Jeff Davis took a gutsy step three years ago buying a rundown commercial property for $105,000 in East Germantown.
The 41-year-old father of two did so based on one simple truth: You can't fashion a serving bowl from a digital track of the Beatles - or any other recording artists for that matter.
But you can from vinyl. His company, Vinylux, uses predominantly 33s and 45s for its designs, although products involving 78s are coming.
The outgrowth of a school project while Davis was pursuing a master's degree in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Vinylux had gross sales of $425,000 in 2014, its best year.
"This is my little art project that is going on 13 years," Davis said recently at his 4,000-square-foot headquarters/workshop on East Cosgrove Street just off Washington Lane. "I was lucky enough to pick a material that meant so much to so many people."
So much, indeed. Since their introduction, vinyl records have served not just an entertainment purpose but a socializing one.
"To go out and buy a record and put it in your house on a shelf said something about who you were," said Davis, who, born in 1973, continued to buy them through high school, nearly 10 years after the 1982 debut of what would supplant vinyl - commercially released CDs. The first of those was Billy Joel's 52nd Street.
How Davis wound up turning old records into a profitable business, now with three full-time employees and one part-timer, was the result, in part, of good timing. When he began his master's program at RISD, "sustainability" had just become part of the lexicon in the design and manufacturing worlds.
The concept was a natural for Davis, who remembers having an "upcycling sensibility" ever since he was 4 and was "interested in turning Object A into Object B." One such endeavor involved dismantling a pinball machine and making another from a cardboard box, nails, stickers, and magic markers.
Having majored in theater set design at New York University as an undergraduate, Davis spent several years working as a set designer, technical director, draftsman, model builder, and art director. The offer of a job that would have been more administrative than creative was the impetus that sent him back to school.
"I just wanted to get back to making things, using my hands," he said.
A table project got him thinking about how they should be concave or at least include a basin or two, which led to turning a custom form on a wood lathe, and using that plywood form to mold plastic. The resulting rings on that mold reminded Davis of a record.
Next stop was a Salvation Army store to buy records, which he used to make his first bowls. According to Davis, a professor told him: "You'll probably sell every one of those you make."
Davis incorporated Vinylux in 2003, a one-man operation working from rented space in Brooklyn. Four years later, he moved his family to Philadelphia, where he could better afford to buy the kind of workspace he envisioned needing, eventually settling on the property in East Germantown in February 2012.
Vinylux sales are predominantly on a wholesale basis to retailers, but items are also available directly to consumers at www.vinylux.net, where bowls sell for $28, coasters $20, clocks $32 to $40. Davis doesn't recommend using the bowls to serve food - unless it's wrapped, such as candy - "as we do not know where the records came from."
Jon Davis, retail buyer at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville (no relation to Jeff) called Vinylux "an important product line for us because of its authenticity."
"I think the customers enjoy digging through the Vinylux collection to find their favorites. In a way, it recreates that feeling of digging through the bins in a record store trying to find that special album or song."
Like many small manufacturing businesses, Vinylux relies on so many others - a record distributor in the Lehigh Valley providing about 200,000 records a year, a corrugated cardboard manufacturer in Port Richmond, a laser cutter in North Philadelphia, a woodcutter in Brewerytown.
"That's one of the really exciting things about Philadelphia - there's so many different people who are very talented at making," said Andrew Dahlgren, a knitter and an advocate for the maker community.
It wasn't that long ago when Jeff Davis, who lives in Chestnut Hill, was thinking, "The future was selling Vinylux."
But now he's focused on developing new products, such as his latest: a guitar amplifier. And he's preparing to pay homage on a forthcoming holiday:
Record Store Day, April 18.