Two Cool Surfers Design Some Serious Furniture
Luke Pedersen and James Lennard share an easy rapport that betrays a close friendship forged on countless surfing excursions to Noordhoek, Elands Bay, and other points along the South African coast. To some degree, that laid-back sensibility has set the tone for Pedersen + Lennard, the thriving furniture-design business that they started in Cape Town in 2008.
"We studied together in Cape Town," Pedersen says. "We had a nice opportunity to develop a working relationship without it being a business, and we basically just turned all our school projects into joint projects. It’s a sneaky way of getting things done faster so you can go home and surf."
To stereotype them as a pair of carefree surfer dudes, however, would be to give short shrift to the meticulousness and intelligence with which they have approached their business since reconnecting two years after school. (Lennard spent the time apart skiing in Colorado before venturing down to Mexico and Costa Rica, while Pedersen studied design at Malmö University, in Sweden.) "We got back here and were like, ‘What are we doing?’" Pedersen says. "Neither one of us wanted to work for anyone else."
Drawing on their Scandinavian heritage and a mutual appreciation for traditional African craftsmanship, the duo have helped satisfy a growing demand for homegrown South African design by creating deceptively simple furniture, much of which fuses varnished steel with oak, ash, and other woods. They had a hit almost immediately with their Bucket Stool—a galvanized, powder-coated steel bucket, handmade in the townships outside Cape Town, set on birch plywood legs. The stool, whose padded seat flips over to become a tabletop, quickly attained iconic status in South Africa; earlier this year, Visi magazine listed it among the "local design milestones that have shaped our country’s architecture and interiors."
"When we started, it was very fast for us to get relative fame locally because there was just nothing else out there," Pedersen says. "I think it was a lot easier for us than it would be now. In the last five years, it’s really got pretty saturated with young designers and new businesses."
By 2010, successful but not yet able to afford a traditional showroom, Pedersen and Lennard struck upon a novel workaround: They opened Field Office, a downtown Cape Town coffee shop that doubles as a showcase and retail outlet for their furniture. They provided free wi-fi—a novelty in South Africa even now—and encouraged people to hang out and work or read. It did well enough that they opened a second one in the Woodstock Exchange, a collection of design boutiques and studio spaces in a former industrial center east of downtown Cape Town, setting up an adjacent office and factory where most of their 17 employees now work. The shops—including a third Field Office that opened in a residential part of Woodstock in June—have proved an effective way for Pedersen + Lennard to build a strong brand identity and a devoted customer base.
"We’ll do an auction, probably annually, of all the furniture that’s being used in the coffee shop," Pedersen says. "It’s like R&D for us to see how long things last under heavy pressure, but at the same time it gives a chance for our loyal customers to buy our furniture at a quarter of the price. We do a fan evening with coffee and beers, and we get a local guy to come and run the auction. It’s a fun thing for us; it pays for us to restock the showroom."
Six years in, Pedersen and Lennard find themselves surveying a South African design landscape that’s much more fertile and crowded than it was in 2008. "When we started, our aim was to be cheaper than the existing guys but have our products still be of good quality," Lennard says. "And we seem to have achieved that. But now we have to find our next point of difference." Pedersen says that is likely to be a renewed focus on the South African market.
"We do export quite a lot of stuff, and we have a lot of interest in a lot of countries," including the United States, he says. "And I think that’s cool, but it’s not as cool as the local market for me. There are great designers in other countries that can supply their own markets, you know? I’m not saying that you have to be a purist and say, ‘I’m not going to export.’ We do export, but I think still the focus is here."