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If you’ve been inside a children’s library or hospital, you may have spotted the work of Blake Ratcliffe, ’93 (XP-62), and his company, TMC | The Makers Creative: whimsical children’s chairs and tables outfitted with rabbit designs, blossoming trees, and butterflies, or play spaces and houses in the shapes of sailboats, trees, and lighthouses.

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Ratcliffe didn’t have children’s furniture in mind back when he enrolled at Chicago Booth. The University of Michigan grad had been working as a playwright, a freelance writer, and a filmmaker, all while running Young People’s Theater in Michigan.

“I had stitched together half a dozen jobs,” Ratcliffe says. “It was fun and I was young and I loved it.” 

But Ratcliffe met the woman he wanted to marry, Sherri Moore, and decided to settle down. He took what he thought was a side job at a Xerox subsidiary, and ended up staying 13 years doing early-internet development and helping to found what would become ProQuest in Ann Arbor, a global information-content and technology publishing company. While at Xerox, he decided to get an MBA, but after graduation Ratcliffe realized to keep going he’d have to uproot his family and move to Silicon Valley. Instead, he quit and spent the summer at home with their daughter—who would become his and Moore’s inspiration—thinking about what he wanted to do with his life.

Ratcliffe and Moore’s varied backgrounds all culminated in The Makers Creative. Launched in 1998, their venture was a children’s furniture line designed for public spaces. They made a few initial products, loaded a truck, and, “in a final, crazy throw of the dice,” drove to the annual conference of the American Library Association, where their ideas took off immediately. 

“In the pre-internet days, libraries usually looked calm. Their architectural design was often limited to light, medium, or dark oak. We came in with wild colors and modern, Scandinavian designs,” Ratcliffe says. “That’s really become our specialty.” 

From his time running a community theater, Ratcliffe was comfortable raising funds and creating inventive ways around a low budget. But it was Booth that taught him everything he needed to know about the full scope of running a business, from corporate structure to NPV analysis. And having personal business connections via other students he met in the program was crucial, he says. 

Now Ratcliffe and Moore’s company has become an industry leader in contract furniture and architectural components, all made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. TMC’s work can be seen everywhere from the UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco to the Columbia Heights Public Library in Minnesota.

You also might have caught it on social media. The Parent+Child Carrel went viral in January 2022 after someone spotted it at Fairfield Area Public Library near Richmond, Virginia. It’s a desk that’s connected to an enclosed play area, enabling a caregiver to work while a child plays adjacent, making libraries a more inclusive and effective public space for working parents.

The desk was designed in collaboration with library director and single mother Barbara Weedman, using components from TMC’s Learn/Play early learning systems. 

“Collaboration with customers,” Ratcliffe says, “is often how TMC discovers new ideas.” Social media grabbed ahold of this new idea, and it blew up their business, leading to news coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Times of London and on Good Morning America—it even got a shout-out from The Drew Barrymore Show. “We were lucky,” says Ratcliffe. “The product seems to resonate with everyone.”