Democratizing Design With a Dose of Humor
When college buddies Maurice Blanks, John Christakos, and Charlie Lazor founded Blu Dot in 1997, modern furniture wasn’t affordable or accessible. Reserved for the design elite, pieces were typically European and took as long as six months to arrive. Encountering this velvet rope as they began to furnish their own apartments, Blanks, Christakos, and Lazor—who founded his own architecture studio but still serves on the board—set out to democratize modern design. "We thought the whole thing was a little too complicated," says Blanks, adding wryly, "We were naive enough to think we could do it differently."
Today, Blu Dot is lauded for its thoughtful process, inventive design, and playful quality. The Minneapolis-based company recently opened a 6,600-square-foot store in Los Angeles with another one in Chicago on the way, which will bring the total to six retail stores in the United States and three abroad. Though the team has expanded, Blanks and Christakos are still deeply embedded in the design cycle and committed to keeping their products attainable.
"We get to do what we love here in the prairie, and then show it to the world." -John Christakos
Much of Blu Dot’s original design philosophy has endured. Take, for example, the Chicago 8 Box, a shelving unit that was part of the original collection and is still popular today. "Since our mission was to make design more accessible, we focused on it from the inside out," says Christakos. "A big part is understanding how things are made, packaged, and shipped, and weaving solutions to those problems into the earliest stages. How it’s made is integrated into the design process." The dimensions of the Chicago 8 Box are determined by the yield of a four-by-eight sheet of material so that once it’s cut, "there’s nothing left but sawdust." A checkerboard of boxes held together by steel legs, the unit takes advantage of negative space for extra storage at no additional cost.
Blu Dot’s early work centered on the purity of an idea and often arrived flat-packed. As the design process evolved, the company placed more emphasis on the overall customer experience and let go of more rigid, ready-to-assemble approaches. "Early on, we were pretty dogmatic about it," says Christakos. "Our first chair was a study in economy and had beautiful, minimal silhouettes, but it was incredibly uncomfortable. We realized we needed to sacrifice aspects of our approach to make something wonderful to actually sit in. Duh, right?" The result of that effort was their award-winning Buttercup Chair, a cradle crafted from molded plywood designed in 2004.
With so much growth and expansion into retail stores, Blu Dot has also developed a more holistic view of its designs. "When we designed before, we did it more on an item basis," says Blanks. Seeing the product portfolio laid out in a physical space has given the company a different perspective on how the pieces work together and what categories need to be expanded: "It forced us to think about the entire collection and how the heights of the coffee tables are relative to the heights of the sofas." Choosing an analytical starting point, the team at Blu Dot creates a formal design brief that stipulates a general need, price point, and material palette.
When asked what the future holds for Blu Dot, Blanks is quick to quip, "Internet search. We’re going to take down Google." Christakos adds, "Theme parks!"
In reality, Blu Dot will continue to refine its designs and grow its presence. "It’s like tending to a garden, weeding in some cases and planting new seeds in others," says Christakos. Minneapolis, removed from the more competitive coasts, affords the company some degree of freedom as well: "We get to do what we love here in the prairie, and then show it to the world."
Don’t miss the chance to take 20 percent off all designs in Blu Dot’s annual sale from October 6-30 both in stores and online.