Michaele Simmering and Johannes Pauwen of Kalon Studios discuss how the company's "non-standard" approach has proven resilient to Covid-19 and explain how sustainability plays a part in its Rugosa collection in this interview for VDF's collaboration with Alcova.
The design studio said that it has had to evolve in a rapidly shifting manufacturing landscape. "We have focused on the future of the industry rather than on its immediate realities," Kalon Studios co-founders Simmering and Pauwen said in the interview.
"We employ suppliers and makers in local markets, sourcing high-quality natural materials and avoiding toxic chemicals and off-gassing."
Kalon Studios was launched in 2007, before the 2008 recession, which wiped out the traditional model of retail and forced the studio to make the digital experience as meaningful as a showroom.
"Our online aesthetic is pared-back to give space to the materials: the dominant colours and textures come from wood or textiles," Simmering and Pauwen explained.
The studio's new collection, Rugosa, came about after a conversation about the living room, which the designers saw as having lost its purpose. "We see the living room as a place for the mind," Simmering and Pauwen said. "Our challenge was to draw people into the room."
Just four materials, each one chosen to feel soft and inviting, were used for the Rugosa collection: sugar pine, Belgian linen, feather, and glass. The designers believe that people are beginning to apply the standards they have for food and beauty products to furniture.
"Now that we have all been spending more time indoors, we hope that we can start to think of the home as an ecosystem for a better life," Simmering and Pauwen said.
"We cherish the experience of exhibitions," the designers said. "But as strange as it feels to suddenly switch to online festivals, they do have certain advantages. Online releases give designers the flexibility to release work according to their own schedule."
Simmering and Pauwen joined Alcova for an interview about Kalon's work and its latest collection.
Alcova: What elements of your business model have proven resilient to COVID-19?
Kalon Studios: We started Kalon in 2007 and have learned a lot by surviving challenges like the 2008 financial crisis and a manufacturing crisis in 2015. Since the beginning, our approach has been non-standard in almost every way and over the years we’ve fine-tuned it. In COVID, the model has proven to be resilient. From the outset, we’ve taken a cautious approach to growth, prioritizing greater control and stability. We’ve focused heavily on diversification of product, sales channels, and production resources.
As a self-funded company, we are not beholden to investors with expectations of rapid growth and with diversified sales channels, we are not bound to galleries with exclusive rights and commission fees. We feel fortunate that our small studio was already prepared to work at a distance, and because our designs are made in smaller workshops and factories, most of our production has continued safely.
We strive to maintain a dynamic set-up that can scale up or down quickly, while minimising overhead and risk. We don’t build what we know we cannot sell. We don’t generate large amounts of inventory that we would be forced to sell at a loss. We don’t rely on a single supplier for a majority of our production, because it would leave us vulnerable to the whims of that vendor.
We have had to evolve in a rapidly shifting manufacturing landscape: in the past decade, the U.S. has lost most its wood working factories, and the few remaining are dedicating their resources to servicing huge companies. In order to survive, we have focused on the future of the industry rather than on its immediate realities. We employ suppliers and makers in local markets, sourcing high-quality natural materials and avoiding toxic chemicals and off-gassing. We believe in an expansive notion of sustainability that is not just ecological, but economic and social—a belief that is crucial to the longevity of any design business.
Alcova: How did you develop your online strategy?
Kalon Studios: Many designers begin with concept pieces and exhibitions, and overtime move into showrooms and then eventually into production. We did the opposite. The 2008 recession wiped out the traditional model for us: we faced a steep learning curve that did not leave endless room for free creative experimentation, but forced us to focus on developing our online presence and sales channels. Our immediate challenge was to make the digital experience as meaningful as a showroom. Over the last decade, as digital graphics and web design advanced, we’ve steadily improved our ability to communicate the quality and details of our furniture through the screen.
Our online aesthetic is pared back to give space to the materials: the dominant colours and textures come from wood or textiles. We write transparently about how the pieces are built, finished, and how the materials are sourced. We want to bring the viewer into the process, because many people have forgotten what it means to build a piece of furniture. The communication doesn’t end when someone chooses to buy a piece; we continue to tell the story.
Customer feedback is crucial, because it tells us if our digital representation is effective. Ultimately, words and images only get us so far; people have to feel totally happy with the pieces when they arrive. The quality should exceed their expectations and instil confidence that our brand will make every product to the same, high quality. The real driver for us is word of mouth.
Alcova: What does it mean to launch your new collection, Rugosa, online through the Virtual Design Festival?
Kalon Studios: We have done many online launches, and they can feel disorienting – a bit like an echo chamber. We were excited to show at Alcova and take part in the community in Milano for the first time in years. We cherish the experience of exhibitions. But as strange as it feels to suddenly switch to online festivals, they do have certain advantages. Online releases give designers the flexibility to release work according to their own schedule. Currently, many designers are struggling as showrooms remain closed or fairs are cancelled. Something is profoundly wrong if designers have everything they need to survive except access to the public.
If there’s an opportunity in this crisis, it is to look critically at things that were obviously not working, traditions that would have been too challenging to take apart before. We can now reflect as a global community and decide what to keep, what to lose, and how to put it all back together.
Alcova: How did your focus on materiality and sustainability influence the design for Rugosa?
Kalon Studios: Rugosa began with a conversation about the living room, a space we see as having lost its purpose. We see the living room as a place for the mind. Our challenge was to draw people into the room. The collection is designed to be inviting; to sustain your mind and body for long stretches of time. Ease and comfort were our primary focus. The chair and sofa are roomy, inviting freedom of movement.
We want our pieces to elevate, not dominate, the domestic space, to give back in sensibility and ease-of-use what they take up in volume. The Rugosa bookshelf is good example, whether completely filled with books or curated as a grid of vignettes, it is a showcase for objects of meaning and reflection. The collection is more about what’s happening around the furniture than about the furniture itself. Above all, we wanted to create a space for the mind to wander.
There are only four materials in the collection: sugar pine, Belgian linen, feather, and glass, and each one was chosen to feel soft and inviting, familiar rather than pretentious. We used linen because it is cool in hot weather and warm in cool weather, and we picked feather not only because it is a natural alternative to foam but also because it produces an irregular fill; to restore their shape you need to fluff the pillows and we preferred these organic, rumpled forms.
The general public has become conscious of the ingredients they put inside or on their body with food, clothing and beauty products—they are beginning to apply those standards to their furniture. Now that we have all been spending more time indoors, we hope that we can start to think of the home as an ecosystem for a better life.
Virtual Design Festival is the world's first online design festival, taking place on Dezeen from 15 April to 10 July 2020.
Alcova is a Milan-based platform established by Italian practices Space Caviar and Studio Vedèt, which champions independent design through a programme of exhibitions. The team consists of Valentina Ciuffi, Joseph Grima, Martina Muzi, Tamar Shafrir and Marco De Amicis.
The VDF x Alcova collaboration presents interviews with eight studios that were set to be featured at the platform's presentation during Salone del Mobile this year.