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CBRE Furniture Forum Sparks Launch of Two Industry Disruptors

Husband-and-wife team Jeffrey and Lindsay Braun.

Nearly two years ago, commercial real estate company, CBRE, embarked on a yearlong journey to uncomplicate the process behind furniture buying. The question was simple: What can we do better? In November 2017, the CBRE Furniture Forum released a list of 15 recommendations designed to unravel the complicated web of the furniture-buying process. The high-level, process-improvement ideas include, among others, bringing a dealer designer in as a sub to the A&D firm and increasing process efficiency.

Fast-forward to spring 2018, when the owners of a Los Angeles furniture company read the results and recommendations of the CBRE study with great interest. The report’s results prompted husband-and-wife team Jeffrey and Lindsay Braun to make a dramatic decision: sell their 17-year-old company, Jeffrey Braun Furniture, to pioneer something new.

Enter Platform, an in-house furniture design and manufacturing division of Unisource Solutions, and Emblem, a company that breaks the mold of contract furniture acquisition.

Lindsay Braun, founder and CEO of Emblem, explains what provoked the pivot: “There were problems and inefficiencies in the old model that drove Jeffrey and me nuts. We were frustrated with the multiple layers between our company and the end user. There were so many opportunities for incorrect interpretations and faulty assumptions,” she says. “It felt good to see the problems we were experiencing addressed in black and white by the Furniture Forum. Jeffrey and I were fully worn down by the current sales process, and we thought, Do we still want to do this? Is this solving the end users’ problem? How could we expand on this model?”

Addressing the Need for Enhanced Dealer-Designer Relationships

At the time, Lindsay and Jeffrey thought perhaps they could be a dedicated vendor for one of their strongest dealer clients, Unisource Solutions. But instead, Jeffrey was recruited by Unisource Solutions and now serves as executive vice president of Platform, its new, in-house design and manufacturing division—a direct result of the dealer-designer prediction from the Furniture Forum.

“We approached Unisource’s leadership with an idea and a feeling that we could all be doing a better job servicing customers,” Jeffrey explains. “I had designed furniture for several of Unisource’s clients over the years and worked with their team as a vendor. Rick and I started talking about the possibilities of doing away with the vendor layer altogether.”

Fox Aftershock / Custom seating, Platform by Unisource Solutions.

Rick Bartlett, president of Unisource Solutions, says his team had already been discussing the best way to innovate new solutions and create greater efficiency for their clients. “The timing was perfect,” Bartlett says. “We knew that our clients and the A&D community were actively searching for residential-inspired, ancillary furniture for their workspaces. The demand for this type of furniture was increasing, and we needed a new approach. Jeffrey’s knowledge of furniture design and manufacturing enabled us to innovate an entirely different solution.”

As part of Platform, Jeffrey is now designing custom furniture for clients at Unisource Solutions. In less than a year, Jeffrey and his team have installed furniture for Google, Warner Brothers’ Music, and Aftershock Games, helping each of these companies reflect its brand, culture, and vision in its spaces with bespoke furniture solutions. By integrating the designer into the dealer model earlier in the process, the company can condense the timeline and provide an open line of communication between the designer and the account manager/dealer.

Custom seating for Google Spruce Goose project, Platform by Unisource Solutions.

And Jeffrey’s not stopping there.

“We’ve designed an exclusive line of furniture available only from Unisource Solutions,” he says. “These are workhorse seating designs that every office environment needs, but because I’m working closely with local manufacturers, we also offer easy custom adjustments. Our goal is to give our clients more control, better design, and greater efficiency with every project.”

Streamlining Delivery Time Through Process Integration

While Jeffrey Braun was eliminating frustrations and boosting creativity at the dealership level, Lindsay Braun was working on an entirely different set of pain points. In the past several years, she had noticed more of her designer and dealership clients specifying and buying residential retail furniture instead of contract furniture. She was asking herself, How can I provide a quick and easy commercial-grade solution?

Lindsay acknowledged that Jeffrey Braun Furniture was simply not set up to take on this challenge, so she began working on Emblem: a vertically integrated contract furniture company designed with the lofty goal of delivering commercial-grade construction, fabric, details, and finishes in just three to four weeks.

Simply stated, Emblem is setting out to offer the online retail experience with commercial-grade quality.

Emblem’s Bend Sofa, Bend Chair, and Capital Chair.

Scheduled to launch this month, Emblem initially will offer 17 seating designs with seven fabric offerings and four metal finish options. Each piece is designed and built in California. Dealerships and designers will receive a trade discount, but business owners will also be able to buy online directly from Emblem’s website.

“I wanted to give designers and dealerships a quick furniture solution they would feel confident about,” Lindsay explains. “Emblem is beautifully designed. It’s built for high-use environments. Our textiles are commercial grade with stain resistance and a minimum 100,000 double rubs. Emblem has the same high quality that designers expect in furniture for their commercial projects.”

Responding to concerns about giving businesses a way to buy contract furniture without a dealer, Lindsay says, “Most of these companies are not engaging a dealer. They are buying furniture online because they aren’t being serviced by the contract furniture industry or the dealership model. The more we can help businesses understand the benefit of contract furniture, the more they will find value in a thoughtful, efficient dealership model.

“If a small business needs a sofa and two chairs for a lobby, I want to give them the autonomy to easily find pricing, make a decision, and buy commercial-grade furniture for their own space,” Lindsay continues. “When that same business grows and needs desking systems and other services, they will already see the value in contract furniture versus going the residential retail route.”

Jeffrey Braun, Executive Vice President of Platform and Lindsay Braun, Founder and CEO of Emblem.

When asked why they would sell their furniture business and take on the risks involved with launching two new companies, Lindsay and Jeffrey say the decision was simple. “This all happened in just one year after we heard the results of the CBRE study,” Lindsay states. “The study resonated with us and was a major factor in our decision. Jeffrey and I have always wanted to serve the industry and our clients in the best way we could, and these new ventures are the results. We did this because we believe this is the way the industry should function.”

 Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of Interior Design magazine. At ThinkLab, we combine Interior Design magazine’s incredible reach within the architecture and design community with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way. Join in to know what’s next at https://thinklab.design/join-in/

Continue reading CBRE Furniture Forum Sparks Launch of Two Industry Disruptors

Material Bank Lab, Offering Speed and Sustainability, Debuts at NeoCon

Material Bank Lab debuted at NeoCon in theMART and will operate there for at least a year. Photography by Eric Laignel.

Material Bank debuted its first physical location, Material Bank Lab, at NeoCon today. The first-floor location at theMART in Chicago (#113) will remain a permanent storefront, giving specifiers a place to explore, discover, and collaborate.

Adam Sandow, CEO and founder of SANDOW, developed Material Bank’s revolutionary platform.


“We opened Material Bank Lab with the intention of creating a completely new way for designers to discover and interact with brands and the products they create,” says Adam Sandow, CEO and founder of SANDOW, who developed Material Bank’s proprietary platform to answer the architecture and design community’s need to streamline and speed up the material searching and sampling process. And Sandow would know as the owner of leading design brands, including Interior Design, Luxe Interiors + Design, Material ConneXion, and ThinkLab.

Material Bank Lab will give design professionals access to the platform’s new cutting-edge Material Desk technology and Smart Swatch system. Photography by Eric Laignel.


The Material Bank Lab will also give design professionals access to the platform’s new cutting-edge Material Desk™ technology and Smart Swatch™ system, as well as to Material Bank’s material experts. “Our Smart Swatches are a revolutionary system that dramatically improves the efficiency of sampling by seamlessly bridging the physical to digital,” says Sandow, adding that the interactive Material Desk™ will also help designers create digital palettes and sample with a click of a button.  

Thousands of physical materials are on view at the new Material Bank Lab at theMART in Chicago. Photography by Eric Laignel.


Material Bank’s powerful platform, which is becoming the go-to resource for designers when it comes to samples, allows specifiers to search textiles, wall coverings, flooring, paint, solid surfacing, and other materials from more than 160 leading manufacturers—in one place. What previously took two-plus hours trolling 12 websites and entailed five packages delivered over many days is now reduced to three minutes of browsing on one centralized site. And an order sent in by Midnight (EST) is delivered in a recyclable box by 10:30 am the next day.

Material Bank Lab works in a revolutionary new manner that can ship materials overnight for sampling and specification. Photography by Eric Laignel.
Material Desk technology makes it easy for design professionals to access materials from over 160 leading manufacturers. Photography by Eric Laignel.


Material Bank Lab is located on the first floor of theMART (#113) in Chicago. Photography by Eric Laignel.

Interested in exploring materials in a revolutionary way? Visit Material Bank Lab on the first floor (#113) of theMART in Chicago. 

Continue reading Material Bank Lab, Offering Speed and Sustainability, Debuts at NeoCon

SANDOW to Debut Innovation Lab at NeoCon

NeoCon 2019 is right around the corner. In just under two weeks, the annual trade show opens its doors for another three days of talks by inspiring keynote speakers, previews of the most innovative new products, and endless opportunities to network with colleagues and industry friends. The gargantuan event finds a welcome home in Chicago’s theMART (f.k.a. the Merchandise Mart), the world’s largest commercial building and design center.

This year, SANDOW, Interior Design’s parent company, will unveil an entirely new space for attendees to explore. Dubbed the SANDOW Innovation Lab, this almost 4,000-square-foot area sits on the sixth floor of theMART (Suite 624) and houses unique opportunities for several of the brands in the company’s portfolio to connect with the design community. The SANDOW Innovation Lab will open on June 10.

“This space is raw and colorful,” said Abby Leopold, the SANDOW Innovation Lab’s project manager and lead creator at Curate. “Bringing the Innovation Lab to life expertly married Curate’s mission and SANDOW’s vision.”

The SANDOW Innovation Lab is primed to host several compelling programming events. The yearly Interior Design NeoCon roundtables, hosted by Editor in Chief Cindy Allen, will take place in the Lab’s Innovation room. This year’s roundtable topics will include conversations on current workplace and health and wellness sector trends.

There will also be three ThinkLab-hosted workshops that prepare designer and manufacturer attendees to face many of the dynamic changes happening in today’s contract sector. Over the course of three days, attendees will have an opportunity to learn how to improve the contract furniture buying process, recognize and respond to major sector trends, and how to improve the client experience.

Finally, Material ConneXion invites designers to learn more about the brave new world of emerging architectural materials with Dr. Andrew Dent, the company’s executive vice president of research. This lecture will take place on Monday, June 10 in Material ConneXion’s Lab space. Attendees are welcome to explore on-trend materials and colors using an X-Rite Virtual Light Booth machine.

“This is the first time SANDOW has had the opportunity to activate several of our brands in the same space during NeoCon,” said Kathryn Kerns, executive director of strategic initiatives at SANDOW. “From Material ConneXion’s first-ever pop-up library, to Interior Design’s notable roundtables and ThinkLab’s unique workshops, we’re excited to provide the programming SANDOW brands are known for to theMART’s highly engaged audience.”

To sign up for any of the ThinkLab Workshops or the Material ConneXion lecture, click here.

Thank you to the following sponsors for making the SANDOW Innovation Lab possible:

BuzziSpace, CurateFormica, Haworth, Loftwall, Scandinavian Spaces, and USM.

Continue reading SANDOW to Debut Innovation Lab at NeoCon

Friend or Foe? Why the Future of Design Depends on Strengthened Relationships Between Designers and Dealers

Throughout 2017, some of the brightest, most powerful minds in the contract interiors world came together with a common goal: to determine what’s broken with the contract furniture buying process and identify opportunities to fix it. We believe that with the rise in ancillary furniture (all the non-cubicle-based pieces), furniture has become one of the most time-consuming and least profitable pieces of an A&D firm’s business. If empowered and savvy about the A&D design process, dealers can be a key element to help alleviate challenges designers are facing in the new ancillary world. This assumes, of course, that all parties have an open mind to change or evolve historical processes.

One of the leading takeaways from this furniture forum was the notion of evolving the traditional furniture-bid process by bringing the dealer into the process earlier. In doing this, the dealer could be viewed as a subcontractor to the A&D firm, allowing the dealer/designer team to work together to weed through manufacturer-dealer alignments, appropriate aesthetic and price point balance, and manage lead times more efficiently.

But what we are seeing today is that this isn’t happening as often as it should. Generally speaking, A&D often fear that bringing the dealer in early will result in non-competitive pricing (perhaps due to the need to reconsider new pricing models). Additionally, past (negative) experiences with “misbehaving” sales reps leave some designers hesitant. How can we help eliminate this tension and improve the overall experience with the furniture piece of the process? A look at the history of how the furniture industry was built may help.

How the Industry Was Built

When we think about the traditional model of the furniture dealer, we recognize that it looks much like a pyramid:

The traditional dealer model. Image courtesy of ThinkLab.


Systems furniture (cubicles) typically are selected first, along with anything else that makes sense from a dealer’s primary aligned manufacturer relationship. At one time this represented, on average, 80 percent or more of the typical project order, which makes a lot of sense from a “simplifying logistics” standpoint, as well as by offering the ability to leverage bulk discounts.

In the middle, we find relationships with key partners. If products can’t be found from a “major” manufacturer, the dealer will go to a small group of other key (proven, trusted) manufacturers. At the very bottom of the triangle is the “other” bucket—the portion used to represent “all the other stuff” needed for a project.

This model makes sense. Consolidate purchases with fewer manufacturers to simplify the order process, obtain greater bulk discounts, and work with partners that are pre-vetted, proven and trusted.

Why The Traditional Model Changed

Yet the needs of the industry have shifted. Today, we are seeing a massive uptick in ancillary furniture as an overall percentage of the floorplate. In fact, our estimates suggest that while the typical project may have had 10-15 manufacturers on it, today, that number could have as much as doubled.

In this new world of ancillary, the design firm’s ability to curate an eclectic selection of products is their unique value add. As often the closest one to the client’s design intent and goals for the overall space, it makes sense. Because of this new model of design, the way designers approach product conceptually today varies significantly from the traditional dealer model we just discussed. Today’s unique designs often demand an eclectic blending of goods. So, almost the opposite of the foundational dealer model pyramid we previously discussed, A&D starts broad, narrows, and eventually gets to a selection. It is the conflict between these two (opposite facing) triangles today that causes confusion.

The traditional dealer model (left) vs. how A&D think (right). Image courtesy of ThinkLab.


This way of designer thinking evolved as the natural progression of design, perhaps due to a more informed consumer. Or Pinterest. Or more information available on the importance of design and its impacts on our wellbeing. But one thing is certain. To remain relevant and competitive in this ever-evolving atmosphere, we must figure out a way to work together toward a common goal; a better client experience. And to understand the core strengths and weaknesses of our counterparts and operation in lockstep to accomplish that goal. The atmosphere has evolved. Our relationships (and understanding of one another) can, too.

Where the Friction Lies

So why don’t designers simply bring the dealers in earlier? Let them give suggestions for these ancillary pieces that now are more prevalent in design? For many, the friction lies in a series of misunderstandings of the counterpart.

For starters, designers don’t want the spaces they design to look like (insert manufacturer name here) showrooms. And while this was a justifiable concern of the past, today, there are more options and partnerships than ever. Proof lies in the number of acquisitions we’ve seen over the past few years as manufacturers bolster their lines with new offerings. Steelcase’s acquisition of Orangeboxpartnership with West Elm, and relationship with Blu DotHerman Miller’s acquisition of Hay and alliance with FrameryHaworth’s partnership with Buzzispace; and Knoll’s acquisition of DatesWeiser Furniture Corporation, are just a few examples. But it’s not limited to the large manufacturers. Today, manufacturers of ALL sizes and proficiencies are increasing the well-designed options at a rising range of price points and improving service capabilities as well as specification and selection tools. As David Solomon, Managing Principal, Solomon Coyle, shared, “Today, most clients are looking for a defined look versus a specific product. Reputable dealers today can source that look through their existing portfolio of manufacturers.”

The sheer number of manufacturers each dealer works with is growing. While estimates previously suggested that the average contract dealer works with 200 manufacturers on an annual basis, that number now is assumed to be closer to 300, with some estimates putting it much higher. 

How to Evolve

Amidst all this misunderstanding, many A&D firms are left wondering, Are contract furniture dealers my ally or competition? And the answer isn’t always simple. We do see an opportunity for the rise of the dealer designer role as degree-holding designers not only understand the complexity of a project from the perspective of an A&D firm, but also have a passion for (and knowledge of) the details and complexities around furniture. Imagine the dealer as a (not-pushy), trusted source to help A&D firms navigate the complexity of furniture options in this new ancillary world within budget, appropriate lead-times, and on point design. 

ThinkLab frequently converses with both dealers and A&D firms, and we recognize that the opportunity to work even closer in partnership is promising. For example, if you ask a design firm what they hate about their job, more times than not, the answer will be lead times, logistical management, knowledge of substitutions, etc.—in other words, all the things that dealers (and dealer designers) excel at.

That said, here are some actionable solutions to move forward in this evolving world in which we live:

Take note of the shifting atmosphere.

Recognize that the business models are changing, and so are the ways of doing business. By removing assumptions about your counterpart (such as those surrounding the variety of product lines), you’ll open doors to wider sourcing opportunities.

Acknowledge that time is money. And quality service depends on it. 

Most projects today are quoted by the project instead of an hourly rate. This pricing structure, which affects both the dealer and the A&D firm, means profit is directly tied to efficiency. Solomon adds that, “From the service component of business, both sides of the house benefit when they learn to work efficiently together. In the end, the client gets better service and both A&D firm and dealer can achieve a healthier bottom line.”

Recognize the value of industry experts. 

Both the dealer and the A&D firm bring a different skillset to the table. Acknowledging the worth of each delivers value to the client.

On that note, Solomon leaves us with this, “If I want to design an acoustic studio, I might have a vision of what the space will look like, but I’ll hire an acoustical consultant to get the technical aspects correct. In design, both the A&D firm and the dealer serve as a consultant for their respective services. When A&D view dealers as the experts in sourcing furniture, and dealers view A&D as the authority on design, both parties can bring their best knowledge to the table for an enhanced customer experience.” 

As for the future of this relationship, ThinkLab is continuing the conversation with the launch of the Process Innovation Council. Designed to illuminate the underlying challenges of the industry by identifying actionable solutions, the council aims to strengthen ties to improve the future business process. For more information, please email us at info@thinklab.design.

Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of Interior Design magazine. At ThinkLab, we combine Interior Design magazine’s incredible reach within the architecture and design community with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way. Join in to know what’s next at https://thinklab.design/join-in/

Continue reading Friend or Foe? Why the Future of Design Depends on Strengthened Relationships Between Designers and Dealers

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