Episode 8

Democratic Design: Meet Blu Dot

When Blu Dot founders wanted to buy well designed affordable furniture as recent architecture grads in the ‘90’s, none was available. John Christakos and Maurice Blanks tell us the story of helping to found a design/manufacturing company to build their own, and offer it to the market. 20 years later, these Cooper-Hewitt Design Award winners have thousands of items in their catalog, and stores around the country.

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You know, everyone's invited to our party. Nobody's too cool for school. It's democratic, it's approachable. We take our work seriously. We don't take ourselves too seriously, John Christakos, Blu Dot Co-Founder


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Welcome this afternoon to the OneDER podcast here at Marketplace at Maiden Lane, and I’m your host CCB. Today I’m sitting with Maurice and John from Blu Dot. They’re going to spend a little bit of time sharing with us why they’re in the business, what their business is all about, and what that means to you in a wonderful way. So, I’d like to ask John to start. Tell us a little about yourself, John.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:00:28] What can I say. I grew up in upstate New York and my father was an entrepreneur and my mom was an artist. So I’ve sort of all my life had these competing interests in business and in things creative. Went to college in Massachusetts at Williams College where I met Maurice and Charlie our co-founders and then went on for a brief career in management consulting at a company called Bain and Company. And then started Blu Dot.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:59] OK, Maurice?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:01:01] So I grew up in Texas, in West Texas. I lost the accent because I left there when Jimmy Carter was President. So it’s been a while since I lived there. And eventually made my way up to Williamstown Massachusetts, met John and Charlie there. And then I went into architecture, so I’m actually a recovering architect.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:20] There are many of them out there.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:01:21] I’ve been out of the profession since 2003 when I started at Blu Dot full time. So in ’97 when we started Blu Dot I was a year into my own architecture firm in Chicago. So I was sort of part time for a few years then finally moved to Minneapolis in 2002.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:37] All right, so... Out of the Steelcase partner companies, it's actually kind of fascinating, you are one of the elders in a funny way. Most of them are under 20 years old. So you're just right. You get to push them around, I'm going to say. But the idea of Blu Dot—where did you come up with the name?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:02:03] Well, we were kind of brainstorming a lot of different names and they were seeming too trendy or too timely, like in 20 years they might sound like they were created in the 90s. So one of us landed on the idea of the name being like just a graphic symbol, and the idea was literally not to have any words. So the company name would be just a Blu Dot, but then we realized the impracticality of not being able to be listed in the phone book, which we had back then. And you couldn't answer the phone if you just were a graphic symbol

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:37] Describe a Blu Dot. OK, yeah.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:02:40] So we added the words and I just like the simplicity of it. The graphic--you know, the name almost designed its own logo, basically. So, yeah, we thought it would last the test of time.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:53] And, gratefully, you introduced the word design. So Blu Dot is doing some amazing work in modern design. And in doing research about your company, I was fascinated with the kind of democratic approach to access which harkens back to some historical movements you might say. And so, why did you come up with that particular emphasis?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:03:22] So, we're in our mid 20s at this point and we're starting to buy our first real furniture. So getting rid of thrift shop furniture and the stuff that we inherited from our parents and actually going out and buying things. And what we found was if you wanted modern design, it was really expensive. You know, traditional design was pretty affordable. But that's not what we wanted. So we though--basically a focus group of three of us decided that there was a market for a kind of a mid-price, more affordable modern furniture line.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:03:52] And it wasn't just price point. it was also distribution. I mean, it was hard to get to. If you did have the money to buy a beautiful Italian sofa for fifteen grand, you had to have an architect walk you into a showroom building and, you know, you just couldn't walk in off the street. So there wasn't much retail for modern furniture, you know, with every everyday access.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:04:18] OK. So the idea of Blu Dot coming out in more of a retail form--I have to give you an enormous amount of credit to come up with the company, decide you're going to design your own furniture and then you're going to up retail stores to sell it. So whose brainiac idea was that?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:04:38] It was all of us.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:04:40] Each one of you?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:04:41] We didn't start that way. We started selling wholesale. So we started selling to, like in San Francisco to Zinc Details. Still a customer and, you know, great store. That's how we got through the first maybe five to 10 years of the business, right? But we realized that as great partners as they were, they were never going to carry everything that we offered. We were gonna be one of many lines. And there was only one of those stores in every city at most. And they were generally not very big and that channel was not growing. So we felt like going direct would be a way to augment that business and also a way to show our collection altogether in one place, the way we would want to present it. And so, yeah, we were we started in retail in 2008, which was probably the worst time ever to ever open a store.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:05:35] Yeah. Well, 1929. But what about the idea of retail from a distribution standpoint gets you into the manufacturing on a different level, I would say, from a stock standpoint unless you had a different business model. So what was the business model?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:05:55] When we were in the wholesale business, our intention then was to stock everything that we that we designed. So that if you were a stocking retailer, you could order it immediately and we could ship it out to your customer immediately. So when we went into retail it was kind of the same model, really. And that's still our intention today, is that we try to stock everything that we design in our warehouse in Minnesota.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:06:16] I mean, unlike contract world where things are made to order--and that's partly because in the contract world, there are so many options. You know, the complexity of the contract world is mind boggling to us. We intentionally have a limited set of options in terms of fabrics and colors and sizes and things like that. But that is the tradeoff that we take in order to keep things in stock.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:06:39] And there's also efficiency for us to order from our vendors, to order larger quantities. So if we were ordering onesy-twosy that was going to drive the cost up dramatically. And if one of our value propositions was affordability, then we had to order 20 or 50 or 100 per vendor.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:59] Value proposition. When you think about the value proposition of Blu Dot. Has it changed over the 25 years or is it maintaining?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:07:09] I think it's super tight. I mean, we were honored to have a Rizzoli publish a book on Blu Dot at 20 years, “20 Years of Blu Dot.” And as we went through the archives--and not only as we went through it, but as people that are sort of new to Blu Dot that had been there for, let's say, two or three years, were helping us sift through the faxes and all the historical documents and the correspondence. And they were amazed at how the way we described the business in 1996 or 1995--even before we started, when we were just talking about starting it. And they were amazed at how consistent the language was then as it is today, that it was basically a straight line.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:46] So that speaks to an amazing consistency from a retail standpoint, I think in brand. And it sounds like culture as well.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:07:57] I thought you were going to say great leadership.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:00] Well, I could say that. I could say great leadership. I was going to use that at another time. But the idea of the culture maintaining that consistency over time. What do you need to do to guard that culture or is it inherent in your folks?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:08:19] Brand and culture were a little bit separate. But from a brand standpoint, you know, we had a clear idea of what we wanted our brand to stand for from the very beginning. And we stand for exactly the same things now. You know, everyone's invited to our party. Nobody's too cool for school. It's democratic, it's approachable. We take our work seriously. We don't take ourselves too seriously. Those types of characteristics of the brand, they they spill into our culture. But we were really intentional about the culture as well. Core values for us are really important. I sit down with every new Blu Dot employee one on one and go through all of our core values. And then we reward people quarterly on somebody who's demonstrated one of those values in a great way. But I think earlier on in Blu Dot's history, we might have discounted the importance of that kind of stuff. And I remember, in business school, taking classes and thinking that was kind of the soft stuff, that it wasn't as important as market strategy and finance.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:09:23] And "corporate-y"

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:09:24] Yeah. And kind of big company "corporate-y".

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:09:27] To have core values is kind of corporate-y.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:09:29] Yeah, but it's super important.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:09:30] I was going to say that we've actually kind of found that it feels "corporate-y" when they have to be explicit, when you have to write them down. Because you've been living them for a bit. So you kind of stepped into it a little bit ahead of the game, which is also impressive. So I was thinking about impressive things about Blu Dot and congratulations on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Award. That's pretty amazing. How does that happen?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:09:59] 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:10:02] Overnight success?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:03] No, no, no, no. I mean, that doesn't happen to a lot of people.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:10:07] I think what was important for us when we got that award, the jury specifically acknowledged our business model as the reason they gave it to us. It wasn't just because we design pretty things. This idea of democratizing design and accessibility in design and all of those values that I think makes us different than a lot of other companies in this industry were the things they acknowledged us for.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:10:29] And acknowledgement that we're actually getting that work out into the world. You know, it's not something that's designed and a few things are produced--you know, 10 of them are made and it doesn't have much of a impact in the overall landscape. I think they were acknowledging the fact that because we undertake all those other steps, the selling in the marketing and distribution of our own work, that it's impacting more people's lives.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:54] OK. So we've talked all the way around... Not specifically about the solutions and what it is that Blu Dot presents, bestows, gifts to the public. When you talk about collections or strategy how did you... It didn't all start with one of everything. Though I do see that you have large quantities of new things coming out on a regular basis. So how do you how did you work through going to do seating or tables or...

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:11:33] I don't know, I guess an evolution. I mean, we started and really the first collection that John and Charlie and I designed, the three of us, we had to be able to make it ourselves. We had to be able to make the prototype. So you had to be able to make it on a table saw or a drill press and maybe cut a tube or something. So that kind of defined the first assortment. And then I think after that, it just was kind of a slow evolution of seeing holes in the assortment and saying we need to do upholstery now, we need to do upholstered seating. Or we need to do lighting, or once we opened stores we needed rugs and we needed small accessories and... It's just been kind of a slow evolution.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:12:08] It has been. I think our initial collection--which was about 16 or 17 pieces, even though it didn't include upholstery and it didn't include rugs and lighting and some of those categories--it was deliberately broad, I guess, in the sense that it ranged from a small accessory, like a magazine rack all the way to a really large wall unit storage system that was seventeen or eighteen hundred dollars. And then everything in between. Not everything in between, but fifteen other pieces in between...

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:12:33] But we did want to signal that it was a broad collection. It wasn't just desks or CD racks. We did a really good CD rack. It doesn't sell much.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:12:45] I have about two thousand CDs. Maybe I could pick up a few of those extra ones. Anyway, the the idea of design and the three of you starting design... How many people work for Blu Dot now?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:13:00] In the US, 175. And in other parts of the world, 50.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:07] So you must have a few more designers.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:13:10] We do. We have five five designers.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:14] Five designers who are coming up with just amazing amounts of new introductions. And I kind of think you're an interesting organization in that all of your design is in-house. So would you speak a little bit about that?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:13:30] Well, one, it's the reason we started the company, I mean, we were designers and we wanted to be able to spend our days doing what we love to do. So we get pitched all the time, people sending emails saying, would you would you consider my design? And our response is always the same: I'm not even going to open the attachment. This is why we started this company, so we selfishly keep it to ourselves. So that's why on a percent of what we sell, we design.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:13:59] But the process is really collaborative. I mean, from that first assortment that we spoke about earlier where the three of us literally sat at a table with butcher block paper and just sort of sketched over each other. And now it's still a very collaborative process. We have a meeting every Thursday that's the design team--so the five designers, plus the head of engineering, John, myself. An assortment of planning, creative, of visual merchandising, like everybody is there. And it's really--the designer gets up and says, this is what I'm working on and here's where it is. And everybody sort of pitches in and says maybe it should be blue and maybe it shouldn't be that wide. And we talk a lot about the way it functions and what value does it add and what purpose does it serve. So that is really collaborative process. So we when we started Blu Dot, we were kind of reacting against sort of the heroic modernist, you know, single designer person, Where all the credit went to that one person. And I think what we tried to do was acknowledge the fact that it's the entire company really that brings the stuff to life. It's not just that designer.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:15:00] Which underscores that culture and that kind of integrity of the democracy of your solutions. So, you're designing all of these different collections. How many of them remain in the catalog or in your inventory and how many of them cycle through?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:15:22] It's pretty slow.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:15:24] I mean, our goal is for them to live forever. But obviously that doesn't happen for a variety of reasons. Whether they don't sell as well as we had hoped or we ourselves kind of don't like them as much as we once did. There are some pieces in our earlier years that I think we're less proud of than others. But we have, you know, the Chicago Eight Box, that big wall unit that I told you about was in our initial collection. We still sell today, 22 years later, it still sells very well. I'd love it if it was there 20 years from now. That's the goal with everything we design. It doesn't always work out that way.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:02] So we are in the commercial contract furniture business as compared with the more residential and retail. And what percentage of your business right now is contract versus retail?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:16:14] It's hard to say because even through retail or even through our web site, you know, there are trade and contract purchases. So actually probably the majority of some of our retail sales are not residential. Are in a commercial purchase. So probably at least half, yeah.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:36] So you have recently entered into a relationship with Steelcase, which is a fairly large organization with I would say, I think, global coverage. What does that mean? As a representative of one of the major Steelcase distributors on the West Coast, what does that mean when we have 90 people out selling Blu Dot?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:17:00] It's great.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:17:03] It’s awesome.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:17:04] I mean, if the reason we started the company was to get good design out in the world. I mean, to hook into an entity like Steelcase is amazing.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:17:10] We were super honored that they reached out to us and and sort of threw out this idea of a partnership. Our business in this realm had been growing a lot on its own, but without much outward sales effort on our part. I mean, we were kind of catching and not pitching so much. So we knew that the appetite was there. Absolutely. With this "resi-mercial" trend our our lineup really suited that very well. So to then team up with Steelcase and have the combined power of their...

CCB (One Workplace): [00:17:45] How big is your manufacturing facility?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:17:49] Well, we we outsource... We partner with manufacturing parties. But our warehouse is insanely big.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:17:57] Because we're a contract manufacturing, our factories are essentially infinite. We keep growing it, keep finding new suppliers.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:06] Our listeners like to know who are the users and who do you see as being target audiences. Are there installations or Blu Dot users that you just think are magnificent for the way that they're using the product?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:18:24] I feel like I see Blu Dot all the time now, which is super gratifying just to be walking around and seeing our chairs out in a cafe or in the lobby of the hotel or in somebody's house. I had a friend who was visiting a friend in in Tel Aviv and walking into their apartment and the entire apartment was Blu Dot and he was like stunned. I don't know how it got to Tel Aviv, but it did. I think we're being used a lot in office settings as you know. But we're doing hotels, restaurants, homes... All over. I mean, the pieces are always designed to have that kind of versatility, to live kind of equally well in a lot of those different environments. They're built to last in a contract setting without looking contract.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:12] One of the other Steelcase partners came in and was explaining their offering as the cherry on top of the cake. That's Steelcase has the cake mix down totally. But to add that icing and the cherry on top. And I'd be curious what metaphor you would pick for the Blu Dot.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:19:38] Sprinkles.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:39] Sprinkles! Everywhere.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:19:45] Yeah, you know, it does serve that purpose. I mean I think there's some... Our collection is is pretty large. I don't know how many unique designs we have, but it's in the hundreds. So you can get a lot done with with our collection. It's not a 20 piece collection or 30 piece collection. So there is some steak and there is some sizzle.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:20:07] I think there's some basics there. I mean, we don't get into, you know highly functional workstations and things like that, but I think you could do a lot with Blu Dot.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:20:16] Well, I think that we all agree and there's a good deal of Blu Dot being specified, I know, across the numbers of industries and vertical markets that we work in at One Workplace. So tell me about, from an inspiration standpoint... you've addressed this kind of loosely, but how do you keep being inspired to bring new designs out? What helps you?

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:20:43] We get that question fairly frequently. And it's a hard question to answer because there's no simple answer. I think there's just a lot of different things that sort of inspire us... and I'm using air quotes for those people on headphones. But, you know, it may be something as simple as looking at our assortment and saying we're missing a sofa that does this. We have a sofa that does this, this and this. But we don't have anything that does that. So how can we address that need? Or it's a scale issue: we don't have a desk that's really small or we don't have a desk that's really big. And so some of it's inward looking. It's looking at our existing assortment. Some of it's being inspired by other things we see going on in the marketplace and what people are doing. And some of it's just looking at art or looking at, you know, an industrial shed on the plains of Minnesota and saying that's kind of a cool form that looks like it could be something. So I think it's a wide range of things that we're inspired by.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:21:39] Just being curious, basically. And just being observant. The three of us traveled around the world together after college for a year. And we realized not long after we started that trip that we kind of were jonesing on the same kinds of things. You know, like really picking out little details and just being curious about different things.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:22:00] And how things are made. I think it's really important for us to know and our designers understand how things are made and what capabilities we have, what machines are out there and what finishing capabilities are there. So it's all those things.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:11] Usually I would ask what's your favorite piece? But I can't ask you that because you don't follow that path.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:22:19] The next one.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:20] OK. Curiously an appropriate answer. Is there anything about Blu Dot that you would like to share with our listeners? Anything that you think they need to know or that they don't know?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:22:33] I think we've talked about a lot of it, but sort of, you know, everybody's welcome. I hope people will just stop into one of our stores, go to our web site, check it out if they don't know us

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:43] Here on the West Coast, aside from One Workplace and perhaps one or two other Steelcase distributors... I just saw you opened a retail store in Portland.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:22:53] Yes.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:54] Congratulations. That's exciting. Is there one here in San Francisco and in the Bay Area?

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:22:57] There is.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:58] Where's that.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:22:59] On Valencia in the mission?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:00] Yeah. I should know. It's my old hood.

John Christakos (Blu Dot): [00:23:04] 17th and Valencia,.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:06] I'm going to run there right now and check it out. All right. Maurice and John from Blu Dot, thank you very much for spending time with us. We really enjoyed it.

Maurice Blanks (Blu Dot): [00:23:16] Thanks for having us.