In its March issue, Sunset magazine called him "REI's Frank Gehry of nylon and aluminum poles." So how would David Mydans, who today celebrates his 25th anniversary as an REI's gear designer, describe himself? "Just a dirtbag climbing bum with an art degree."
People who know Mydans will tell you that both descriptions fit, summing up both the scope of his work and his free-spirited personality—artist, climber, bartender, telemark skier, rogue electrician and, ultimately, award-winning gear whiz.
"The fact that I found a company where I felt comfortable staying, and that a company felt comfortable having me for 25 years, is actually much more of a testament to the company than it is to me, the individual," Mydans says. "I'm an extremist. On skis, I like steep, I like deep, I like trees, I like speed. I bounce off walls all the time. If REI hadn't found me, maybe I'd be living underneath some freeway."
Instead, for a quarter-century the Mind of Mydans has been the brains behind the blueprints of a broad assortment of popular REI-brand tents, backpacks and sleeping bags.
If, for example, you have ever spent a night in an REI Half Dome/Half Dome Plus tent, one of REI's all-time best-selling products—originally introduced in 2002 (earning a Backpacker Editors' Choice Award), revised in 2006 and redesigned in 2010, when it captured additional awards from both Backpacker and Outside magazines—you have slept inside a Mydans masterpiece.
"We get excited when we can create a brand-defining product," Mydans says. "But when you come up with a category-defining product for the whole industry, something that reaches beyond your own brand, that's really exciting."
The path Mydans, now 65, followed to reach his position in his profession and in life qualifies as unconventional.
Born in Boston, the son of a chemical engineer who ironically was a nylon specialist ("He was a pretty sharp dude," David says), Mydans followed his family to North Carolina, New Haven, Conn., and New Jersey before enrolling in Bard College north of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (in Annandale-on-Hudson, actually), where he earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology. Later he picked up a bachelor of fine arts in painting from the Boston Museum School, then a Masters of Fine Arts from both from Tufts University and the Boston Museum School.
"When my dad graduated from college in the '20s, science was going to save the world," Mydans said. "He had that feeling about wanting to participate. That's the reason he went into science, and I think that's the reason why I went into art. I was in college in the late '60s, and art was going to save the world. I wanted to be on that boat."
He moved to New York City to establish himself as an artist. Priced out of SoHo, he set up camp southwest of that famed neighborhood in what was then called Washington Market, known today as Tribeca.
"We young artists called it pioneering in the urban wilderness," Mydans says. "I had a 3,000-square-foot loft space with a first-floor loading dock, and I was paying $300 a month for this space. Can you believe that? Today that space—with a loading dock?—would be worth millions."
Specializing in acrylics, Mydans lived the romanticized life of the starving artist, working assorted side jobs (bartender, gallery staffer, museum worker, unlicensed electrical contractor) to stay afloat while trying to make his mark as an artist.
"I was wiring lofts and studios and workspaces for other artists," he recalls. "I remember hot-wiring DC current in wet vaults underneath streets. How I survived some of those things, I don't know."
The Call to Climbing
At the same time, a parallel passion beckoned to Mydans: rock climbing.
"When I was 13, my parents sent me on this 'round-the-country national park tour," he says. "You were able to do one special thing during the summer. There were several choices, and I chose to take the Exum Climbing School in the Tetons. I was just totally hooked. I was a climber for the rest of my life."
That did not change when he lived in New York City. "I still think that the finest rock climbing in the world is in the Shawangunks, 2 hours north of Manhattan," he says. "So even when I was living in New York as an artist, every weekend I was up at the Gunks.
"I can remember beautiful fall afternoons walking down cinder track carriage roads under white conglomerate cliffs, a rope around one shoulder and a rack around the other shoulder. I'd look up through the trees at this beautiful long line of cliffs, guidebook open in my hand, trying to find that route.
"I remember huge thunderstorms while walking back along the carriage tracks, stopping at these gazebos along the way, taking off all of our gear and our clothes and running around naked in the rain. You could do that in those days. The Gunks were not discovered yet."
Mydans struggled to make a breakthrough in the art world, "You had to be a salesman," he says, "and the thing you had to sell was yourself." He remained enthusiastic about the outdoors, though his fire for climbing cooled a bit when a pair of friends were killed in a 1969 avalanche on Nepal's Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh highest mountain (26,795 feet). A divorce in 1977 reinvigorated his drive to climb.
Outdoor gear had been an interest of his since age 14, when he rebuilt his mother's Singer sewing machine to create his own tent. "It was a pretty innovative little tent for back then," he says. "It was an A-frame tent that stood up by itself. It had a closeable roof vent. The fly was sewn to the ridgeline of the tent. It could be unrolled to protect the tent or rolled up for better breathability. It was a pretty advanced little thing. I wish I knew what happened to it."
A Man with a Van, Plus Conversations with the Great Spirit
In the late 1970s, when he split his time between New York and climbing destinations in the West, Mydans made another tent.
"I actually got a patent on it and licensed it to Chouinard Equipment (known as Black Diamond today)," he says. "That's where things really began. I was living out of my Volkswagen van. I was living in New York making money for 6 months, then spending 6 months on the road climbing. I'd spend a month or so in the Tetons, then when things cooled off I'd go down to the (Yosemite) Valley."
His future took shape during a Yosemite visit in 1984. "I did a vision quest, a Native American-style vision quest," Mydans says. "I scrambled by myself up on top of Liberty Cap (adjacent to Nevada Fall), and I went up there with a pack of cigarettes for my tobacco offering, a space blanket and a bottle of water. I spent 3 days and 2 nights up on Liberty Cap.
"At some point in my delusions, I guess, Wakan Tanka—that's the Sioux name for the Great Spirit—came to me and told me I should stop messing around climbing and go hawk my tent.
"It was just this incredible serendipity. I totally adore serendipity when it happens. So I come down from Liberty Cap, I walked into the climbers' campground in the Valley, and I tell you the first person I bumped into was a rep for Chouinard Equipment. He said to take my tent to them.
"I called them, and they said to come on by," he recalls. "So I drove from Yosemite to Ventura where I showed this little tent to Peter Metcalf, who is the CEO of Black Diamond now, and to Jamie Martin, his production manager at the time, and Paul Parker, the ski guru whose book taught all of the telemarkers of that era how to ski. They eventually ended up licensing my little tent and produced it for a couple of years."
Mydans eventually moved to Seattle. "My mom had loaned me a couple of thousand dollars so I could stay alive," he says. "I was really in that dirtbag-climbing-bum-with-an-art-degree mode.
"I called my friends at Chouinard Equipment and said, 'Dudes, you gotta help me find some kind of a job.' They gave me some names."
Right Time, Right Place
One of them was a Terry Shively, REI's product manager for climbing gear, who put Mydans in touch with Peter Langmaid, a director for an REI-owned subsidiary that manufactured REI-brand apparel.
"Peter had a job description for an equipment designer sitting in the bottom of a drawer in his desk for a couple of years," Mydans says. "It had no deadline, no open-close date. He was just looking for someone who might come along who might fit the bill. Three interviews later they hired me." It was 1987.
A year later REI produced its first Mydans-designed product, the Cyclops Bivy Sack. "It won what Backpacker magazine in those days called a Product Design Award," Mydans says. "Once again this was all very serendipitous. That's when what is now known as REI Private Brands was born. They made me the first product development employee. I call myself Patient Zero."
Mydans estimates he develops 8-10 products per year, and roughly 30 percent make it to market. "In baseball, that's a good batting average," he says. Most commonly associated with tents, Mydans has also designed packs and bags. His line of REI Halo sleeping bags for men and women won a 2009 Adventure Gear of the Year award from National Geographic Adventure magazine.
Inventive Design Demands a Little Daring
Not every brainstorm is a winner, of course. "I had this idea for a fabric for a single-wall tent that was going to dissipate condensation, sort of spread it out over the surface and let it drain off," he says. "I got someone to make this fabric for me, and I sewed a little tent out of it.
"In October I took it up to Rock Lake on Nason Ridge (just south of Washington state's Glacier Peak Wilderness), and it turned into a total Night on Bald Mountain kind of thing. This incredible storm came in. It was raining and blowing like gangbusters.
"My fabric failed entirely. I got soaked. Instead of dissipating condensation I think it turned into a kind of condensation magnet.
"I was physically and emotionally miserable. But you learn that way. There have been other not-quite-so-dramatic sorts of failures, but that happens. You've got to figure, if you're not taking risks and trying something new, and if everything you try works, then you must be really conservative what you're trying."
Mydans views the roots of his gear design philosophy not as old-school, but no-school. "There's no way I could get my job today," he says. "People we interview as designers today are all trained as industrial designers. I was a dirtbag climber with an art degree. I wouldn't know how to begin to design something like a wastebasket, I just know how to design gear.
"To me, a designer's core competence is coming up with product that is not envisioned by analysis. Some guy named Claude Levi-Strauss (a famed French anthropologist, 1908-2009) used to say that intuition is like a bridge that logic threw out over the abyss. If you don't have that gut intuition about where it's going, then all you've got to rely on is all that analytical stuff, nuts and bolts, but it doesn't have any vision to it.
"So I've always viewed as my core contribution I do is the commitment to the sport, and the sport is outdoor adventure—skiing, climbing, backpacking, hiking. That's the stuff I understand and the stuff I can design for, because that's what I think about every day."
Happily remarried—he met his second wife, Tracy, on a ski touring excursion on Mount Rainier's Fryingpan Glacier 17 years ago ("No one can outclimb Tracy, but I'm faster downhill")—Mydans marvels at the fortuitous turns his life has taken. Serendipity has been kind to this dirtbag.
"I've been lucky in love and lucky in work," he says. "REI has been an incredible gift for me."
Photos: Top 2 images and photo below (of the proud papa and his Half Dome prodigy) by T.D. Wood. All others courtesy of David Mydans and Rick Meade.