Written by Sakari Turunen. Post published in partnership with Conscious Design Media, a new media company focused on nontoxic indoor living and clean indoor air.
What makes designer-quality furniture “human-centric”?
Imagine a world where furniture not only looks good – but is, in fact, good for you.
Today, when you lie on your home sofa, you rarely consider that it might have ill effects on your health. Nor would you think about possible ways all the furnishings, chairs, cabinets, tables, carry something sinister on the inside.
When a sofa, chair, or table leaves the assembly line of a large furniture factory, it is loaded with chemicals. The chemicals serve different purposes, such as keeping them fireproof or increasing their lifespan, but how does that chemical cocktail impact humans’ health using the furniture?
These chemicals dissipate over time – into the air we breathe. Even worse, chemical emissions react together and can produce harmful toxins. This results in poor indoor conditions that can have lasting effects on our respiratory and endocrine systems, and even further our blood vessels, brain function, nervous system, reproductive organs, RNA/DNA, and much more.
What if instead of using plastics, MDF, toxic paints, and fully robotized assembly, furniture could be produced differently?
What if all furniture was made by skillful and passionate carpenters, with a heart for beautiful design but also an awareness of how their creations impact our daily lives, even from the perspective of clean indoor air? Who are the designers whose furniture actually meets these criteria? Where are the companies who have rediscovered the advantages of manufacturing in ways lost with overt industrialization?
The problem is, what is the standardized system for measuring these chemical emissions reliably? Is there a way to use modern technology to evaluate everything the furniture industry puts on the market?
Typically, the methods used in building construction and furniture manufacturing ignore many important factors that would influence indoor air.
How do we protect humans from harmful chemicals and eventually create a system where such chemicals would never be used in the first place.
Sustainable Design for the Masses
At Conscious Design Media, we want to give sustainable designers and design companies a platform to get their stories heard.
We work together with EKG Consulting, a Finland-based company that has created a standard to prove designer furniture’s sustainability impact. Evaluating sustainability impact is of great importance to the end-users of these items.
Our hope at CDM is that sustainable design will become more mainstream instead of the exception to the rule. There is a growing trend toward interest and consciousness of sustainability matters, which will eventually lead to increasing demand for truly sustainable materials, buildings, and furnishings.
Besides an interest in visual design, we are keenly interested in finding scalable solutions to the “sustainability crisis.” We want to make sustainable design available to the masses. Even now, sustainability is important to many, but the extra cost for quality is too high. To reconcile this, manufacturers must produce at a price point that is within everyone’s reach.
We found several keys to these issues in our interview with the founders of Made by Choice.
Introducing the Designer-manufacturer Made by Choice
Made by Choice is an award-winning design house and a thought leader in the design world. They foster a collective and collaborative approach to creating new designs that promote sustainable Nordic values.
The use of wood characterizes their designs. This is very favorable to the indoor environment because unprocessed wood is naturally antibacterial as a surface. Wood improves indoor air quality and balances humidity. And besides these, there is the psychological side or seeing natural wood and the pleasure of its homelike feel.
In an in-depth interview with the three founders, Niclas Ahlström, Sebastian Jansson, and Lasse Laine, we explored the details of their design and prototyping process, covering different topics of sustainability, and learned a lot about their unique business model.
Individual Furniture for Individual Needs
“What’s unique about us is our product design process. Many approach design by scouting the market for demand, whereas we work with the customer from the get-go,” Laine says.
“Let’s say a customer calls and says they’re opening a restaurant. We take it from there and work together, creating something new.“
Their projects include several notable restaurants in Finland, including Savoy, the 83-year-old restaurant appraised for its human-centered and functional design touch in every detail in the restaurant, preference for comfortable furniture, and their sensitivity towards high-quality natural materials. Other restaurants graced with Made by Choice interiors and furniture include Lily Lee, Fisken på Disken, Pub Ludwig, Nude, and Kastu. Its public spaces resume includes the Embassy of Spain, the Finnish Design Museum, and the Finnish Institute in Paris.
“Customer projects are a platform for new products also for the consumer market, even though our main focus is providing to businesses,” Jansson says.
One other example would be the Island of Lonna, where in addition to the beautiful seascape, one can also enjoy the original Scandinavian design of the restaurant’s furniture. The beautiful thing is: if you like it, you can buy it.
“A CEO of a big architectural firm is coming later this week to pick up a Lonna stool he bought.” Niclas Ahlström pitches in.
Design Built to Last
Laine and Jansson first met through a design project for the 2014 Winter Olympics, building a scale model of the Olympic village. During that time, the two decided they wanted to work together on future projects.
“During that time, as I worked for the BOND Design Agency, we created a lot of popups. You’d pick up the materials from IKEA, design some boxes. But after the popup was over, everything was thrown to the skip. None of that was built to last,” Jansson says, looking back.
The idea of offering an alternative to throwaway pop-ups and other expendable furniture was to create items with stronger stories.
“We thought there has to be a way to get people to appreciate furniture, so the items don’t end up being buried in the junkyard. We feel that the way to achieve that is through furniture with an identity.” Jansson explains.
Niclas Ahlström, with a background in sales and business development, came on board for one reason: “I just love design,” he says with a big smile. The member of a Finnish industrial family, with a legacy dating to the 1800s, Ahlström, came in to help open doors to bigger arenas.
Working with Untreated Wood for Better Indoor Air Quality
Working with wood as the raw material for Made By Choice designs sets up the functional base to positively influence indoor air.
“We find it easy to improve indoor air quality because our products are made of wood, and wood in itself cleanses air and balances humidity. More often, the question of acoustics also rises, as wood has a positive influence on it.
And then there are special projects, such as Space of Mind, which was made out completely of untreated wood,” Laine explains.
He is speaking of the independent, free-standing room designed with Studio Puisto Architects.
The trend in wood construction is global.
“In Japan, they build elderly people’s homes from wood,” Laine says.
Made by Choice has also taken repeated steps toward making sure the good characteristics of wood are not lost.
“Step by step, we’ve replaced solutions with better ones. For example, when the functional water-soluble acrylic paints were introduced to the market, we shifted to those from the urethane-based paints. This reduces the emissions from the finish.”
That sounds like a perfect match: distinctive designer furniture that is visually pleasing and healthy to use.
An Aptitude for Rapid Prototyping
Working with wood has its benefits to quickly experimenting with designs and coming up with new prototypes.
“Our product development is very straight forward,” says Sebastian Jansson. “We use the same methods for the prototype and in production.”
Plywood is great for trying out something new. The methods of trying out a fresh new prototype are identical to what is used in production.
In practice, you take out a plywood panel or block and carve out the form you want in a milling machine.
Using plywood as a “prototyper’s playground” has given Made by Choice a clear advantage in experimenting every day.
“It can be a 15-minute discussion with Lasse, then we bounce sketches back and forth, draw the design in 3D, and next week there is a new prototype out,” Jansson explains.
Kolho, the Collaboration that Took the Design World by Storm
“We design a lot in-house. And the collaborations are very intimate, full of back-and-forth with our partners,” Jansson explains.
One such collaboration is known across the globe: Kolho, the Made by Choice collection of chairs and tables with Matthew Day Jackson, represented by the world’s biggest gallery, Hauser & Wirth.
The chair, inspired by the Apollo moon landing and a small town called Kolho in Finland, has a serpentine form. This continuous plywood form that constitutes the chair’s fluid frame is cut out of two pieces to form a continuous whole.
Just recently, the workshop finished the rainbow edition of Kolho, where each veneer, meaning the thin layers of wood that are pressed together to make plywood, is colored separately to accomplish a beautiful rainbow color spectrum.
But even without the new coloring, the chair has gained a lot of attention.
“I just spoke with a top British design firm,” Ahlström jumps in to add. “They had seen our chair in The Conran Shop and were impressed.”
These designs have captured the attention of the higher echelons of design influencers.
“90 % of the places we visit abroad know us through these designs. Kolho stands out because of its unique artistic style and design language,” Jansson says.
The Kolho series was huge in 2019. The media attention can be summarized by the widely circulated Wallpaper article “Curl power: Matthew Day Jackson’s sinuous chair throws us for a loop.”
Sustainability is a Key Talking Point with British Furniture Retailers and in High-end Indoor Design Projects
But even when Made by Choice is known for their unique designs, the sustainability factors are increasingly more important.
This came up later when Ahlström revealed more details of his phone call with the London-based indoor furniture retailer and design company.
“Over half of the discussion was about sustainability,” Ahlström said promptly.
Sustainability is a growing concern, especially with high-end projects, as more and more people develop an interest and demand for it.
The Story of the FEM Work Desk
For Made by Choice, consumer attention is something they have not strived after. But one design broke the mold.
“We threw that one out there half-jokingly with the thought of adapting to the changing times,“ Laine says.
He is speaking of their recent success, the Fem work desk, designed with Interior Architects FYRA. It’s a simple piece of furniture, pleasing to the eye – a wooden stand-up desk you can easily adjust for working in either sitting or standing position.
What was intended for “shits and giggles” became the design brand’s first true consumer success.
How did this happen? Laine and Jansson playfully made a design for a work desk for remote working. The work desk does not take much space at home and easily transforms into a stand-up desk.
“Then the Finnish Design Shop started selling them, and now they sell like hotcakes. The sales volume really caught us off guard,“ says Jansson.
“75,000 hits to our website,” Niclas adds. “And 85% are from the USA.”
The Fem work desk became virtually an overnight success and left Choice with a new set of problems: keeping up with the ever-increasing orders when their systems were not set up for B2C sales?
The question is somewhat unsettled still. Should Made by Choice try to attract consumers directly or continue to focus their work on projects?
This opened the discussion to explore the design process that is characteristic of their projects.
The future – Tailoring and Mass Customization
One of the ever-repeating problems in project-based design is never-ending adjusting. When you design the interior and furniture for a restaurant, everything takes a long time. The back and forth with the client costs time and money.
“We interviewed ten agencies to find out what takes the most time in projects. The result was that “unnecessary kicking around” constituted 70% of everything. You can just think about how much clients are willing to pay for that. It is money thrown into the gutter,” Laine says.
The same goes for offer requests. Usually, a minimum of ten companies pitch for each project, and only one will win it. “This extra work in planning is something the other clients must pay, collectively,” Laine continues.
For the past two years, Made by Choice has been developing an app for playing with their designs. With this tool, anyone can take the Choice catalog and tailor their designs to whatever is needed: make it wider, cut it shorter, trim it as you please. All the variations turn into products.
This app can become an avenue that makes Made by Choice available to the masses and make purchasing sustainable design furniture more affordable. This can expand their global reach.
The Dream of Choice Factories Across the Globe
“We endeavor to keep our Salo workshop ‘a prototype laboratory’; this is the place for nimble prototyping and trying out new concepts,” Laine explains. “But we dream of having Made by Choice factories across the world.”
The Made by Choice design methods and production methods can easily be given to other skillful artisans’ hands with the proper equipment.
The problem with most factories is that they have grown into a subcontractor identity. Eventually, because of how the markets work, such production facilities have to specialize in something very niche.
“Even when they’d have the machinery for many different designs, they are forced to produce a small number of niche products for a shallow margin. Having no identity, they need to compete for low-margin jobs. With Choice, we can bring them an identity.” Laine sees an alternative future for such factories.
It is a win-win. The factories get to focus on high-end designs that exemplify their level of skill and artisanship. And Made by Choice can find a way to export their design and production knowledge to be used in local settings.
From the viewpoint of sustainability, this cuts down on complicated shipping logistics and can provide quality work in distant places.
Stay tuned. This is not the last time you will hear about Made by Choice.