Factory Fires, Undemocratic Design, and ‘Making a Whole Gender Look Bad’: Adventures in Furniture of the Future
Jessica Banks, creator of the shape-shifting Ollie Chair, and Sejun Park, who’s launching an updated line of modular furniture, talk about opportunities and challenges in the realm of reinventing furniture.
In 2017, Jessica Banks launched her first Kickstarter project: an apartment-friendly chair that elegantly unfurls when you need it and collapses flat when you don’t. Apartment Therapy called it a “small space wonder.” Designboom said it’s “one of those pieces that will surprise anyone who sees how it graciously folds and unfolds.” The MIT alumna went on to create more improbable design pieces — like a levitating coffee table — and grow her engineering and design firm, RockPaperRobot.
Sejun Park debuted his first iteration of Aalo last year and has been tweaking and testing it ever since (read more about his process here). The concept is to offer modular furniture that is easy to assemble, tailor to a specific space, and take with you when you move.
As Sejun got ready to launch his project—live on Kickstarter now—we paired these pioneers of interior design for a conversation about what it takes to create forward-thinking pieces.
Kickstarter: What do you do? How do you introduce yourselves at parties?
Jessica Banks: At parties, I don’t actually like to say what I do. It unleashes a whole bunch of shit that I don’t love to talk about sometimes. Being a CEO isn’t my favorite role, and if I talk about it, I tend to get a little complain-y. I don’t like to do that. If anything, I say that I’m a roboticist or inventor, and then I let people ask questions or walk away.
Sejun Park: It’s funny Jessica mentioned that because I don’t think that I’ve ever introduced myself as a CEO to anyone either, for the exact same reasons. I tell people that I’m the founder of Aalo, but I do engineering and design work there.
How did you both get started in furniture? What was the problem you saw or the thing you wanted to change?
Banks: Two things. One was that furniture always seemed so present and static, and that with everything I learned in robotics [at MIT], I could impart aspects of elegant mobility to those objects. A table basically always declares its presence in a room, even when you don’t need a table in the room. We expect so much more from all of our other devices — to kind of have multiple personalities or other functionalities — and for some reason, we don’t have that same requirement for our furniture. So I thought, “Well, what if furniture could be other things — even empty space — on demand?”
The other is probably based in the fact that I am uncomfortable with aesthetic commitment, choosing a single design and having to live with it forever. Engineering furniture that transforms or disappears felt like a way to reconcile my love of design and my need for flexibility, evolution, and changeability.
Park: For me, it stemmed from a personal problem that I had with moving so often. I’m a former manufacturing engineer at Toyota and Lexus, and they have multiple plants around North America. My role was to oversee the assembly line and manufacturing design for different vehicle launches, so if a vehicle is being manufactured in Texas, I would be there for a few months overseeing the project, then I’d fly back to Canada for another vehicle launch. So yeah, I moved a lot. I think in 2015 I lived in four different places.
In one of those places, I had a small den that I wanted to outfit with custom shelving. I encountered the problem that IKEA and other fast furniture brands mostly can’t adapt to your space, and if you can find something that’s more flexible, chances are the prices go into the thousands. So I was kind of frustrated. I went to IKEA and decided to cut up a shelving unit as a DIY project, only to find that it was made out of honeycomb cardboard once I cut it. I had to throw out the whole thing. So I started thinking about more flexible and adaptable furniture that’s easy to manufacture and that doesn’t cost too much.
Where were each of your creative practices 10 years ago?
Banks: I actually don’t think I have a creative practice — or it’s akin to course correcting as a practice. But 10 years ago I was at, let’s see, Eyebeam, this really cool tech and design space that was in Chelsea at the time. Then a bunch of us from MIT started a collective — DaMM, or Dark Matter Manufacturing — in Downtown Brooklyn, and I started working on projects out of there. The roof was leaky and it was cold, but we were all making it work and we loved the feeling of gritty comradery.
Park: In 2010 software startups were starting to become a thing, and I knew how to design and code, so I launched a mobile coupon application called Coupra at the end of my first year in university. We had pretty good success in terms of traction in the first few months, but my heart wasn’t in it. I realized that I like making physical things, not something that just lives on the screen. I decided that if I were to launch a company again, it would be that.
What were some other lessons you learned in that first startup experience?
Park: Early traction doesn’t mean anything until you have a product/market fit. I was just trying to get press and hype up what’s to come. But we didn’t really have a tangible product to show people. When the early interest came in, we looked like a bunch of fools who didn’t know what we were doing. So it’s something I focused on for the Aalo 2.0 launch on Kickstarter. We want to have all of our ducks in a row on manufacturing, product development, and design before presenting it to a mass audience.
Maybe this is a good time to jump over and ask Jessica about her experience with Kickstarter. Did you have your model and manufacturing all set up?
Banks: Yes, we had everything pretty set up. I am super systems oriented, so I tend to invest early in things I am new at. And honestly, I felt like I had to get it right because, as a woman manufacturer, I felt like I had to represent! I was worried about making a whole gender look bad. That’s grandiose, but it helped everyone get their Ollie Chairs on time.
Even though we had a plan and a partner, we ended up switching manufacturers during the process to bring things closer to home — from China to Montreal. This is all pretty ironic in the end because — I’m not 100 percent sure, but yeah, actually, I am 100 percent sure — that manufacturer lit fire to their own factory last year.
Banks: They had already been horrible: They were behind on deliverables, they would sometimes hold product, they had no documentation or quality control system. For someone like me, who takes comfort in a spreadsheet, their lack of professionalism was a nightmare.
Then I found out they were shipping the wrong product — it was a less expensive wood than what we had specified — and I was like, “Okay, I’m coming to the factory to see everything.”
I didn’t hear anything back from them about my trip, and then the day I was supposed to arrive, I learned, through lawyers, that there was a fire and all our products had been ruined by water damage. And I was like, “First of all, they’re water-resistant chairs, so that doesn’t even make sense. Second of all, your timing is very incredulous.” We got all the inventory back to Brooklyn in the end, but I lost about four months of sleep.
Sejun, what about you? How are you getting ready for your launch next week?
Park: I haven’t been getting too much sleep for the past two weeks. We’ve been focusing on getting our campaign page ready, getting the videos finalized, and reaching out to press.
It helps that we launched our first product a year ago, and we actually sold out of our first batch. We were able to build up our email list and some following on Instagram and Facebook. We’re trying to leverage those core communities to really kick-start our campaign once we launch. We’re also engaging previous founders and companies who have launched their projects on Kickstarter and learning from their experience.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten? Who are a few of the people who’ve helped you along the way?
Banks: When I was first going out to get investment and talking to potential investors, I realized that I was stuttering when I tried to talk about the numbers. I did all the math, I did all the projections, I had all the spreadsheets to back it up, so I didn’t know why I was starting to falter. My friend Ayah Bdeir, who has a company called littleBits, told me, “State your assumptions first.” It was a genius tactic, and it felt so obvious!
Everyone knows that raising money is a bit of a game, but I think either because I’m a woman and/or an engineer and/or very sensitive to truth, numbers have a certain gravitas to me. They are the language of validatable reality, even if it is of a projected future reality. So it was really helpful for me to be able to say, “Based on X,Y, and Z, this is what I see and believe can happen.”
Park: Last year I was lucky enough to partake in a startup accelerator called Y Combinator. There I got to meet Eric Migicovsky, the founder of Pebble. He’s got his fair share of experience with Kickstarter, crowdfunding, and building a company from scratch.
At the time I was struggling to understand what my customers really wanted. We had thousands of people coming to our website, but maybe fewer than 10 actually buying stuff. Eric told me, “When you’re testing out your product for the market, you need to figure out what makes people actually put down their money.”
It’s not just that you should talk to your customers and say, “Hey, what do you need? What are you looking for? Would something like this help your life?” Your questions should also include, “How much would you pay for it?” and, “Will you pay for it?” If those numbers don’t make sense in terms of your business model, then chances are you won’t be able to make it a viable business.
What does success look like for each of you?
Banks: I think real success would be walking into some random person’s house and seeing one of our pieces.
Park: In terms of our upcoming campaign, hitting our goal would definitely be a good success metric.
My personal hope for maybe five years from now is that this product can really help democratize the design process. Instead of hiring designers to come up with different collections, we want to open it up to people. They’ll have all the tools, right? Aalo is a Lego-like system, so people who really want to get creative can. I’m not throwing shade at IKEA again, but they’ve been advertising “democratic design days” and their approach isn’t really democratizing the design process.
Banks: The notion of democratizing design is an interesting one. I used to speak about it and even tried to build a business model around it, and then realized that I had been speaking in theory, not practice… at least not the practice of hardware. There are certain elements of design that you can democratize and others that you can’t. If I were to say, “Here’s how to make one of these levitating tables, go for it,” that’s not democratizing design, that’s giving someone directions or blueprints. Of course, she could take the knowledge and build upon it to make new things, but to me that is just how innovation works anyway — no need to democracy-wash it. Building a business around sharing those directions — in our case, trade secrets — is another thing entirely. Because if you then don’t provide support for the people who want to follow the directions, the exercise becomes fairly useless.
I think this is different in Sejun’s case, because the products are modular. Aalo provides building blocks and a layer of instruction on top of that. Whether you call it democratizing or directioning, this kind of structure works because the whole business is built on helping others build.
I, on the other hand, mostly want other people to buy. Sure, things can be customized, but they get what I decided the object is, more or less. Because our objects change themselves, our focus is more on letting people decide how to use something, not what something is. Fine line, perhaps, but the result is that we patent our stuff now. And I would be pissed if someone else started to sell it.
Park: Yeah, one of our earliest learnings from talking to all these people is that they don’t tend to like blank canvases. When I first conceived of Aalo, I wanted this to be like a DIY structural building tool. But when I went to people and said, “Hey, look, you can make all of these things — what would you like to make?” they were mostly confused, like, “Where do I begin?”
There’s a fine line between what you actually need to build a framework, and providing enough direction to help everyday people get creative. They can’t just work off of a blank canvas. It becomes chaotic. But providing a framework and direction for people to build upon is pretty powerful.