. Other brands try to go as light as possible but MSR strives to find a balance between making it lightweight but still durable, warm, dry and comfortable inside. We can always make a shelter that is lightweight but if the customer is not comfortable, we’ve lost. The new Hubba NX tents are a great example of good design. We wanted to go lighter which required us to make the details such as the grommets for the pole connections smaller but equally durable. When you look at the individual parts, it’s insignificant but when you add up the total product, we were able to save a lot of weight.
TLR: What do you like about working at MSR?
TB: I really like coming to work every day. The company overall manufactures in Seattle about 80% of what we sell. The floor below our desks is a full on R&D machine shop and lab, and sewing facilities. No matter where our products are made, we’re hands on. We can solve problems on our own and then work directly with the suppliers. It’s very unique for the industry. We control everything down to thread performance and color and the minute details like stake loops. It’s a fun, rewarding environment.
TLR: Let’s say I want to be the next Terry Breaux. How do I make it in the industry?
TB: Unlike other professions, the outdoor industry doesn’t have a set career path. To get into the industry it takes a passion for the product, knowledge and experience. You have to love to ski, cycle, kayak, whatever in order to create product that will improve the experience. Companies are willing to bring people in who have that passion, the ability to communicate and have creative ideas. Sometimes you have to be willing to take any job just to get your foot in the door with a company you admire. Once in, they usually see a connection between your passion and producing great products.