There is a truly bizarre chair in my apartment that has been named “the bird chair.” I came across it on the side of the street when I first moved to Chicago, poor and furnitureless, and lugged it home. It’s a sherbet colored, cat-scratched, bird bedazzled armchair and yes: people love it.
My weird bird chair is just one example of how having some really cool and unique furniture in your place can show off your personality and make all of your friends super jealous (or just confused). Chicago startup Unbranded Designs is making sure that better and more flavorful furniture options continue to make it into the mainstream with a website helping designers and furniture lovers come together to get some very unique pieces made.
Think of it as a Threadless for furniture—Unbranded Designs lets creators post their work on the website and users give feedback on what they like the most. If there’s enough attention on a particular piece in the community, Unbranded Designs’ founders get to work on finding a manufacturer to produce a limited run of the product.
We sat down with co-founder Sameer Dohadwala to discuss how stepping outside of Ikea into the sunlight may be painful at first, but will ultimately make you a more interesting person.
What was the inspiration for Unbranded Designs?
We had an idea to build a piece of furniture that we weren’t seeing anywhere. We thought, How hard can it be? We went out and we tried to build it ourselves and we failed miserably.
We went around and started to find independent designers to help us build our vision for this piece of furniture. We found two really interesting things: the first is that it was hard to find a lot of these designers, and the second thing was that they had all these great designs that weren’t getting made.
We set out to build a platform that allows designers to just focus on design and get them out to consumers and the community.
Could you briefly take us through how a piece goes from inception to manufacturing?
Typically designers come to us with an idea -- anything from a basic rendering to a fully fleshed out product. They’ll share that on the site where people will offer feedback and support for different pieces through voting and commenting.
Based on that and our own internal vetting of what we think has commercial appeal, we’ll pick specific pieces. At that point we’ll work with our network of manufacturers that are local and regional. Based on the materials being used and volume we’re trying to drive we’ll pick a manufacturer and determine the structural soundness, the pricing, the materials, and all the specifics of the final product.
Why should people buy artisan furniture over Ikea or Target pieces?
The main thing is most people don’t have a ton of design diversity options. Furniture is really cool because it’s not only functional, but there’s a design aspect to it; it tells a story about who you are. Being able to offer people a really wide variety of really unique, creative designs helps you better express yourself.
I also think that there’s a really cool aspect to having unique stuff that everyone else doesn’t have. We’ve seen things like Kickstarter and Etsy take off because of this very basic idea that people really love designs that are unique and things that have a story behind them.
We really focus on trying to build a story around these pieces, doing limited runs, and telling the designer’s story so that people can build a personal connection with it.
Do you see the collective consumer choice model that your startup and other startups like Kickstarter have championed as being the future direction of retail?
I do and I think it’s a product of the way the world is shifting. Furniture is a very old school kind of inefficient industry in a lot of ways. There are layers and layers of middlemen, showrooms, resellers, wholesalers, manufacturers, etc.
Part of it is just being able to centralize and make it a little more streamlined, but the other aspect of it is that the world works differently now; you can leverage that technology in really interesting ways. Over the past 50 or 70 years these companies that have gotten really big are really good at producing a small number of designs in high volume, ultimately limiting the number of options on the market.
That’s changing. There are ways to leverage technology and open the funnel up now so that we can really produce more than just these few designs.
What advice would you give to any entrepreneurs looking to start their own artisan-oriented business?
We’re obviously big proponents of the lean startup methodology. I think that no matter what you’re building, you can think it’s a good idea, your friends and family can think it’s a good idea, but ultimately you have to find ways to talk to your customers and figure out if they think it’s a good idea and get them to actually pay you for it.
What I always say is, “Find the problem and then go validate the problem.” Don’t guess that your customers will want the product, instead talk to them and find out.
What does 2013 have in store for Unbranded Designs?
We have our product catalogue and it’s constantly shifting and changing. We’re going out and continuing to sell those to an exclusive set of designers and consumers. We’re going to continue to build great products, continue to get designers’ names our there, and we have a couple exciting new features that I think are going to really facilitate those two things that we’re going to be rolling out in the next couple of months.
Unfortunately it’s a little early to be talking about that but it’s a lot more coming from the community building side and really driving good branding, sales, and exposure for designers in our community.