April 1, 2009
An American designer and his Japanese collaborator prepare to take on the big contract-furniture companies, pretty much all by themselves.
Every year around February, the design world experiences a collective shudder of recognition. Oh, no, the furniture fairs. Ah, yes, the fairs—Milan’s massive Salone Internazionale del Mobile hits in late April, followed closely by the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York. At three months out, it’s crunch time. Manufacturers rush to meet production deadlines, and designers wrangle with the thousands of small compromises and adjustments necessary to realize their ideas. No one wants to arrive in Milan or New York with a chair that can’t be sat in, or a sofa that wobbles perilously under a potential distributor’s disapproving behind.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early February, I sat down with two members of this global design frenzy at their small, sparsely furnished studio in Midtown Manhattan. Jeff Miller and Yoshi Konishi started their new furniture company only last August, and after six months they had little to show other than computer renderings of the six pieces they plan to debut at ICFF in May. Still, the pair seemed relatively calm and confident as they ticked off their next steps: making prototypes of a plywood chair and a steel-frame table in Michigan later in the month; working out the kinks from a low-slung sofa that was proving problematic; and taking a couple of totally hypothetical designs—one was described as a sort of upholstered stool-seat, and another is a side table—from mental images to actual furnishings. They had all of 13 weeks.
Fortunately, Itoki Design was conceived with this kind of flexibility and rapid response in mind. “I think the thing that’s neat about us is we’re this scrappy, small organization,” Miller says. Well, sort of. Itoki Design is something of a chimera. On the one hand, it is the leanest organization imaginable—besides Miller and Konishi, there are four employees in New York and a manufacturing consultant in Michigan, and that’s it. On the other hand, its parent company, Itoki, is one of Japan’s largest contract-furniture manufacturers, with 119 years of experience and tradition under its belt.
It’s this duality, Miller and Konishi argue, that is going to allow their company to survive and even prosper in one of the most dismal economic climates, well, ever. “It’s the best of both worlds,” Miller says. “We’re not weighed down by the bureaucracy of a huge company, but we have access to all those resources.” He has a point. Itoki Design’s products don’t have to be approved by anyone apart from Miller and Konishi. If something doesn’t work, or one of them decides he doesn’t like it, then it can be rejiggered or scrapped completely. At the same time, the pair can utilize Itoki’s considerable expertise. “There’s a superb ergonomics specialist in Japan that we’ve worked with,” Miller says by way of example. “And it’s so easy to take my 3-D data, send it to her, and have her check for the width of the whole American market, Japanese market, European market, and see, ‘Is this a chair that will fit with 99 percent of people? Do we need to make it higher or shorter?’ We have access to that kind of information without having to hire a staff like that here.”
It’s a pretty enviable business model. Itoki Design is the kind of organization that conducts most of its product meetings at lunch, with piles of drawn-on napkins to show for each session. Indeed, that’s pretty much how the whole venture began. As Itoki’s U.S. representative for the past six years, Konishi was looking to recruit American talent for the company’s Japanese line. He was introduced to Miller, who founded his own industrial-design practice in 2002 after a decade at New York’s ECCO Design. Within a few years, Miller had designed several new chairs and a table for Itoki—and found that he and Konishi (who has a background in engineering) made a good team.
Before long, they came up with the idea for Itoki Design—a fulfillment of Konishi’s longstanding desire to make Itoki products available in the U.S. Previously, there were always too many hurdles, the foremost being exorbitant shipping costs, which would make Itoki products far more expensive than their Stateside competitors. There were also cultural differences. “There are so many difficult things in this market,” Konishi says. “In Japan, we don’t have to prepare for a one-thousand-fabric selection. We have to have only, like, five fabrics and five color options. In the U.S., it’s completely opposite.”
As Miller and Konishi pitched it, Itoki Design could become a sort of beachhead for Itoki. Its new line, made by American manufacturers, would introduce the brand to U.S. customers and potentially open up a huge market for the parent company. “If we could convince them that these two guys in New York, with their limited resources, could develop a refined level of product and have the manufacturing available to do it, then we could create a business opportunity for Japan,” Miller says. “We just needed to convince them: ‘If you like it, it’s viable.’” They did, and not a moment too soon. “I think if we had tried to do it six months later, it would not have happened,” he admits.
But walking the line between big and small is only one of Itoki Design’s advantages (and challenges). The company is also aiming for a very specific niche of users. Like its parent company, Itoki Design makes contract furniture—but you won’t find your typical selection of executive desks and task chairs here. The two chairs planned for ICFF are slender-profile bent-plywood seats with colorful accents; another of the six debut pieces is a lightweight, low-to-the-ground mesh sofa. This is furniture aimed at the increasingly casual modes of work, with spur-of-the-moment meetings in laid-back settings—and at least in theory, it should appeal to the leaner businesses that survive the ongoing economic crisis. (Miller also hopes the furniture will have crossover appeal to the residential market.)
This is not to say that competing in this niche market is a cinch, or that Itoki Design is exactly ahead of the curve. Western Michigan’s big-three manufacturers have been designing for flexible, unorthodox work spaces for at least five years, releasing everything from plush corporate banquettes (for Denny’s-style meetings in the office—seriously) to entire rec-room setups, with imagined executives flipping through PowerPoint presentations on a TV remote. “That’s certainly being done already,” says Rob Kirkbride, associate editor of the Monday Morning Quarterback, an industry newsletter. “Steelcase has focused almost entirely in the last few years on this idea that workers aren’t going to do all their tasks at a desk. They’re going to be gathering in casual spaces. I don’t know if a couple of guys from New York are going to be able to compete with Steelcase. But, you know, who knows?”
To be competitive Itoki Design has to be affordable—but the initial investment in tooling to manufacture a new line means that the pieces won’t exactly be cheap. Miller expects the prices to be comparable to similar products from the big-three manufacturers. So if they can’t win on price, Miller and Konishi figured they had to offer substantive design improvements. As a result, Miller focused on “utilizing simple manufacturing in a clever way.” Each piece of furniture “should have some innovative feature on its own, in terms of the way the materials are presented or the use that it offers,” he says.
Take the designer’s steel-frame tables, which will be available in three sizes. Here, Miller focused on the corners, where the steel-tube frame and the legs meet. On many similar tables, it’s the most awkward part of the design. “There’s a lot of gobbledygook,” Miller says. “That’s either where a lot of bolts happen and you see those connections, or where steel tubes get butt-jointed and that joint is, you know, not something beautiful.” By contrast, the lines of the new table meet in elegant, rounded steel castings.
But keeping the products simple, appealing, and easy to manufacture is only part of Miller’s challenge. He also has to make them look at least vaguely Japanese. As he acknowledges, people are going to expect the subsidiary of a Japanese furniture manufacturer to produce pieces that look characteristic of that country. “We don’t want to disappoint them,” he says. “At the same time, I’m an American designer in New York.” Fortunately, his preference for designs that are, in his words, “spare and elegant and not too fussy” seems to fit the bill. “That to me is what people expect for a Japanese product,” he says.
Ultimately, Itoki Design wants to be the best of all worlds. It is the boutique American subsidiary of a 119-year-old Japanese company, contracting Michigan manufacturers to produce vaguely Japanese-looking furniture by a New York designer who has worked mostly for Italian companies. It is debuting a contract-furniture line at the residential-focused ICFF, trying to appeal to high-design-conscious customers while also competing with western Michigan’s furniture behemoths. And, of course, this is all happening against the backdrop of the biggest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression, when selling new office furniture is about as bad a business as one can imagine. Could any of this actually work? As of press time, it’s impossible to know. But by the time you’re holding this magazine, ICFF will be just around the corner. Itoki Design’s debut line will be coming together on its sundry Michigan production floors. Wait a few weeks, and you can see for yourself.