The world’s largest manufacturer of miniature cinder blocks creates all of its products by hand, using the same processes as the products’ life-size counterparts but on a tiny scale.
In 2015, graphic designer Mat Hofma solved a tiny problem. Why wasn’t there a market for realistic miniatures? Within three months, Erik Polumbo, a college buddy, and businessman, was on board, and Mini Materials was born where so many genius projects are: in a garage.
Mini Materials’ products are construction materials created by hand on a tiny scale—on five tiny scales, to be exact: 1:24 (that of a toy car); 1:18 (that of die-cast models); 1:12 (like dollhouses); 1:6 (like Barbie); and 1:4 (the scale for radio-controlled and modeling cars). Unlike so many manufacturers of similar items—Legos is their biggest competitor—Mini Materials makes nothing from plastic and they outsource no labor; everything is produced in the U.S. Even their cinder blocks’ concrete is mixed, poured, and removed from palm-sized silicon molds by hand. (“Arthritis is real,” Erik adds with a smile.)
Mini Materials’ innovation lies in its disruption; instead of creating specific products for niche markets, the company can cast a wide net of novelty, because their products are, in their perfection and scale, just that irresistible. And instead of searching the world over for the cheapest chain of supply, Mini Materials has taken their production into their own hands—often literally. The result is a throwback to bespoke manufacturing combined with an aesthetic that is modern and playful.
But Mini Materials’ novelty is “novelty with a purpose,” Erik says. Recently, they have moved into branding—imagine tiny cinder blocks painted with a company’s logo—and also into education, with a special focus on supporting STEM disciplines. This year, their products made it into the pages of a school-supply catalog in the Midwest, while architecture schools already use Mini Materials to build out their blueprints. The team is eager to see how far they can go in both of these directions, and in any case, they are certain there is more to their market than simply construction miniatures.
Mat Hofma & Erik Polumbo
A bit like its products, the Mini Materials team is powerfully small. There’s really just Mat, Erik, and Alli Goldwag, who manages the company’s entrancing social media presence. Because each team member has vastly different skillsets, it’s easy for everyone to “stay in their own lanes,” Erik says; no labor is lost to overlapping duties or tasks. When everything is going so well under a team of three, it’s tempting to imagine what a company double their size might accomplish. But that line of thinking—that bigger is always better—is exactly the concept Mini Materials has defied, and to great success.