8 August 2018 Issue 24: Aug/Sep 2018

How Opendesk is turning the tables

How an open-source furniture company – with a global network but a hyper-local manufacturing model – is transforming the industry.

A web platform that connects designers, makers and customers – cutting out middlemen, storage, shipping and showrooms – Opendesk began life as a student idea. 

An architect by training, founder Joni Steiner pitched up at the Royal College of Art in London and, with his peers, started thinking about how technology could improve the furniture industry. ‘I believed that furniture needed to be made more locally to cut down on waste and transport costs,’ he says. As with other industries, words like ‘on-demand’ and ‘hyper-local’ were entering the fray: why not for furniture? 

Along with fellow student (and now co-CEO of Opendesk) Nick Ierodiaconou, Steiner set up a company called Architecture 00 and in 2012 they designed the ‘lean desk’, a four-person workstation that has since become Opendesk’s signature piece. 

‘It was a humble commission for tech startup Mint Digital in Clerkenwell,’ recalls Steiner. ‘They hadn’t found any furniture they liked on the market and wanted to try something new.’ The team at Mint liked it so much they asked Steiner if he could send more to fit out their New York office. ‘But this seemed a very inefficient way of doing it,’ recalls Steiner. ‘Why not just email the design to a maker in Brooklyn?’

Following that realisation, Steiner and Ierodiaconou launched Opendesk in 2014 and began to think about working globally, mobilising joiners, carpenters, fabricators and makers across the world to provide furniture to local customers using Opendesk designs. 

‘These workshops have the tools but often don’t do marketing or even have websites,’ says Steiner. Most are small – shop fitters and surf-board makers – with digital cutting machines sitting unused some of the time. ‘They’re a great resource but a low value part of the chain.’

The idea proved popular: Opendesk won an Innovate UK grant which it matched with Crowdcube funding, hitting a £250,000 target in under 24 hours. 

‘In our model the furniture is made on demand, so it empowers maker, designer and customer and is much faster than a major supplier,’ says Steiner. There’s no shipping involved to slow things down, so each job can be turned around as fast as the makers can work: the record is a 24-hour turnaround for an order of office furniture. ‘Furniture can also be tailored to each office, so if you have annoying columns it can be resized, just like that,’ adds Steiner.

After an initial flurry of publicity in 2015, Steiner and his colleagues began to receive designs from all over the world, including Asia and South America. ‘We have still got hard drives full of them,’ says Steiner, although not all of them work, and some – notably a hanging desk-cum-hammock – didn’t quite make the cut. 

Eventually, Opendesk hopes to be a platform for emerging designers, but at the moment the majority of its designs are generated in-house. Steiner is actively working on ways to grow the network – such as producing a design guide for university and design school students. 

Opendesk’s earlier customers tended to be non-governmental organisations or young tech companies that were typically stranded between Ikea and expensive bespoke options with long lead times. Now it’s also working with small teams within corporates like Barclays and UBS. 

Opendesk’s makers are a mixed bunch, including Renatus, a church organ maker based in Devon. ‘They weren’t getting many orders so they share their CNC capacity with us,’ says Steiner. CNC machines are found in most furniture workshops and can be easily programmed to cut Opendesk’s digital designs. ‘After all,’ Steiner adds, ‘if they can make church organs they can make oak desks for companies.’

In terms of pricing, Opendesk is mid-range and proudly transparent. It breaks down the costs of each job: normally about 10% to the designer, 60% to the maker and 30% to Opendesk itself. The Lean desk sells for about £1,400. ‘It’s important for us that we’re not in a race to the bottom, trying to squeeze the manufacturer or designer,’ says Steiner.

There are about 45 Opendesk affiliate workshops in the UK. Some are crafts-based while others ‘bash out kitchen cabinets’, as Steiner puts it. 

Globally, meanwhile, the company is scaling up fast. Opendesk has already worked in cities such as San Francisco, Stockholm and Berlin, and is increasingly reaching into places like Mexico City and Brazil. Currently, Opendesk farms out work to around 500 makers in 120 workshops in 40 cities across 32 countries: a network that can expand and contract depending on demand.  

It’s planning to expand and grow – and innovate – further. The company expects to approach VC investors later this year, and is also hoping to cater to a broader mix of consumer needs, from home offices to educational spaces. 

More collaborations are on the way, too. Last year Opendesk was approached by Ikea’s innovation lab to look at workplace add-ons – think side tables designed to attach to sofas. Steiner is also looking at how Opendesk could use novel materials – like plastics made from waste consumer goods. ‘We like to face challenges. It’s part of the fun.’