February 27, 2013
Early last year, Unbranded Designs co-founder Sameer Dohadwala thought it would be easy to build his own custom desk. After a process he jokes was a miserable failure—all that was left were Home Depot receipts and a “pile of wood and broken dreams”—he sought out independent designers to help finish the job. That’s when he had an epiphany. With co-founders Samer Saab and Max Greenblatt, he could create a better way to bring well-designed furniture to the masses.
That spark led to Unbranded Designs, a new online design community and furniture manufacturing concern in Chicago. Dohadwala met with independent designers and found that most had amazing prototypes and renderings in their studios, unrealized and unseen by the masses. “Their work was much more interesting than the mass-designed pieces we had been looking at,” said Dohadwala. “I wanted all of them in my apartment.”
These designs didn’t reach fruition, the Unbranded team learned, because designers lacked a combination of seed money, manufacturing know-how, and marketing and sales savvy to begin production. This inspired the trio’s concept, a kind of Threadless for furniture, which aims to provide technical and logistical support and a ready network of local and regional artisans and manufacturers. Users submit designs, such as Philip Royster’s R2 table (pictured above) which boasts a unique curved pattern built with fishing wire. Comments and feedback are exchanged and the more popular, unique pieces get built in small custom runs and sold by Unbranded. The catalog boasts over a dozen pieces, constantly cycled in and out; currently, the site’s offering the angled ISA chair by School of the Art Institute grad student Adele Cuartelon, built by DKE Design.
Business interest has been growing—Unbranded won the Chicago Lean Startup Challenge last fall and is finishing a new round of seed funding—and the startup now runs out of 1871, a tech space inside Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, itself an iconic building and a center of furniture and design. It’s a fitting home for a new type of manufacturing and design. “I think it’s as practical as it is symbolic,” says Dohadwala. “We’re at a place where we’re trying to disrupt the industry with technology.”