Lascaux, Funded by Betaworks, Launches Social Art App Mixel for iPad

11/23/11Follow @jpruth

There are plenty of art and photo-sharing websites and apps on the market, but New York startup Lascaux Co. believes its free app Mixel offers a fresh angle by letting users share images to create collages. The company was co-founded by Khoi Vinh, former digital design director with The New York Times, and Scott Ostler, co-founder of image chat community dump.fm. The Mixel app, released in November on the iPad, lets users edit and combine images by using the tablet’s touch features.

Vinh says Mixel is a way for the average person to turn their photos into art. After pictures are posted with the app the images can be borrowed—in whole or in part—by other users. Mixel is the first app released by Lascaux, which raised $600,000 in seed funding this month from Betaworks, Polaris Venture Partners, and Allen & Company. Vinh also put a $100,000 TechFellow award he received last December from Founders Fund and New Enterprise Associates toward founding the startup.

Lascaux currently operates out of Dogpatch Labs in New York and is named for the site of cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Currently Vinh and Ostler are the only cave artists in the startup, though they plan to hire up to four others over the next six months. “We’ve been able to do a lot with a little and I love the model of staying very lean,” Vinh says.

Mixel is geared to appeal to laymen, says Vinh, who in the past loved to doodle and create photo books to share with others. In addition to cropping, reshaping, and mashing images together, Mixel users can follow each other’s work based on the collages they are interested in.

Vinh says while there are other art apps on the market, he believes many users do not work with them regularly. “They play with them a little while and then forget about them unless the user is confident in their ability to make art,” he says. Such apps may appeal to professionals and dedicated hobbyists; Vinh believes they are missing a social element to keep other users engaged.

He says he saw an opportunity to combine art with social software and iPad’s gesture controls. “Social software is going to transform many things, and art is on that list of things that are ready to be transformed,” Vinh says.

Mixel tries to differentiate itself from other art apps by letting users remix each other’s collages and set them alongside the original version for comment and comparison. “It’s not just one image; it’s several images that come together to form a unique expression from each user,” Vinh says.

Much like art is not an exact science, neither is forming a startup. Prior to the release of the current app, Vinh put his own money into developing prototype software that let users draw cooperatively in real-time on the same digital canvas but while using separate iPads. He ran into challenges in adoption because drawing can be a personally intimate form of expression. “It was uncomfortable for people to use drawing as a way in to making art,” he says.

That led to the current approach, with users creating collages with shared images. “Everybody can sit down with magazines and scissors, cut stuff out, combine it together, and have fun doing it,” Vinh says. He says Mixel includes social elements for pushing the art out to Facebook and other social networks for comment.

Vinh has some 15 years of experience as a Web designer and user experience designer. He also worked in graphic design in print before making the transition to the Web. In 2001, he founded a design studio called Behavior, which has worked with banks and content publishers such as The Onion and HBO. Lascaux is Vinh’s first technology startup. “This is quite different,” he says.

More features are in the works for Mixel to provide users more powerful editing tools, Vinh says. “We want to let you customize your presentation on the Web so people can see your body of work in the right context,” he says. The company is also working on improving distribution to get the app in the hands of the broader masses and not just early adopters. That will include reaching out to schools, more artists, and other organizations. “Our real challenge is to turn non-artists, people who wouldn’t dream of making art, into people who are open to the idea,” Vinh says.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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