February's meetup — held in our new location, the Deepak Homebase at ABC Carpet & Home — started off with our “warm-up” series featuring two guest designers.
John Berg of Berg Design Architects shared several of his furniture pieces, designed primarily for his architecture clients. He believes that furniture should be functional first and foremost, yet also be a work of art within the space it inhabits. Each piece represents his design philosophy of marrying three forces of artistic tension: modern geometry, natural finishes, and enigmatic / quirky elements that imply movement within the piece.
The Symbiotic Dining Table has a bleached chestnut wood top with blackened steel legs reaching through the surface of the tabletop, placing the “quirky” element right on the surface of the piece. The leg fasteners are concealed, making the fluidity of the piece even more pronounced. The Quandry Table, a runner-up in Apartment Therapy’s recent design competition, has been produced several times for various clients. The Escher-esque geometry of the legs implies fluidity and movement, while the modern form reflects a clean aesthetic. The Boat Table, made of wood and glass, has a sinewy frame that belies the strength of the piece, while the Coffee Table for a Collector, John’s first design, allows the client to exhibit his or her favorite collectibles in between two sheets of glass. The final piece John shared with us, the Triangle Lamp, is a beautiful form, somewhat like a deformed equilateral triangle. While John is not mass-producing pieces as of yet, he would like to explore that opportunity.
Alexandra Ferguson, Founder of A Sassy Little Pillow Company, shared her wares with us, from her first Be Nice or Leave pillow to some of her latest statement pillows, including Let’s Make Out and Go to the Gym. When she started, people told her the pillow market was saturated, that there wasn’t the need for another pillow designer. Alexandra boldly combined frank statements with her desire to create a sustainable product and went to market. Each pillow is made of 100% recycled materials, from the felt cover (made of recycled water bottles) to the fill, and is 100% made in the USA. Alexandra’s products can be found online in her Etsy store and at stores all around the country.
Sophie Demenge & Michael Ryan of OEUF
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: One of the great things about design is learning the story behind the product or space. Lives of designers are very interesting, and the path to get to where they are today is never a straight one, as we’ve learned over the years from speaking with so any of them. We’ve heard from students and recently-established product lines through our “warm-up” series, and from more established designers in our 1-on-1 series.
Tonight I’d like to welcome Sophie Demenge and Michael Ryan, the French/American husband and wife duo behind the children’s clothing line Oeuf. A little background on both of them: Sophie was born in Paris, studied at the Sorbonne, moved to San Francisco in 1993, and then back to New York to study Industrial Design at Pratt Institute. Michael was born in New York and started a Tribal and Ethnic Arts business as his first design effort. He then started a furniture and fabrication company in 1994, focused on the Hospitality industry. The two met in 1998, got married soon afterwards, had their first child in 2002, and founded Oeuf the same year. They now sell through 400 U.S. distributors, with the furniture all made in Latvia and the clothing line made by over 200 knitters in Bolivia. These locations, along with the materials used, are all conscious decisions of Sophie and Michael.
I had breakfast with Sophie and Michael on Monday, where we talked about how the environment change
in the last decade helped to redirect Oeuf. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
MICHAEL RYAN: I had my steel fabricating business back in 1992. Things were going well; I had a nice business, although it was a lot of hard work. Then I met Sophie in 1998, and everything changed — we bought a kiln, then a woodshop. We started making all sorts of non-steel items. All profit was going out the window — but the fun began!
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So how did you support yourself?
MICHAEL RYAN: We lived in a rent-controlled apartment, which helped. But then Sophie got pregnant, and we knew that we had to bring focus to the business, and what we were creating. We were shopping for nursery furniture to prepare for the baby, and we didn’t like anything we found.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Ah, so another example of design being born out of necessity.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Yes. Well, I said, let’s go to Paris and find some good furniture. And we didn’t find anything.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: At this point are you starting to worry about money?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: He worried.
MICHAEL RYAN: Yes. I worry and she dreams. It’s a perfect business combination!
SOPHIE DEMENGE: So we didn’t find anything in Paris, so I said, let’s make the furniture. We started with a crib, and some ceramic pieces.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Did you make it to sell?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: No, at the beginning it was just for us, we were exploring. And, we found it to be a lot more fun than adult furniture.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So you made some pieces and brought them to a trade show along with the adult furniture pieces Michael was already making. And you found that visitors to your booth liked the kids’ furniture more than the adult furniture.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Yes, there was nothing available in terms of nursery furniture at the time that was good quality and simple, modern design.
MICHAEL RYAN: We started out with a crib and a bouncer seat, that’s it. We were very fortunate with timing. We attended a trade show in 2004 which didn’t go so well, but in 2005, after the January (New York International) Gift Fair, we were featured on the first page of the Home section of The New York Times. It was an article on modern nursery furniture. BAM!
SOPHIE DEMENGE: We were selling our pieces before we even had a manufacturer.
MICHAEL RYAN: I’ll never forget it — I was up until 3am that morning answering email inquiries about our products, while thinking, how are we going to fulfill all of these orders?
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So it sounds like you were the one to find a manufacturer and make sure all orders were fulfilled and delivered in time. So how did you get there?
MICHAEL RYAN: I went to see the first sample and asked when they would start producing it. This was in April of 2005. They said they’d start producing in July and deliver in September. We had promised July delivery to our clients, so this obviously wasn’t going to work.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So when did they deliver?
MICHAEL RYAN: They ended up delivering in late July. Believe me, if it wasn’t for Sophie, we wouldn’t have made it. She’s really good at moving design along, where I keep fussing with it.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So you designed furniture first, and then the bouncer, which was hugely successful. And then the clothing line came next?
MICHAEL RYAN: Yes. For Sophie there are no limits. Like I said, she’s the dreamer of the company. She’s the one who pushes new ideas, and the clothing line was all hers.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: I met this Bolivian producer at the Gift Fair. She was there selling her crafts, and we started talking. She wanted my opinion on her goods, so I told her — I thought the aesthetic wasn’t totally there, but her craftsmanship was superb. She asked if she could design for me and then I would sell the goods. So that’s where we started, with four knitters in La Paz, Bolivia.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I love the story you told me about the first sweater that came back with a 5’ long sleeve.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Yes, it was a bit of a learning process when we first got started. And it required a lot of tough love. We had to refuse a shipment once, which was heartbreaking. But we now have 200 knitters, their children all go to school, and they all have health care. We feel very honored to be working with them.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: It sounds as if it’s important to you that manufacturing stays on track and that you stick with the same workers?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Yes, absolutely. It’s a partnership at this point.
MICHAEL RYAN: I deal with the furniture factory, and Sophie deals with the clothing, primarily. The nature of the two businesses is very different. I remember my first visit to the factory in Latvia — the CEO was very welcoming, but the President was not. At that point we only had the cover of The New York Times Home Section to point to; we were still a small operation. So, they didn’t know how much they wanted to trust us and work with us.
MICHAEL RYAN: At that point we had a lot of press, but no orders. We didn’t know how to price or produce.
MICHAEL RYAN: We never sold this commercially. As we learned, it is very expensive to make. We knew we didn’t want to be selling to the high-end market,
MICHAEL RYAN: These were mostly given to friends during the early stages.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So how do you decide what goes into production?
MICHAEL RYAN: It’s really determined by what the retail price will be in the end.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: How expensive was too expensive at the time, say for the Plexi crib?
MICHAEL RYAN: It would have retailed for $1,400 or so.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: This is also a product that came out of necessity. We wanted something that was simple and self-soothing. My mother-in-law gave us a bouncer that was anything but that — polyester, noisy toys. It was a very freaky apparatus. We didn’t want our newborn in something so aggressive. We had a sewing shop, so I got some nice canvas and Michael bent a stainless-steel frame. This is designed to allow the child to bounce when he/she wants to.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: It’s strange that this simple design was missing from the marketplace.
MICHAEL RYAN: Yes. And it’s produced locally.
MICHAEL RYAN: Here’s the article that put us on the map. We’re featured with Meadow, Nursery Works, and a few others.
MICHAEL RYAN: This is our home in Brooklyn. It’s also the scene of many photo shoots.
MICHAEL RYAN: Sophie took these pictures. She feels very honored to work with them.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: I feel inspired during every visit.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: We like our kids to see how other people live. Here we are in Bolivia, but we’ve also taken the kids to Latvia.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: We wanted to keep the workers working throughout the year, so we came up with a line of toys.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Hearing how you relate to the workers makes it clear that you are really helping them and their families, and vice versa.
MICHAEL RYAN:It was shocking to folks when we came out with this line. Again, this was Sophie’s idea! Now, grey is everywhere.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Years ago, we had black furniture that people kept calling navy. We told them, it’s not navy, it’s black! They were afraid to call it that.
MICHAEL RYAN:The top middle picture is the view out the factory door.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: You’ve come full circle, now travelling back to Paris with your own furniture line, selling in major French stores.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: It is very humbling. Really, we don’t take any of this lightly. It truly is an honor to be doing what we’re doing.
MICHAEL RYAN: As you can see, they wear our hats a bit different in Europe. They have a lot more fun with them.
MICHAEL RYAN: The bunk bed is multi-functional: it can be two beds, a bed and a desk. The girl you see in the picture is our oldest, she’s now 9.
MICHAEL RYAN: While my style is considered more modern, I’m not afraid of tradition. I like mixing the old and new in my work. I’m trying to create a timelessness with these pieces, where styles and traditions are not so clearly defined by time.
Q: I love the Plexi crib. Would you ever reconsider producing this commercially, since people are now more apt to pay more for a crib?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: I think we both feel like we’ve done this and are moving on to new products.
MICHAEL RYAN: Besides the cost factor is the material factor. This crib is plexi, a polycarbonate, which is now banned. I’m not sure how much “bad” stuff this crib contains, but we’d have to revisit that first to even reconsider making it again. In everything we make, we consider: 1) practicality, 2) safety, and 3) design. When we first started making cribs, we did a lot of research into why cribs are often banned in the first place. In 2002 there was a ban on drop-side cribs, as they were found to be unsafe. So, we designed one without a drop-side, and were the first to do that. We took a chance, but we didn’t want to have that issue.
Q: I am a mother of two, and my son was born in 2004. Your cribs were some of the first ones we looked at. I just wanted to say thank you for making such a wonderful product, and for putting so much into everything you do.
MICHAEL RYAN: Thank you so much. We take the development of our products very seriously. And as you know, recalls are even more of a problem in the baby business, so we do what we can to create a good product. In fact, when we first started, I went and bought the hardware for the drop-side cribs, to see what the problem was. It was such an easy problem to fix — if they had put just a little bit more money into it, the recalls and injuries wouldn’t have happened.
Q: How did you select the factory? And what safety testing did you go through before selling?
MICHAEL RYAN: There are two governing bodies in the U.S. — the A.S.T.M. (American Society for Testing and Materials) and the C.P.S.C. (Consumer Product Safety Commission). The ASTM is voluntary, while the CPSC is mandatory. We use both to test our cribs. As you may or may not know, cribs are deemed hazardous overall, so the testing is very stringent. We send them to accredited labs for testing. Our factory produces for many companies, and follows TÜV standards, which is the European testing standard.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So how did you find this factory?
MICHAEL RYAN: I went to Furniture Today (trade journal) and browsed the online bulletin boards. I typed in “crib” and saw information on a Latvian factory. I contacted them, and while they were not the factory for us, the guy I spoke with referred me to someone else who was a good fit for us.
Q:Do you have any advice for designers trying to start a business in 2011? Or, what was one good thing you did, and one bad thing you did, as you were starting your business?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: If we had known how hard it would be, we wouldn’t have done it.
Q: True. I think we were very lucky with timing, and entering the market when it wasn’t saturated with this type of product.
SOPHIE DEMENGE: Mentors are also helpful to have as well.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Who were your mentors?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: I had great relationships with several Pratt professors. I was very focused when I was there — I even made up my own assignments sometimes, just so I could continue learning. I was relentless when many other students were not. I think the teachers appreciated honest eagerness.
MICHAEL RYAN: I think you have to be willing to do a lot — to move out of your comfort zone all the time. To constantly reinvent yourself to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in working together as a couple? And in working with others?
SOPHIE DEMENGE: It’s really great building something together. And I think it works for us because we are both good at very different things. We’re really each other’s cheerleader. It is hard, though — we’re in the same building every day and sometimes forget that we just need some 1-on-1 time.
MICHAEL RYAN: Believe it or not, we do find other things to talk about — like the kids, and parking!
SOPHIE DEMENGE: In terms of working with others, Michael is really the Woody Allen of the office, as you can probably tell. Oh, and he’s also the (only) man of the office.
Thank you Sophie & Michael!
Congratulations to the evening’s winners of the Oeuf Bat & Crown hats.
• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
Images: Herma Ryan, Oeuf