June 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Helga doesn’t drink. Please keep beverages away.” That sign is a gentle reminder for people not to go remotely close to Helga with anything potable.

Helga, however, isn’t a woman strangely averse to hydration; instead, she is a highly sophisticated Trotec SP 1500 flatbed laser machine from Austria, one that can cut and engrave with breathtaking precision and accuracy down to 1,000th of an inch.

The affectionately nicknamed machine is what MTRL Design (pronounced like “material”), located in downtown’s Mastercraft Building, uses to create its distinctive custom chairs, tables, frames, boxes, cutting boards, coasters, signage, touch tablet stands, cell phone holders, puzzles, games and, honestly, just about any other object you might imagine. Helga’s laser can cut through almost anything from wood to acrylic but is also delicate enough to engrave glass, leather, and even paper.

Founded by partners Josh Powell and Nick Mauer in 2012, MTRL Design does more than create products with Helga. The design studio also handles design and creative services, which include brand identity and graphic design. But it’s the partners’ unique creations that frequently generate buzz. That’s because aside from being aesthetically appealing, Powell and Mauer’s custom objects are made from sustainable materials, an approach markedly different from the majority of the manufacturing industry, which uses wood treated with formaldehyde and other chemicals.

Their sustainable material is bamboo from a fair-trade-certified company in China. The bamboo arrives in flat sheets similar to plywood. Bamboo, though, is nothing like plywood. Not only is it an organically sustainable and readily renewable material, it also has a tensile rate stronger than steel and has both anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. The duo also uses almost no glue and minimal hardware. Rather, the clean cuts make assembly quick and easy by creating interlocking pieces, which are then shipped flat to diminish the carbon footprint even further. “It’s a really holistic approach,” notes Powell.

The design studio has a strong client base that includes a wide variety of businesses such as architectural firms, restaurants, breweries, and bars. For example, the firm created Masonite tree shapes for the Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Lincoln as well as coasters for Plank Seafood Provisions, Secret Penguin, and Cunningham’s Bar in Omaha. MTRL Design additionally creates orders commissioned by individual clients that have included items such as a remote-control airplane and keepsake boxes. Recently an archeological team in Jerusalem even contacted the studio about creating a model of a city dating to 500 B.C.

While it might seem ironic that a cutting-edge contemporary machine is rebuilding an ancient city, it’s indicative of how far-reaching MTRL Design has become. “Everyday someone walks in the door and asks us to come up with something unique,” says Powell. “It’s hard to keep up, and we need to bring on someone else. We’re at a stage now where we need to.”

To make Helga rise to her fullest potential, that’s probably a very good idea.