Class of 2020: How Ian Yang Rethought the Supply Chain to Make Beautiful Design Accessible to More People
Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.
Why Ian is part of the Class of 2020: “From day one, Apartment Therapy has been all about how we can live better. How our homes make our lives better, and how the right objects make our homes work better. I first learned of Gantri when one of their lights—the Orbit (it’s the futuristic blue one shown below)—made its way into our office. It was a whole new way to look at such a familiar object, the desk lamp, and I wanted to know more about what kind of thinking went into making it. Once I learned how Ian rethinking the whole design process as a new dialogue between designer and consumer, I realized he was on to something new—and something big. Ian was an obvious choice to represent the idea of how tech is making our lives simpler and better, a perfect complement to the smart products Samsung is making for our homes right now.” —Maxwell Ryan, founder and CEO of Apartment Therapy
It may be cliché to represent a good idea with an illuminated lightbulb, but for Ian Yang, there is literally no better symbol for creative thinking. Ian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Shanghai before studying Government and Economics at the London School of Economics and graduating with honors. He then worked as a business strategy consultant for OC&C, but that trajectory would soon be interrupted by a pesky passion for design.
Ian enrolled part-time at the design school at Central St Martins. Once he finished his degree, he committed to combining design and technologies to solve impactful problems, first working at a startup that used great design to make finding apartments less stressful. The trigger for Gantri came when he joined San Francisco’s TechShop to learn about 3D printing and realized what a powerful solution it could be to a problem he’d been thinking about since design school.
Ian had noticed that the world is full of great design ideas—but so few of them become great designs. The problem, he realized, was that developing an idea through to market takes a lot of time and money under the industrial manufacturing system. It also creates a lot of industrial waste. Why was this still happening in our age of infinite, accessible tech? Ian’s quest to answer this question gave birth to his company, Gantri, founded in 2017.
Gantri is a marketplace that allows leading lighting designers from around the world to prototype and manufacture beautiful, modern lights that are attainable and accessible. Scrolling through Gantri’s shop, you see eye-catching designs that are just funky enough to stand out, but retain classic elements that make them comfortable additions to the modern home. What you can’t see in the thumbnails is the streamlined design process that went into making them. With their Create Hub, Gantri is able to cut the product developmental process from 18–24 months to 12 weeks. 3D printing allows them to manufacture the products in house at a fraction of the cost, and they only manufacture in small batches as items are sold to reduce surplus waste. This streamlining cuts production costs, which makes the products attainable to many more consumers. This August, Gantri also launched its own 3D printer.
With Gantri, Ian has laid out a business model that brings beautiful, thoughtful design into more people’s homes. His rethought supply chain—from concept through manufacture to distribution—has the potential to be a ground plan for so much of what makes up our homes. It’s for this reason that Ian exemplifies the spirit of the Class of 2020 and the design principles that Samsung applies to our everyday appliances for smarter homes and easier living. Ian’s entire home is connected, from the door to the thermostat. “I love being able to walk out of the home and control every facet of my home with voice,” he says.
We asked Ian how the next wave of design is changing our lives now, and where it will take us next.
Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?
Ian Yang: I grew up in Shanghai in a Shikumen lane. Shikumen is a traditional type of Shanghainese townhouse that was originally built for working-class families. They became the de-facto urban “slum” because many families ended up sharing a small house with no running water or toilets. My family of five shared a one-bedroom apartment and lived in the same house with two other families. It was cramped! However, I have really fond memories of running around the lanes as a kid and admiring the intricate architectural details on the windows and arches—often stone carvings of flowers, leaves, or Chinese patterns. These artistic flourishes offered interesting contrast against the daily object of regular people: their clothes, bowls, buckets.
The house that I grew up in got bulldozed for a street expansion project. But contrasts in architecture and urban lives continue to inspire me every day. Everywhere I go, I deliberately look for these juxtapositions—where glass and steel meet street vendors, or where parametric design meets classical architecture. For example, the Basque Health Department Headquarters in Bilbao or views of the Shanghai Tower from the Old City or subtly oxidized copper facade of the de Young Museum against lushes of the Golden Gate Park.
AT: Is there a project you’ve worked on that’s especially meaningful to you?
IY: I’m not allowed to have favorites, but I’ll never forget my first design. When I started Gantri, I reached out to hundreds of designers to see if they’d like to collaborate with me to create luxury-quality, affordably priced 3D printed lights. Most turned me down because they didn’t think it was possible. Then I met Alex Chow—a brainy, soft-spoken RISD grad living in New York. I loved the poppy, friendly personalities of his design concepts, and to my surprise he gladly agreed to work on a design with Gantri. We prototyped so many versions of the design that became the Container Table Light, our best-seller for the longest time. This project really taught me perseverance in the face of adversity—something that’s really important for startup founders. I even kept an early prototype next to my bed to remind me of this every day.
AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?
IY: Humanistic. Logical. Creative.
AT: How has the union of tech and design changed our lives at home in the past few years?
I launched Gantri in 2017 to offer a new way for industrial, product, or furniture designers to bring their ideas to market using digital manufacturing technologies (specifically 3D printing). Since then, we have partnered with over 30 global designers to launch their own lighting products online. These products aren’t just original and unique—they’re easily accessible and affordably priced for any consumer looking to elevate their homes. Without digital technologies, not only would these designs never exist; they’d be priced way out of reach of most home shoppers.
AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?
IY: My partner, whom I’ve been with for over six years. I feel at home when we’re together. But if the space is calm, bright, comes with a fireplace and a bottle of whisky—even better.
AT: How do you use smart technology in your home?
IY: My entire home is connected—from lighting to door to thermostat to sound system. I love being able to walk out of the home not carrying any keys and being able to control every facet of my home with voice.
AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?
IY: Yes! We have a huge announcement coming in February 2020. I can’t share any details yet, but it will be amazing!
AT: Where do you see the design world going in 2020?
IY: I see two major directions the design world is going in 2020. First, explosion of DTC [direct-to-consumer] brands. I believe that we’ll start to see designers and designer brands create their audiences via social media and sell their original products through e-commerce platforms such as Gantri or Shopify. This has already happened in the beauty and fashion industries at scale and will soon hit home goods. Second, sustainability. Throwaway, low-quality items from value brands are increasingly eschewed in favor of items that are well-crafted and made from sustainably sourced materials. This isn’t just better for our environment; it offers real benefits to consumers in terms of durability and usability. And thanks to the internet, sustainably-made items don’t have to be luxuries either.