Chris Bale and Travis Smith on Modern Design, Modern Bears, and Their Appearance this Friday at Metro Retro

If you ever find yourself struck by an idea while sitting poolside at the Arizona Biltmore, chances are you should pursue it. It worked for Irving Berlin, who composed "White Christmas" next to the pool, and it worked for Chris Bale and Travis Smith, who were on vacation when they dreamed up a business that could become the next Martha Stewart empire -- if Martha were a Bear, that is.

Launched on a Facebook page, Modern Bear is Smith and Bale's lifestyle media company that combines their two passions: the gay bear community and mid-century modern design.

The duo just released Modern Bear's first book, Guide for the Modern Bear, a cheeky handbook to navigating bear life. The book explores bear hangouts across the country and identifies the subculture's various characters and body types.

The "modern" half of the book comes in its mid-century-inspired design, executed by Jason Hill, a Phoenix artist and designer. (Smith also lives in Phoenix, but Bale recently relocated to the mod haven of Palm Springs.)

On Friday, Smith and Bale will be signing the book Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Phoenix Metro Retro. We caught up with the two new authors to talk about the bear community, writing a gay-straight crossover book and, of course, Martha.

How'd you two meet?

Bale: Travis and I met when he came into the clothing store I used to have in Phoenix, Retail Laboratory. Travis had a store in Washington, D.C., called Good Eye. My store was mostly clothing, but it had a very modern look, and I even had some objects you could put in a mid-century modern setting. We could tell we were kindred spirits. Fast forward to now, and we have about 13,000 "likers" on our Facebook page, and it's a really cool and diverse community. We've found over the last year-and-a-half that we aren't the only bears interested in design. But we also try and have something for a lot of different people.

Smith: That's true. Modern Bear has transcended not only the bear scene and the gay scene, but has cropped over into a lot of straight fans that had no idea that the whole bear community existed. They had no idea of all the names for the body types we have.

Bale: The straight community doesn't really have descriptives like that. Women have come to us and said, "My husband is a straight otter! My husband is a straight bear!" We want Modern Bear to be a media and info outlet, which it already is. And we want to publish more books besides this one.

What kind of book is coming next? Will it be another gay-straight crossover?

Bale: We're in the planning stages for our cookbook. All our books will be rooted in the modern and mid-century world, whether that's architecture or design. We'll always have the elements of the bear community, too. But we've found you can put that info in your content, and the gay guys will pick up on it, and the heterosexuals will just say, "Oh that's interesting," but they'll sort of just glaze past it.

Smith: It doesn't hurt that [Guide for the Modern Bear] turned out so darn huge. We hired a brilliant young local artist named Jason Hill, and that was one of the smartest things we did. He had such a fresh eye and vision for the book and the way it should look. At our signing in Palm Springs, we had little ladies buying that book for their nephews, and we told them that they were Goldilocks for being a friend to bears. It's all done so tongue-in-cheek, and it's cute and fun, and it's really had a nice crossover.

Other than the big, burly men, what draws you so much to the Bear community?

Bale: The bear community in general was a reaction community for all the gay guys who didn't fit into the '80s and '90s Calvin Kline ideal of male beauty that was hyper-realized in the gay community. Out of that came the idea that, "No, I don't have to go to the gym. I don't have to shave my chest." And the bear community, by being rebellious, decided it was going to be very inclusive. On the other hand, design and architecture and all things aesthetic can be intimidating to people. I don't want that. I want us to be educational and be able to say, "This is an Eames chair, and if you like it, awesome. If you don't, that's OK too." There's always lively discourses on our Facebook page, and we wouldn't want it any other way.

What were your influences for the book? Did you have anything to model it after?

Smith: We both have a lot of respect for Martha Stewart and what she's accomplished with all of her magazines and books and products and TV shows. If we could get a third of that action, that would be fabulous.

Bale: Charles and Ray Eames come to mind, along with Jonathan Adler and his partner Simon Doonan. Not because they're together -- Travis and I aren't partners -- but we like that model of having someone to bounce ideas off of.

Smith: It helps to be able to play good bear, bad wolf.

Bale: One of us has to be saucy.

Smith: But I'm the cute, cuddly one.

Self-publishing is a long, difficult process. How have you stayed sane?

Bale: We believe that it's not a matter of if Modern Bear will be very successful, but a matter of when. Travis and I are both very creative people -- we're not the kind of people that can sit down and write 30 pages in one night. We're not super linear thinkers, but we just forced ourselves to get together two times a week and always get at least one thing done at that meeting. And at the end of a year and two months, we had our book done.

Smith: Remember, both Chris and I have full-time jobs. We worked on the book on weekends and on nights, and we were committed the entire time. The more you work on something and the more empowerment you give it, it really takes on a life of its own. My opinion is that if things kind of fall into place easily from the get-go, take that as a sign that you are stepping into the right place and you should continue. Yes, Chris and I are both kind of rose-colored glasses thinkers, but we look at all challenges as lessons to grow from.

Phoenix Metro Retro is at 708 W. Hazelwood St. in Phoenix. Bale and Smith will be signing from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, March 30. Learn more about Modern Bear or buy the book ($19.95) online at modernbear.net.

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