An Eichler Owner Wins for a Dog Design

BarkerFun dog
Bella tussles with a 'Treat Clincher' during a visit to Jim Mravca's Eichler. It is the first product from BarkerFun, a firm he created with this sister. Photo by Morgan M. Hamel

For just under $4,000 you can buy a doghouse for your pet that really sort of does look like an Eichler. And for much less you can buy mid-century modern-styled raised paired bowls for your doggie's dinner and beverage service.

But are they really modern? Modern in the way Joe Eichler was in building houses that solved real-world problems as never before in a way that clearly displayed how this was done?

Or modern like Charles and Ray Eames, designers whose furnishings and other products artfully combined function with an aesthetic that grew out of that function?

  Jim works
BarkerFun is run from two modern homes, Jim's and his sister's custom home in Austin. Jim (above) does much of the designing on his laptop. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Consider then BarkerFun, a new design-production firm owned by the brother-sister team of Jim and Susan Mravca, whose first product, just hitting the market, is the 'Treat Clincher,' which accomplished its job efficiently, in a way competing products do not, and with a kind of industrial chic aesthetic that grows entirely from its function, with no added frills.

And what’s more, like the homes of Eichler, there is a social consciousness behind it – both for dogs and for their oft-beleaguered owners, and for the environment.

“The big thing we’re really happy about is the enrichment capability of [the Clincher],” says Jim, who has lived with wife Theresa for 35 years in a Sunnyvale Eichler, where they raised three children. “It’s enriching for dogs, and happier dogs are better dogs.”

“Babies like to suck to soothe themselves. And dogs like to bite and chew on things, and it’s soothing for them,” he says, adding that a humane society in Illinois, near where he and Susan grew up, is using the Treat Clincher on its wards.

Treat Clincher
The 'Treat Clincher' is designed to stimulate dogs, be kind to furniture, and last forever, Jim says. Lucy is the name of Susan Mravca's dog, whose problems with other treat holders led to the creation of BarkerFun. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“A lot of these dogs have been in tough spots,” Jim says. “You know, they’ve been left out in the street, right? They’re afraid of people. Somebody approaches a kennel and the dogs are either barking at them or cowering in the corner. The dogs are not going to get adopted. If they can start feeling comfortable, it’s a lot easier to get that dog friendly and get that dog adopted.”

Susan Mravca, an entrepreneur who says she has started eight companies, wasn’t thinking about kennels, though, when she realized she had to deal with her French pointer, Lucy, “a highly active dog.”

Young Lucy wanted to chew, chew, and chew. Susan and her husband would hand out a “bully stick,” one of which Lucy swallowed. “She almost choked to death,” Susan says. Susan bought Lucy other pet products designed to hold treats in place to prevent such an outcome.

“They were all plastic. Some of them didn’t last a day,” Susan says. “Nothing worked.”

“When there’s a problem that cannot be solved,” she says, “that’s when our entrepreneurial brains take over.”

Work area
Jim has turned the garage of his home into a work area, with a 3D printer (lower right) among other tools. Here he examines knobs and wrenches for the 'Treat Clincher' that were produced as prototypes. Photo by Dave Weinstein

So they started the firm of BarkerFun. Jim, an engineer with an MBA, has worked for decades in product design of a wide variety. He says, “It seems like every time I was at a company, it was something different.” He still has a full-time gig with a small firm selling 'wireless metrics' software to telecom firms.

Of BarkerFun, he says, “We’re pretty much two people and a dog, that’s the size of the company, OK?”

Soon Susan, from a modern home in Austin that was inspired by her brother’s Eichler, and Jim in Sunnyvale were designing what would become Treat Clincher. They worked first in plastic, turning out “dozens and dozens and dozens of things,” Jim says. He turned out prototypes in his home workshop (the garage) using his 3D printer.

Nothing proved tough enough. “We were amazed at how strong dog’s teeth were,” Jim says.

“Plastic was not the answer, yet that is what almost all dog toys are made of, plastic,” Susan says.

Jim and Theresa
Jim and Theresa Mravca have been living in their Sunnyvale Eichler since 1987. Photo by Dave Weinstein

So they turned to aluminum and stainless steel. The Clincher will last for generations, Jim says. Susan says: "We wanted something that was recyclable, sustainable, and really beautiful."

Much has been thought out – how to attach it without damaging furniture, how to tighten the hold on the chews, structuring the Clincher's mouth to hold objects of various shapes and sizes.

The devices are produced near Austin using small machine shops. Jim and Susan plan to keep refining the device, based on input from customers. The Treat Clincher goes for about $200, online now, one day in stores. “People do love beautiful products and are willing to pay for quality,” Susan says.

Both are proud that their first product won a prestigious award – the kind given to firms like Ferrari, they brag. It won a 'Good Design Awards' prize in 2021, a competition created by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, of all people.

“We see this as just the beginning of it,” Jim says of the Treat Clincher. “We’re going to slowly develop products as we meet more people in the dog industry who bring up more issues and more problems.”

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