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Turning the Tables
Marissa Conrad | Photo: James Bernal and Justin Le | July 1, 2013
A Chicago company spins furniture shopping on its head with easy access to singular designs.
“Want to hear something about these couches?” asks Sameer Dohadwala, gesturing at the overstuffed S-shaped sofas in 1871, a shared office space for tech startups on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart. “They used to be in Marina City. Cool, huh?” A few dozen feet from the sofas are tall tables “made from old bowling lanes,” points out Dohadwala’s business partner, Samer Saab.
Even a year ago, the men probably wouldn’t have known—or cared about—the origin of a retro yellow couch or high-top table. In early 2012, Saab was working at a consulting firm and Dohadwala was testing recipes for a restaurant concept. But after the annoyance of moving a friend’s clunky desk, the pals were inspired to sketch a sleeker design. We can make that, they thought. Dohadwala went to Home Depot and got to work in his dad’s basement. “It ended in a pile of broken wood,” he says. “It was a terrible idea.”
Luckily, it spawned a better one: Unbranded Designs (unbrandeddesigns.com), a new Chicago company that connects talented furniture designers to shoppers by bringing to life the best pieces of the local design community. After searching for someone to build the desk they had in mind, Saab and Dohadwala, both 27—along with Unbranded co-founder and former University of Michigan classmate Max Greenblatt, 26—discovered dozens of architects and interior designers harboring ideas for furniture “way cooler than what’s at Room & Board or other stores,” says Dohadwala. “We asked, ‘Why are you guys not selling this?’ They either didn’t know manufacturers or didn’t know how to market their designs.”
Enter Unbranded. On a tidy website, anyone can submit plans or sketches for any type of furniture. Saab, Dohadwala and Greenblatt choose the best designs based partly on customer interest (vote online for the ones you’d buy), then partner with local manufacturers to produce a limited run. For customers, it’s a fast, easy way to get high-concept furniture: Order online for delivery in as little as two weeks. Since May, the men have unveiled about a half dozen for-sale items on the site, with many more to come.
In online videos, designers share the story of each piece. You’ll learn that Chicago ironworker David Greene’s chic steel bar stool ($275) is an engineering marvel, handmade with just one hidden welding seam. Local design student Adele Cuartelon’s sturdy walnut chair ($750) has a bowed back so you’re comfy slouching or sitting up straight. A coffee table ($750) by Chicagoan Phillip Royster features taut strings of wire that curve like a tornado under a glass top. “1,700 feet of fishing line is woven through almost 600 holes in the American hardwood frame, giving [the piece] strength and beauty,” the designer explains in his two-minute video, which shows him sitting on the lakefront, sketching the design in a small notepad.
“Someone can walk into your apartment and see this crazy [table made with] fishing wire and say, ‘What is that?’ And you can say, ‘Actually it’s from this cool designer,’” says Dohadwala. He points to the popularity of sites like Etsy and Kickstarter, which both feature handmade products from solo artisans or small shops. “People love unique things that have a story behind them. And they love to support independent designers.”
They’ll also love one more thing about Unbranded: a generous 30- to 60-day return policy. “We want people to experience [the site], to try it,” says Dohadwala. “We obviously believe in it.” Adds Saab: “This isn’t just furniture—it’s art.”