Wake County

Aly Khalifa gave Raleigh its SPARK

Aly Khalifa is a founder of SparkCON, which has grown from a small event to a major downtown festival in downtown Raleigh, N.C. in its 10th year.
Aly Khalifa is a founder of SparkCON, which has grown from a small event to a major downtown festival in downtown Raleigh, N.C. in its 10th year. clowenst@newsobserver.com

As both a designer and engineer, Aly Khalifa has solved all kinds of problems, creating products that make a mess-free cup of loose-leaf tea, for instance, or a better way to attach a water bottle to a bike.

Lately, he’s tackled the challenge of making a completely recyclable shoe that doesn’t require toxic glues. And fittingly, he debuted his newest invention at the scene of his highest profile innovation to date – SPARKcon, the open-source creative festival that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Khalifa co-founded SPARKcon with his wife to address a different kind of problem – Raleigh’s murky cultural identity – by showcasing and uniting the city’s wide variety of creative talent.

The first event drew about 250 people to what was largely a brainstorming session aimed at developing Raleigh’s creative culture, buttressed with public art and performances. It grew as groups of volunteer organizers developed ever more events and activities based around their areas of interest, or “sparks.”

For this year’s SPARKcon, which began Thursday, about 60,000 people were expected to converge downtown on Saturday and Sunday at 12 different “sparks” devoted to everything from graffiti to food to theater. Khalifa’s new line of custom shoes made their debut Saturday during fashionSPARK, which showcases local designers.

Sarah Powers, who as director of the Visual Arts Exchange now heads SPARKcon, credits Khalifa’s vision of a festival completely open to all sorts of creative ideas for setting the event’s unique tone and allowing it to grow far larger than any centrally planned event could.

But she notes that his influence goes beyond one event. Khalifa is continually working to connect people and push new ideas into action, from gatherings at his Designbox studio to his neighborhood’s quirky annual parade, Kirby Derby.

“He’s always solving problems and creating new things,” says Powers, calling him the “Pied Piper” of the city’s creative community. “Don’t go to him with an idea if you don’t want to see it happen, because he’s doesn’t just sit back. He’s also willing to do the work.”

Rebellious youth

Khalifa grew up in the suburbs of New York City, the fourth son of an Egyptian father and a mother from New Orleans. The family had lost its financial footing when political turmoil forced them to move from Egypt to the United States before he was born, creating intense career pressure.

“We were always told that we could be anything we wanted, as long as that was a doctor, lawyer or engineer,” Khalifa says.

Always creative and a bit rebellious, he grew up sneaking into the city for entertainment and building all manner of personal transportation, such as recumbent bicycles and a homemade skateboard with roller skate wheels.

Seeking to combine his design interests with a more stable career, Khalifa sought out the only college where he could study both engineering and product design – N.C. State University.

He earned dual degrees, experiencing the steep divide between two fields that are both dedicated to creating, but in vastly different ways. In his work now, he says, he uses both the creative design side and the more technical engineering side equally.

“Sometimes I don’t really know the difference,” Khalifa says. “It’s just different ways of thinking of how to solve a problem.”

He got a job out of college with Performance Bicycle largely because of his experience with inline skates. His next job was with the federal government, designing robotic systems that could take air samples in wind tunnels.

But he soon decided to strike out. He and wife, Beth, founded the Designbox studio as a collective of professionals creating their own products and working for clients who needed all kinds of design solutions. Their core clients were outdoor companies, and Khalifa worked on issues created by outdoor activity – such as waterproof cases for iPhones and fasteners for mosquito nets.

But his collaborations have led to a wide variety of projects. One of them, devised for a friend who owned a tea shop, is a one-piece infuser for loose-leaf tea that gained national attention. He later designed a similar device for coffee; Seventh Generation bought that product line last year.

He’s also worked extensively with shoe companies, and has taken frequent trips to Asia, where he learned about the toxic materials used in the vast majority of shoe factories. The idea struck him years ago to design the shoe that launched his company, Lyf Shoes.

“It’s hard to be a creative person without having a lot of ideas in the wings,” he says. “They sort of simmer for a while and then there’s this moment where it’s like, ‘This is real. Let’s do it.’ ”

For SPARKcon, the moment came in response to a “best of” list that counted Raleigh among the nation’s most creative cities. He and his colleagues were surprised by that designation, but felt challenged to help make the moniker part of the city’s identity.

“If we want to be the creative hub of the South, how do you show people that?” Khalifa says of those early talks. “How would you nurture that?”

A week later, Khalifa came back with a one-page document outlining his idea for an open-source festival that would allow creative people of all stripes to collaborate and showcase their work.

From SPARK to shoes

SPARKcon is, to many casual observers, unnervingly loose. In its first few years, Khalifa says, he would constantly be asked, “What is SPARKcon?” to which he would reply, like a psychiatrist, “What do you think it is?”

Each specific “spark” is organized by volunteers who plan events, do their own fundraising, and put on all the performances, events and activities.

A central group of leaders offer general guidance, though their title, “bobbleheads,” points to their directive to avoid responding to ideas with “yes” or “no” answers.

Once held primarily at Moore Square, the festival has expanded throughout downtown as the number of sparks multiplied. About five years ago, Khalifa turned over direction of SPARKcon to the Visual Arts Exchange, of which he is a board member.

“Each year, we have no idea what sparks are going to be there or what the events are going to be,” he says. “Allowing people to have ownership has galvanized each one of those groups.”

He’d like to see other cities adopt the SPARKcon ideals to build their own festivals, and has traveled to a few cities to discuss the idea.

But for now, he is focused on Lyf Shoes, which uses 3D printers to create insoles, which are then paired with other parts and textile uppers in designs chosen by each customer.

Customers who return their old shoes will get a discount on new ones. Inside the heel is a device developed at N.C. State that will track the wearer’s steps so that the next pair will be a better fit.

“The idea behind them is just like SPARKcon,” says Khalifa. “It’s about people making their own vision happen.”

Aly Khalifa

Born: September 1968, Bronxville, N.Y.

Residence: Raleigh

Career: Co-founder and director of innovation, Designbox; co-founder, SPARKcon; founder, Lyf Shoes

Awards: AIGA Raleigh Fellow, 2013; Eisenhower Fellow, 2012; Notable Design of the Year, ID Magazine, 2005

Education: B.S. Mechanical Engineering and Product Design, N.C. State University

Family: Wife Beth, children Mica and Zella

Notable: Khalifa was nominated for a Grammy award for the innovative packaging he helped create for a CD collaboration between David Byrne and Brian Eno.