Two people with wood storage and desk in an office
Founders of Grain in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Photo courtesy Ben Blood

At One Small Design Firm, Sharing is the Best Business Tool

The design studio, Grain, leverages its involvement in collectives to share resources and help it succeed as an ethical, sustainable company.

When Chelsea and James Minola returned to their native Bainbridge Island in Washington State to launch a sustainable design practice in 2008, the odds were stacked against them. “We were in the midst of a recession, and we didn’t have much to show except schoolwork,” recalls Chelsea, who studied interior design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, before pursuing her M.ID at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where she met James, who was completing his BFA in industrial design. “We also knew we wanted Grain to be a very ethical practice, but we had no idea how to design a business around that.”

After years of trial and error—and making products like shower curtains, tabletop design objects, and jewelry by hand in their garage—the Minolas shaped Grain into a thriving studio with commissions for clients such as the fashion and homeware companies Anthropologie, Calvin Klein Home, Areaware, and Schoolhouse. Through it all, the duo has remained committed to their goal of running a responsible company, sussing out concrete ways to delineate their business as sustainable. This year, Grain celebrates a major milestone with their official certification as a B Corp, a designation recognized as the national standard for companies truly committed to positive social and environmental performance.

“We are a tiny business on an island and our reach is small, but that has never stopped us from showing up every day with our values.”

CHELSEA MINOLA, grain co-founder
Cork tables with plants
The Grain Cork Collection of tables are available through design co-op Colony. Photo courtesy Ben Blood

Before this achievement, the founders were painfully aware of how much they did not know about building an ethical business, and reached out to other up-and-coming regional designers to share knowledge and costs. “The economy was so bad when we started, we reached out to friends in the design community to share resources. We learned together how to market our projects,” says James, who along with Chelsea and designers from Iacoli & McAllister and Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, founded JOIN, a collective now in its fourteenth year. While they have since evolved to rely less on JOIN, the art of resource-sharing remains a touchpoint for Grain. “There’s power in community, especially if you’re a little fish,” says Chelsea.

Embarking on the arduous task of becoming a B Corp was a next logical step in the quest to both run an ethical business and to continue learning from a larger collective. “Environmental and social responsibility has been in our mission statement since our founding, but we didn’t always know what that meant or how to put it into practice at our scale,” says James expressing a condition familiar to many emerging firms.

Two people in a warehouse with boxes and cork panels and furniture
Grain’s founders, shown with cork for their new collection, spent many years handcrafting homewares and accessories. Photo courtesy Ben Blood

That awareness is one reason Grain has been steadily amassing certifications like B Corp, including becoming a Climate Neutral-certified brand in 2020. For them, the accolades are less about displaying a feather in their cap, and more about learning, which happens in the application process. “Going through all the steps of becoming a B Corp really opened my imagination about how our business could be more socially responsible,” says Chelsea. As part of the certification process, the studio set up new banking practices, bolstered employee benefits, and did a deep dive into vendor business practices.

Man with a yellow robotic tool
James Minola with a robot in the studio’s workshop. Photo courtesy Ben Blood

Now, as Grain settles into a new 3000-square-foot studio with a massive self-built robotic milling arm, and prepares to launch their latest collection of cork furnishings through design co-op Colony, the success of their environmentally-oriented and community-minded business model is coming into focus. “To us, sustainability should be part of the ethical contract of practicing design,” says Chelsea. “We are a tiny business on an island, and we know that our reach is small, but that has never stopped us from showing up every day with our values as our guide.”