Faculty Impact - Jeff Nordhues

Posted: February 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM CST

Jeff Nordhues is a professor in Interior and Product Design at UNK. He and his wife founded a 'design and make' lighting studio in Kearney called Pax Modern. This entrepreneurial experience has allowed Nordhues to better teach his students in theoretical and practical ways.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Kearney spending my early years surrounded by business and construction while working for my father in his real estate company. I completed my undergraduate in Industrial Design at the Art Institute of Colorado, then spent three years designing and developing high end furniture and lighting before going back for my masters in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which I returned back to industry in new product development for another high end furniture company before finally returning to Kearney to start a family. I currently have an amazingly talented wife and two great kids.

Jeff Nordhues portrait
Explain your role at UNK and how you impact students.

I am a faculty member here at UNK in Interior and Product Design. I am also assisting with the pilot of a fabrication lab here on UNK’s campus. I love the fact that our program is housed in the College of Business and Technology. Design a lot of times can be viewed as unnecessary and an afterthought both in product and interiors due to its surface-like nature, when in reality, good design is a deep connection between the soft and hard sciences that goes beyond a superficial skin on an object or space – it uses facts and reality to make life easier by solving problems and providing real solutions to everyday hurdles. I think my greatest impact on the students is how I can utilize my industry connections and experience to model this connection.

What do you enjoy the most about your position at UNK?

Working with students on both a theoretical and practical plane. In my classes I am fortunate to teach the design foundation and history sequences, both of which serve as building blocks for all design in general. I enjoy moving with the students between the concrete and abstract and exploring how design and history principles can be used to better understand modalities that at first appear distant and complex. We have great students and these seminar style dialogues both in our studio and lecture environments are an awesome learning experience for both myself and the students. These frameworks are immensely broad in some cases and it is incredible to see students take ownership and make new connections that they can logically explain.

You and your wife started up a lighting studio called Pax Modern right here in Kearney, NE. Tell us about that process. How did you take that ambitious idea and make it a reality?

While it is very much a reality, it is also still quite a work in process. I would say that both my and my wife’s experience in the furniture and lighting world has been invaluable to begin. We started by making personal connections in regional locations where there are established maker scenes and shows. This has allowed us to hone both product and process on many levels, before moving into a larger scale (still extremely small comparatively speaking). I think one of the things we have done right is to take our very large aspirational goal and operationalize a clear path to that goal. We are still very much at the front end of that process with small incremental goals, but there really is no such thing as a shortcut for the growth and learning at each of the smaller steps. We believe this is absolutely crucial to a firm footing as the business grows.

Explain an unexpected difficulty that arose during that process. How did you overcome it?

It’s been a challenge to navigate the tricky waters between bootstrapping and adequate financing. For example, choosing when to purchase necessary equipment or to maintain cash reserves has been the most recent challenge. I’ve learned that most purchases can wait longer than I initially think and then more often than not I discover I can leverage the income from a new order or find a different solution. Patience and persistence is necessary in any entrepreneurial endeavor.

What is the most rewarding part of your work at Pax Modern?

I love solving problems and making new things, although I will be doing less and less of the latter as we continue to grow. One of the sectors that we operate in is custom residential and commercial fixtures. The very nature of custom raises many different complexities in the development process from design to manufacture and involves multiple stakeholders. The fact that I enjoy this problem solving and ever-changing complexity really makes the work enjoyable and rewarding.

What are your goals for the business in the future?

Our 2017 goals focus around two development areas – 1. Showroom representation – local, regional, and national. We will be installing a display later this summer in a showroom down in Omaha. We are also currently in process with an east coast showroom and hope to find a showroom in Kearney. 2. Contractor sales – We hope to provide a resource to custom home builders locally not only for standard fixtures, but also allowing them to provide the option for custom statement fixtures for their clients dining rooms, bars, and entryways.

Has this entrepreneurial experience changed the way you teach and interact with students?

Absolutely. I’ve always had a love of theory, yet I can be hyper practical and I think that this experience has heightened my awareness to the value of connecting the two. So in my classes I try to create boundaries on the “out there” theoretical framework by using the constructs of business. Both the theoretical and practical are needed for solving today’s complex problems and the experience with Pax allows me to make extremely accessible and tangible connections on many such levels with the students.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

It’s imperative to always keep learning. I’ve found that it’s equally necessary to learn from my own experiences by taking time to reflect on where I am and where I’ve been, as well as learning from others by frequently reading. And by reading I mean reading all genres – business, biographies, philosophy, fiction. I’ve learned just as much from Dostoyevsky as I have from Warren Buffet and Peter Thiel that has been essential to my entrepreneurial journey. My motto: read and reflect, do and reflect.

By: Emily Kassmeier

Category: Entrepreneur, Business and Technology

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