Exclusive Interview: Maurice Blanks of Blu Dot!
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If there was any company whose founders were considered royalty amongst today’s contemporary furniture designers, the guys behind Blu Dot would surely be kings. Or princes. Dukes at the very least. Around for over 10 years now, Blu Dot does two very important things: provides awesome and gorgeous furniture at remarkably accessible prices, and does so without taking itself too seriously. Gorgeous designs and a good sense of humor? If we could marry a furniture company, Blu Dot would have had us on bended knee years ago.
I personally have a connection to Blu Dot–I had the opportunity to sell their wares while working in a hip downtown Austin furniture store a few years ago. It was always a pleasure to talk about their products, and it was never very difficult to close a sale. Blu Dot’s furniture has contained some of the most original and fun designs to come out of the contemporary modern furniture movement, and their commitment to high-quality means that these pieces can become investment items you own for years.
At the store I used to work at, we always used to describe Blu Dot’s prices as above IKEA and way below Design Within Reach, but Blu Dot is more than just the attention-grabbing middle child of the furniture industry–their tongue-in-cheek sense of humor shows they are smart, sassy and know that it’s more enjoyable to buy furniture from people who have fun.
We had the awesome pleasure of speaking with Maurice Blanks, one of the founders of Blu Dot. It was clear from the start where Blu Dot gets its razor sharp wit from. Listen to his interview to hear what inspires the Blu Dot designers, why they chose Minneapolis as their location and what frozen vegetables have to do with anything.
Our podcast music is “Dropping out of School” by Brad Sucks, licensed for use
under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
Heck yeah you can buy Blu Dot from 2Modern! Click here to get your hands on some of the coolest darn modern furniture out there today (because who actually wants to venture out in the cold right now even if you’re lucky enough to live near a store that sells Blu Dot? Seriously).
Not in a place in your life where you can listen to interviews? We always have your back! Here’s a transcript:
2M: We have a very special guest with us today, Maurice Blanks, who with two other friends founded the very famous and very fabulous modern furniture company Blu Dot. Thanks for speaking with us today!
MB: Thanks for having me.
2M: I feel like some folks might not realize how long you guys have been around, but I think you guys started in like 1997, right?
MB: That’s correct.
2M: So why don’t you give us a brief history of how you all got started.
MB: So me and John Christakos and Charles Lazor were college friends. As we were getting our first apartments and houses we realized we just didn’t like the offerings that were available to us at the time. The way we always talk about it is we didn’t like the things we could afford, and couldn’t afford the things we liked. You know back in those days, and this was probably the early ’90s, modern furniture was a lot harder to get your hands on. You know IKEA had two stores in the US, there was no such thing as Design Within Reach, or West Elm or CB2, or any of those other accessible stores that are available today. So we essentially started the company with nothing more scientific than a hunch and a feeling that we had a need, so other people must have the same need. So we started as you said in 1997, we actually designed our first collection in’96, and launched at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May of ’97. And luckily it was a hit. Our booth was swarmed during the show—a quick funny story was we were going to the show on the first day, and someone in our camp said “Should we have order forms?” and we thought that was probably a good idea for a trade show, so we stopped at a Kinko’s on the way to the Javits Center and printed out some order forms. Luckily we did that because we got a lot of orders that first show, and that was sort of the beginning of our company.
2M: And you guys are stationed in Minneapolis, correct?
MB: That’s right.
2M: Why that city and not the bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles—not that Minneapolis isn’t wonderful.
MB: We were all over the country–as I said we went to college together. And we were all in different places, actually we all traveled together after college, and I think that’s where we first hatched the idea. The idea was simply to do something that we love. To somehow combine our interests in art and design and be able to make a living. So we sort of went our separate ways…Charlie went to architecture school separately, John went to business school though he was an art major. It just so happened that John was living here at the time. I was in Chicago where I had started an architecture firm, and Charlie was practicing architecture in Phoenix at the time. For whatever reason it just made the most sense to start here. John was the first one to quit his job and he was in Minneapolis so we started it in Minneapolis. So there was really no grand scheme behind it although it turned out to be a pretty good place. You know, we have our distribution center here and Minneapolis turns out to be a pretty centrally-located to the entire country. And in some respects, in a design culture point of view, it’s been good, because we feel like we’re out of the fray a little bit; we aren’t in the heat of the battle on the West Coast or the East Coast.
2M: With three founders, how do you guys divvy up what needs to be done? Do you still get involved with design or do you do mostly business stuff now?
MB: John and I are in the company…Charlie is still on the board but not in day to day operations…he went back to architecture, and as you may know, started a company called FlatPak which makes modular homes and he’s still involved in architecture and doing custom design as well. So John and I are still in the business, and we sort of divvy up most of the business between us, and we share design. John handles finance, marketing and sales and I handle product development, sourcing and operations, and together we kind of co-curate design. So we have four designers on staff, and we’re sort of doing the co-direction for them. But as you might guess, we’re spending most of our time actually running the business.
2M: So who do you look at for inspiration? I imagine the great Mid-Century Modern designers are probably high up there.
MB: I think a little bit of everything. I think we look at some current design, we look at fine art, I think it comes from all places. You know it comes from the manufacturing process, too. One of our central goals in designing is efficiency, and looking at how things are made is really important to us. So we could be inspired by a piece of equipment, or understanding a new design or manufacturing process. That could inspire us as well. So I would say it’s all over. Maybe 1stdibs, that site where you can see historical pieces that maybe aren’t as well known as you might find in a book about design, sort of the unsung heroes of the ’60s and ’70s that no one would recognize the name and maybe the designer isn’t even in attributed, but there’s some detail that’s inspiring in its own way.
2M: Are there any new technologies that you’re really excited about that are on the way…are there any technologies that you wish would get invented because you have design ideas?
MB: You know we tend not to be on the bleeding edge of new technology–we’re not doing things with carbon fiber or space-age technology–and that mostly that comes down to our approach to pricing, and our reluctance to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in development of something. We try to use widely available manufacturing processes rather than developing new ones. So we’re not really on the cutting edge or bleeding edge of that. But there are definitely occasions when we’re trying to figure out how to attach two materials together and you know epoxy or VHB tape or magnets come up and we just sort of shake our heads and wish there was some way to attach these two materials in a way that was much more efficient. It’s always a challenge, an interesting challenge, to try to figure out how to make something with the available processes.
2M: You’ve got this cool website, you’ve got these catalogs with these kind of tongue-in-cheek photo shoots, how did the culture of Blu Dot evolve? Have you guys always been this cool?
MB: Maybe it’s more of a devolution than an evolution, but it seriously just started out as a reflection of our personality, of who we were. We always wanted to feel comfortable in the suit of Blu Dot. We didn’t want to start a company that had a brand or culture that we had to pretend to be a part of that culture or brand. So I think it kind of evolved from our design philosophies and how we thought things should be designed or made. And just from our personalities and what we like to do. We like to have fun, we like to laugh. I guess we’re smartasses a lot of the time. And so that probably comes across on the website and on the catalog, you know we’re just trying to have fun. It should be fun to look at furniture and buy furniture through us. That the humor is a sort of way for the people to enter into the dialog and be with us as opposed to us being the high designer looking down condescendingly to the masses that might be able to acquire our furniture. So I think there’s some humility and a sense of humor. I think all those things just kind of came about from who we were and wanting to feel comfortable in our own company.
2M: What about your house personally, is it filled with a lot of Blu Dot?
MB: My house is not filled with a lot of Blu Dot, but that probably has more to do with my wife not wanting our house to be some sort of homage to me. She wants to have other pieces. And I like that, too. It can actually be really anxiety-producing to have a lot of your own furniture, because your tastes and your opinions about your design work is constantly evolving, and sometimes there’s nothing more distracting than having one of your pieces…having your own coffee table sitting there, and you have a group of friends over and you’re trying to have a conversation and you keep wondering why the proportion of a leg is the way that it is and not really listening to what your friends are saying. In a way it’s nice to have other designer’s work in your home, because it just makes you think about things differently and you may get a little spark of inspiration. Unfortunately I think the root cause–the thing that led us to start the company which was we couldn’t afford a lot of the things we like–I think that still holds true. But yeah there’s some Mid-Century pieces and then there’s a mix of other things that may be designers people might recognize but then also some anonymous. Like a little telephone table that I picked up at a second-hand store in Chicago a dozen years ago. You know I see that piece and it just makes me smile. I have no idea who designed it or what the context of the design would be, but it’s just a great little piece.
2M: What is up next for Blu Dot? I feel like you guys have been expanding in great directions…is there something really awesome on the horizon?
MB: I think you know cereals, frozen fruits, frozen dinners…no, seriously, I think we’re just slowly expanding into the home furnishings world, you know our first collection was predominantly coffee tables and shelving. So things things that were rectangular and predominantly made out of wood. We moved into upholstery about six years ago; we moved into lighting a couple of years ago, so it’s really just kind of taking small steps into different areas of the home. I think probably we will be looking at flooring at some point. But just sort of creeping into those other areas, which is actually kind of fun as designers, to get into different materials and processes, and just understand different palettes. So we’ll obviously stay in home furnishings as much–as we’d like to be in the frozen food aisle.
2M: Well that all sounds amazing and thank you so much for speaking with us today!
MB: Thank you very much it was a pleasure.
2M: For more information about Blu Dot and Maurice visit bludot.com. You’ve been listening to a 2modern designer interview. For more fun podcasts, inspiring design posts and design advice, check out the blog at 2modern.com
Download an MP3 version of this interview:
Maurice Blanks 2Modern Interview