Not many designers — if any — feature a portfolio of work quite like Joey Ruiter.
From award-winning office furniture designs to a project he calls Snoped, a reimagined, black aluminum snowmobile that rides like a cafe racer, the Grand Rapids-based Ruiter is not your typical nine-to-five office furniture designer.
In fact, it’s his work with cars, motorcycles, boats and other transportation elements that has grabbed attention from nationwide media and enthusiasts alike.
“Some of my work is provocational,” Ruiter said. “It’s a piece of art. People will look at it and I want them to ask questions and for it to raise emotions.”
With his studio located in Ada, Ruiter’s bread and butter might be lending designs to some of West Michigan’s top furniture manufacturers — names like Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc. and Nucraft Furniture Co. — but he has turned heads over the years with his transportation curiosities.
In 2019, Ruiter teamed up with fellow conceptual designer Rem D. Koolhaas to host an exhibition called DISRUPTORS at the Los Angeles-based Petersen Automotive Museum, showcasing conceptual approaches to automotive design.
As a self-described minimalist in his trade, Ruiter generally begins each of his projects by first stripping an object down to its core only to build it back up in unique and unexpected ways.
One such example is his NOMOTO, a motorcycle concept where a metal, graffiti-clad body completely camouflages the bike against typical urban settings. The bike is also fully functional.
The Consumer Car is another highlight in Ruiter’s portfolio. Beginning with a 1993 Ford Festiva GL chassis and drivetrain, Ruiter created a hyper-minimal design that essentially looks like a black box on wheels.
The outrageous creations also include Reboot Buggy, an ultra-practical off-road vehicle that was featured in WIRED Magazine and was purposely stripped of its luxuries and frills that coddle the driver. Ruiter is also the brainchild of Tinnie 10, a triangle-shaped minimalist outboard motor boat.
Right now, he is building two electric cars, one modeled as a big 1960s-era American sedan and the other he described as “a monster — a completely ridiculous, over-the-top, go-anywhere, top-down, off-road vehicle meets ’30s race car.” The two designs are an exploration in how drivers can restore a passion for the drive despite the often generic, uninspiring design and features of electric vehicles.
“With electric cars, people tend to ask two questions: How fast is it and what’s the range?’” Ruiter said. “Those are boring questions. There is not much to ask about them. No one wants to pop the hood of an electric car and check out how many volts it is.”
Ruiter meets Buell
When iconic American superbike maker Buell Motorcycles relaunched and set up shop in Grand Rapids, it caught Ruiter’s attention.
“I read something about Buell being in town and I kind of reached out to meet with them,” Ruiter said. “I called (CEO Bill Melvin) and he told me to come by and check it out. I described what I did as a designer in town and some of my motorcycle work I had already done.”
At the time, Ruiter was working on pieces for a show at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, which included a custom-designed motorcycle. Melvin invited Ruiter to use Buell as a starting point.
While Ruiter didn’t ultimately use the bike for his finished project, the relationship led to collaboration between Ruiter and Buell.
Ruiter designed Buell’s recently unveiled 1190 Super Touring bike, sporting the ultra-modern look that has become a calling card of Ruiter’s work.
“Our super touring bike is a variation of the platform but is also a very broad market segment for motorcycles,” said Melvin, who owns Buell after his Grand Rapids-based liquidation company Liquid Asset Partners LLC acquired the assets in 2016 for a reported $2 million.
“(The design) is super cool. You look at it and you think that would be in a movie. When Matt Damon is stranded on Mars a second time, he’s going to hop on this bike and race to get to the rocket,” he said.
Melvin also said that, if the project is right, Buell would continue to tap into Ruiter’s design prowess.
“(Ruiter) is a disruptor and Buell, in the next 10 years, people are going to see that we’re disrupting things and doing things that people want to buy and enjoy but also have products that surprise people,” Melvin said. “There are some things we can’t go into quite yet, but we’re looking to have products that are going to surprise people and broaden the market.”
In February of this year, Melvin announced that the Buell Motorcycles brand is back and the bikes will be produced in Grand Rapids. Until that point, Melvin maintained low-volume bike production in Grand Rapids under the name EBR Motorcycles. The company earned the rights to use the Buell Motorcycles name in April of 2020.
The company is currently building out its advisory board and executive team, focusing on new products and their launch dates. Earlier in the year, the company announced that it would be releasing 10 performance models by the year 2024.
Limited edition Buell bikes are currently in production as the company’s leadership focuses on its larger plans and new models for 2022 through 2024.
“The timing is really set up nicely,” Melvin said. “There are a number of changes in the two-wheel market and we feel like those things line up very well for Buell.
“Also, the platform had been limited in the past through previous ownership and those shackles are off. There is a broader market available, so that’s really nice. And the setup for what we brought together here really allows us to take our time.”
Old brand, new design
With Buell, Ruiter faced the task of stepping in to design for a brand that has lingered in the market for 35 years, cultivating international loyalty and recognition.
“I’m pretty familiar with the Buell brand and what (founder) Erik (Buell) had done in the beginning,” Ruiter said. “He was definitely a leader in pushing the envelope from an engineering standpoint.
“Aesthetically, they’re beasts. For him, it was function way over form. … I think they got stigmatized early, but when you get to know the bikes more, they’re actually quite beautiful how they’re put together.”
Another design challenge Ruiter encountered was the fact that Buell bikes are generally tough to deconstruct and customize. For the final design, Ruiter wanted to “put an exclamation mark on the things Buell does well.”
Ruiter said that he is very interested in working with the brand to move it forward.
“I think carrying the brand forward will be really fun to do and see how we can push it forward,” he said. “The industry is changing really quickly. I’m curious to see how we can keep up with that without starting over.”
On an island
Ruiter continues to raise his profile in the design community despite the geographical barriers that come with operating out of West Michigan as opposed to one of the design epicenters on the coasts.
Ruiter has made frequent trips to events and galleries in both New York City and Los Angeles and said that many people in those circles don’t even know he lives in Michigan.
“It doesn’t really matter where you live today,” said Ruiter, who grew up in Grand Haven and attended both Muskegon Community College and Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). “Maybe five years ago, but not today. And, definitely not post-COVID. I’m actually working with more clients that aren’t local now probably because it’s more acceptable to not be there in person.”
But, for his contributions to the furniture industry — work that has cooled off during the COVID-19 pandemic — it does help to be close to many of the companies he works with on a regular basis.
KCAD President Tara McCrackin said technology has allowed designers to feel less pressured to migrate to one of the coasts in order to produce nationally recognized work. West Michigan is an attractive destination for designers for several reasons, she said, including being “design centric” with an increasingly innovative manufacturing base.
McCrackin called Ruiter’s overall work aesthetic “gritty glamor” that broadly applies design basics. She also called his acheivements a success for the local design community that “puts us on the radar — puts us on the map.
“It expands our reach and it draws talent to West Michigan.”