No matter how much we may love a good Craigslist score or Ikea hack, there comes a point in life when even the scrappiest of us needs to step up our furniture game. And that’s precisely where WorkOf comes in. Since its launch earlier this year, the New York City–based company has taken aim at a niche in the market, promoting well-made, competitively priced home decor pieces from talented young designers and makers. We spoke with founders Charlie Miner and John Neamonitis, fresh off their WorkOf Apartment installation at NYCxDesign 2014, about their game plan. —Sean Santiago
Given your previous backgrounds in the financial world, do you have a clear idea of what young professionals are buying?
John Neamonitis: One thing we are certain of is that young professionals—and consumers in general—are seeking out quality. They are buying less and buying well. The notion of mindful consumerism that started in food has permeated furniture and fashion in a big way.
Charlie Miner: Aesthetic preferences range, but people want to express their individuality and find pieces that tell a story and have real personality.
The company has grown quickly in its first few months and now includes more than 300 design objects—the work of 40 designers. To what do you attribute that success?
CM: Growing up around the business and seeing the challenges faced by my uncle [furniture designer Tucker Robbins] informed me in a lot of ways, but ultimately it manifested itself in a desire to help the next generation of skilled makers reach the market more effectively. Which is, of course, a big part of what WorkOf is trying to do. There was no good platform for highly skilled independent designers to showcase their work. So we created a way to connect the people who wanted to buy original design to the people who make it.
Facilitating the collaborative process between designers, as with the sofa made by Farrah Sit and Rebecca Atwood, is an intriguing secondary function of the company.
JN: Yes, we absolutely want to help facilitate more cross-disciplinary collaboration. It's another way to offer our customers truly differentiated work.
CM: The origins go back to the Architectural Digest Home Show earlier this year, when Farrah Sit, Vidi Vixi, and Fox Fodder Farm participated in a booth with us. While it wasn't a collaboration in the strict sense of the word, it was most certainly a group effort that resulted in a lot of shared inspiration. Pieces that were made separately by different designers looked stronger in the context of the whole than they might have on their own.
Is a retail outlet crucial to WorkOf's success?
CM: We've always felt that offline events were an important complement to the digital experience of our website. We do our best to showcase beautiful, detailed photography on our site, but an image can only go so far. Certain aspects of furniture buying still need to be experiential, and we understand that. And offline events are a chance to make real-life connections between designers and buyers and strengthen the community we are building.
JN: When it comes to retail outlets, it's too early to tell. Right now we’re focused on building a strong digital presence. Do we look at the state of the furniture industry right now—the classic showroom model—and wonder if there is a better way to do things? Yes, absolutely.
WorkOf carries items from home decor accessories to furniture. Is a range of price points necessary to engage certain kinds of buyers?
JN: It’s important to us to create a product mix that is accessible to a wide range of consumers. We realize that handmade, artisanal furniture can be expensive, and a lot of products are aspirational. But we've tried to make it a point to have something for everyone on the site. And we've found that smaller, more accessibly priced products often serve as an introduction to a specific designer and can lead to more purchases down the road.
CM: I think the trickiest part for any brand is to represent a good mix of products and price points while maintaining exceptionally high quality across the board. That's really our goal—so a consumer can enter the WorkOf platform and purchase an item at any price and know that [item] is well made and built to last. This is a big part of the reason we decided early on that we were not going to launch a marketplace for hobbyists.
Are WorkOf designers the new heritage designers?
JN: It’s impossible to say with any certainty, because the answer comes with time. That said, no matter how you look at it—from materials to craftsmanship to originality—you cannot find what our makers offer at any mainstream retailer.
CM: Bringing this high-quality work to people who care is what will ultimately come to define it, and the people who made it, as the new heritage.