KALON / MICHAELE SIMMERING / JOHANNES PAUWEN
Kalon was founded by Michaele Simmering and Johannes Pauwen in Los Angeles, California in 2007. Their furniture is rooted in natural materiality, design integrity, and emotive quality, exploring the resources of the North American and European ecologies where their work is also produced and sold. At the same time, they consider their pieces through long timelines of function and adaptation based on the user’s changing needs.
What elements of your business model have proven resilient to COVID-19?
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 minimizing 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.
How did you develop your online strategy?
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 colors 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 instill confidence that our brand will make every product to the same, high quality. The real driver for us is word of mouth.
What does it mean to launch your new collection, Rugosa, online through the Virtual Design Festival?
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.
How did your focus on materiality and sustainability influence the design for Rugosa?
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.