Apr. 12—WASECA — Standing out from the crowd and offering a unique product for everyday use is usually a good recipe for thriving businesses; and Jon Lucca offers a product that can't be found anywhere else.
The owner of Waseca-based Twig Case Co. produces iPhone cases engraved with designs and artwork using paper composite panels — compressed recycled paper used for a variety of applications, from furniture to outdoor cladding for houses.
Richlite, a Washington-based company with a product with the same name, is one of the leading manufacturers of these panels and produces the material for Lucca's iPhone cases.
"Richlite behaves like ebony wood," Lucca said. "It's super dense. Unlike wood though, it doesn't swell and shrink as much."
It's made by soaking layers of recycled paper in a melamine or phenolic resin and then compressed under extreme heat. The result is a similar texture to wood, but more durable and flexible.
In 2011, Lucca's friend since kindergarten, John Woodland — who designs and makes hardware for electric guitars in the Twin Cities — reached out to him with an idea. Woodland had been working with Richlite to make guitar bridges for his own business, Mastery Bridge, and thought the material would be ideal for cell phone cases.
He had tried using wood before, but the cases kept falling apart within a few weeks and the durable and flexible Richlite seemed like a good fix, so Woodland and Lucca began experimenting with Richlite to create a prototype for an iPhone case. However, when they reached out to the company to explain their idea, the staff at Richlite didn't think it was possible.
"When we first brought the idea to Richlite, they thought we were crazy — that it can't be done," Lucca said. "So, then we went and did it. Then they were like, 'OK!' We were blowing some minds with the Richlite distributor."
A visual artist since childhood, Lucca developed wood etchings of an underground lair for one of the first cases — almost like a circuit board design — on his computer and then used a laser printer to etch the image onto a piece of bamboo that's compressed onto the Richlite.
"The bamboo is laid on top of the sheets," Lucca said. "That's something I developed with Richlite initially. We started with bamboo and eventually moved to walnut. Then the wood or the bamboo is pressed on and it's all one piece. There's no glue or anything like that."
Growing fan base
By 2012, Lucca and Woodland opened Twig Case Co.
Eventually Woodland left the company to focus on his own business, and Lucca became the sole owner. As Lucca began to create more cases, he sought out local artists, including Mankato Jason Knudson, who created a couple designs for Lucca in the early days of the company.
"He had invited me over to his workshop and showed me the materials and the wood etcher he was using," Knudson said. "At the time I had never seen anything like it. It's one of the most unique ways of presenting art and something that's usable and is going to protect your phone.
"I ultimately thought that it was one of the coolest ways that my art had been represented on any product."
Henderson-based artist Tom Kolter also contributed an octopus design around that time and both artists' works are available on the company website, Twigcase.com.
"I had been doing T-shirts and other designs for a while; it was just a matter of talking to him (Lucca) about what kind of feel that he wanted for those cases. He wanted something that was dynamic and brought the viewer into it."
The images engraved on the walnut pressed into the Richlite continued to expand after that and Lucca developed more varieties of cases and sizes, from the iPhone SE, to multiple sizes of the iPhone 12. What's striking is just how detailed and intricate the artwork is.
"It's certainly a learning curve because no one had done laser engraving of Richlite to the level of what we were attempting to do with high-resolution, super-detailed engravings," Lucca said. "I can get about seven to eight different tonalities depending on how I run the laser and color the illustration."
Woodland also had some contacts in the music industry that led to Lucca designing custom phone cases for some popular bands; Sonic Youth, Wilco and Nora Jones were all customers.
"Nora Jones and her whole band, we did cases for them," said Lucca. "We took a nice picture of them all holding a case. They were just like, 'pick a design.'"
When the iPhone 6 came out, the Chicago Blackhawks hired Lucca to create some cases for them as well. All of that exposure led to more attention from customers not just in the United States but internationally.
"I have a Japanese distributor that's been doing well," Lucca said. "For a few years, we were pretty white hot in Russia and did a bunch of email interviews for Russian pop magazines."
More recently, Twig Case Co. has expanded to other Richlite-derived products beyond just iPhone cases, including minimal wallets and guitar picks.
"I had plenty of scrap from failed pieces and I ordered some stock that was a little more suitable to do it," he said.
IPhones, which were once a novelty, have now become a necessary feature in everyday life. The practicality of cellphone cases means demand will likely continue for years to come. For Lucca, that means keeping a close eye on Apple, the producer of iPhones.
"I'm pretty certain Apple is going to continue making iPhone-shaped phones for at least the near future," he said. "It's great to work with great artists, and it's really upped my design chops myself."