Furniture designer Zac Lindemann used to do it all by hand. He would sketch, model and produce each item himself in a woodworking shop — a process that took up to six months and could cost thousands to make a single piece.
But Lindemann knew if he was ever going to transform furniture design, his side job, into something he could do full time, he would need to pick up the pace. Big time. That’s when he met the founders of fledgling tech company Unbranded, who were looking for designers to sell furniture through their website.
How it works: A designer sketches a piece, then hands it off to Unbranded. Visitors to the site rank the item and leave comments and feedback. The design then goes to industry experts for critiques, potential customers who say what they would pay, and manufacturers to see if production is possible for the price. Along the way, the designer can make refinements. Finally, Unbranded manufactures, sells and fulfills all orders.
For a designer like Lindemann, this approach changes everything.
“Having a resource or a partner like Unbranded really allows me to validate my designs before I make any investment in actually producing them,” says Lindemann, 26. “Without them, it was up to me to go out, singlehandedly talk to people about my designs, get feedback, which without a portal like Unbranded is a very tedious and time-consuming task.”
Sameer Dohadwala, who founded the company with Samer Saab and Max Greenblatt in 2012, says the service has made and sold 12 furniture designs so far, with about 200 more in varying stages on the site. This week, Unbranded launched a new version of its site that makes the critique and refinement processes more transparent.
Unbranded pays for all stages beyond a preliminary sketch, and the designers receive 5 percent of each sale, a bit higher than the 2 or 3 percent industry average, according to Dohadwala.
“There are a million sites out there that curate goods that people are already producing,” Dohadwala says. “The amount of people that can actually produce [furniture] is so small compared to all the people that have great ideas. There are just so many people that don’t have the time, money or knowledge.”
Dohadwala says working with local manufacturers — like Jagoli and BKE Designs, both on the West Side — allows for small batches and quick turnaround. Unbranded is also working with boutiques and pop-up shops so customers can see items before purchasing them.
Unbranded’s prices may be a stretch for more Ikea-familiar wallets — items now on the site include a $750 coffee table and a $500 wooden chair. But people are willing to shell out more for furniture they won’t see in their neighbor’s living room, says Ali Lipson, senior retail and apparel analyst for research firm Mintel. She said 55 percent of consumers surveyed in 2012 said they look for unique, interesting designs, and three-quarters are willing to pay more for quality furniture that lasts.
And a brick-and-mortar presence is still important, Lipson says, because 66 percent of potential buyers like to see and feel furniture before they purchase it. It worked for Eric Gannon, a senior associate at architecture firm Gensler, who purchased folding stools when Unbranded had a vendor setup at the Gensler office. He says the local focus and one-of-a-kind quality were what drew him in.
“It certainly latches on to the idea that even some of the larger furniture retailers are promoting these days,” Gannon says. “If you go into like a Crate & Barrel or West Elm, they have these limited-run local design sort of lines and you’ll see that they’re selling art that’s in a run of 500 or they’re selling a piece that has this fairly custom, raw look. I think that’s becoming less of a novelty and more of a legitimate desire for the customer base.”
For now, Unbranded is counting on word-of-mouth marketing from potential customers like Gannon — designers and creatives who’d be interested in posting sketches and offering feedback.
“It takes a lot of effort to get the first couple thousand users really engaged and invested in the community,” Dohadwala says. “So we are really trying to create features that are valuable to designers to keep them coming back and participating.”
Image of fold tables courtesy of David Greene of Iron and Wire.