Rob Forbes, Founder of Design Within Reach & PUBLIC Bikes

Rob Forbes, Founder of Design Within Reach & PUBLIC Bikes

Kayne Rourke
Nov 28, 2011

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Rob Forbes of Design Within Reach & PUBLIC Bikes
Attendance: 264+
When: Thursday, November 10, 2011, 6:30pm
Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

We enjoyed another great design evening in NYC, complete with two "kick-off" presenters and our featured designer, Rob Forbes, Founder of Design Within Reach & PUBLIC Bikes. Read more about it below the jump and view the full evening via our Livestream recorded feed.

Please join us next month on Tuesday, December 13th when we welcome Alisa Grifo & Marco Romeny, founders of KIOSK. It's our annual extended holiday celebration (6-8:30pm) - learn more & sign-up here. We hope to see you there!


Kick-Off Presentations

Our evening started with two great warm-up presentations.


The first was from Brett & Rich of modkat. They shared their redesign of the traditional litter box, the result of focus groups as well as a full review of customer litter box comments on Amazon.

RobForbes_slide2.jpgTheir solution calls for top entry into the box which reduces litter tracking as it falls back into the box after the cat exits. The box also comes with an attached scoop and brush for quick and convenient clean-up. To answer the question of disposing liners, their litter box contains a tarp liner with handles, with a band that snaps around the outside of the box to hold it into place. It's durability means it lasts 6-8 months!


Brett & Rich received ICFF"s 2009 " Best Home Accessory" award for their design. When asked how to train one's cat to use this new type of box, we learned the answer is simple: cats will jump into an open box or bag any chance they get, so this is a natural fit for them.

Learn more at: ModKat.

Our second warm-up presenter was Eric Orenstein, who shared his "Untitled Coffee Table" with us.


Eric travelled in Southeast Asia for three months before moving back to Los Angeles after an 8-year stint in San Francisco. He moved in with his mom, who insisted that he get back to his creative pursuits. He found a class in furniture woodworking at Otis College and made this table, inspired by his Asian travels. The ends of the off-center legs peek through to the surface of the table, an asymmetrical form in itself. You can email Eric to learn more about his creation. He also wants to thank his mom for pushing him to pursue a creative goal once again!


Main Presentation


Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan:
Hello everyone, and thank you for coming this evening.

This evening's presenter, Rob Forbes, is best known as the Founder of Design Within Reach, and for the vision of a business that has grown into the leading retail destination for modern design in the US. In 2007 Rob formally left DWR to launch Studio Forbes, based in San Francisco, to further his interests in design, culture, and commerce. These interests, and his personal passion for bicycles led him to his new venture PUBLIC.


PUBLIC is a design based business with a mission to help us reduce our dependency on cars and think more intelligently and artfully about the way we get around and connect with our cities and communities. PUBLIC launched in May 2010 in San Francisco and has become the nationwide direct source for elegant modern city bikes and gear in the US. A video articulates the design concept.

Forbes' academic training includes a BA in Aesthetics from the University of California at Santa Cruz (1974), an MFA from Alfred University (1979) and an MBA from Stanford University (1985). His art career includes ceramics studio work and exhibitions in the US and teaching positions at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His business experience includes work here and abroad in retail management for Williams-Sonoma, London-based Selfridges, The Nature Company, and Smith & Hawken prior to Founding Design Within Reach in 1998 and PUBLIC in 2009.


I thought we'd start out the evening by exploring the conversation we started at breakfast a few days ago a bit more. You studied Aesthetics, and then decided to get your MBA. Can you tell us a bit more about how you decided on a Business degree after your undergrad studies?

I took some great classes in undergrad, including pottery, which I took for fun. I got a chance to work with some master craftsmen which was an amazing opportunity.

How old were you at that time?

About 19 or 20; it took me 7 years to finish undergrad. I took my time.

Did you know you'd be an entrepreneur?

I went to grad school for my MFA, really just hoping to find a way to make a living. I taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for a while, and was a studio artist for 10 years.

Then I went back to California for my MBA. I thought I'd go into Arts Administration. Honestly, if you're crazy enough to go from arts to business (MFA to MBA) it can truly be quite rewarding, and welcoming, contrary to popular belief.

You worked in retail for a while, right? Williams-Sonoma, and others?

Yes. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I got out of Business school - I knew I wasn't a finance guy, so retail made sense.

I got the job at Williams-Sonoma by telling them I'd be able to tell them what pieces were best for the store, and they bought it! At the time, the company was relatively small ($150M in sales, versus the currently valuation of $4B).

After a while I went to London to work at Selfridge's and spent a few years there. Love brought me there, and when it was lost I found myself back in California. I headed to Smith & Hawken; they were selling high-end teak to-the-trade, but then started to reach out directly to consumers, and it worked. At that point it hit me - I saw a larger potential market in what we were doing - high-end furnishings directly to consumers - and took a year to write the business plan for DWR.

You told me about how you found power in selling direct to consumers. Tell us a bit more about that.

This was happening in the early-to-mid 90's, before the internet took off. Selling for Smith & Hawken was easy - we sent catalogues to customers and they ate it up. I liked being close to consumers, too, there was something about reaching the end user that was very powerful, and something that hadn't been done in the high-end market yet. For architecture & design folks who were used to working with companies like Herman Miller, I thought, why don't we try selling Eames chairs? Again, at the time that type of direct-to-consumer relationship for high-end design just didn't exist. And of course, there wasn't an awareness of high-quality design as there is now.

And Smith & Hawken was always outdoor, right? They never really sold indoor furniture.

Correct. High-quality garden tools were in their inventory, but that's about it.


Did you have investors at the beginning?

I did. When I got back from England, I owned an apartment with a buddy, and not having any furniture in the US, I went out to purchase items for the apartment and found out how difficult it was to buy good furniture. I saw the need and knew I wanted to go out on my own - I felt strongly about the quality of good design. My first funder was a wealthy guy who had made his money on cat litter. It was tough convincing people that there was a market for my idea, but I did find them.

We're so used to having access to Eames furniture now - it's everywhere. But that wasn't the case at the time, as you're describing. Why do you think that was?

There was a pretty strong system in place between design centers & specifiers. They really had a hold on everything, and the old payment terms were pretty firm (50% down and wait 3 months for shipment). Design Within Reach was the first retail store to carry stock on these items, and with inventory at hand, we were able to provide a high level of service. It made design approachable and easy to reach.

Now it's fairly common to have access to these items, but it was quite revolutionary at the time.

We put everything under one roof and gave direct access to the public. It was a new model for good design.

So how did Studio Forbes come about?

I started Studio Forbes to allow for a way to get creative again, to figure stuff out. DWR was doing great, but I felt the need to do a bit of creative exploring. I played around with new and different concepts - Wine WIthin Reach was one of them, and in fact, I raised a bit of money for it. However, it turned out to be something I wasn't really passionate about - I returned the money and continued exploring ideas. This is when the idea about bicycles came up on my radar.


I care about products, but I also have a conscience - I thought, what can I sell that will make a difference?

Bikes are a good place to be. No matter what the product, I care about quality design. I saw potential in uniting my two passions.

When we were talking the other day you mentioned the tie between bikes and city transport, saying that successful cities are really judged on transport, and access for all. Can you speak a bit more about that?

Look, you're all smart design people. If I asked you about your own spaces you'd have very definitive ideas and answers.

Now think about cities, and the level at which people of all walks of life can enjoy an urban existence and access to all. I know I'm preaching to the choir a bit here in New York City, as 70% of you use public transport. It's truly amazing. It's just your way of life. Most of you don't drive. You have a very public life, interacting with people on a daily basis. Most of the country isn't like that, though - bicycles offer that opportunity.


Striped fender, PUBLIC bike.

I'm in the business of getting people to think my way. I care deeply about object and form. This striped fender is our little way of getting folks to think about bikes a bit differently, as an object that can be designed in a beautiful way.

Stripes again!

This is a piece of my pottery from 1983. I worked in multiples, allowing me to really look at the details as the series moved along. This is part of what trained my eye to design and details.

DWR catalogue, 1999.

It was a great company with great people. We sent out 250,000 catalogues and received shipments from Italy. We were ready to go, direct to the customer. It was great.

Tell us a bit more about this part of the product and how it was different from other catalogue companies?

We profiled the designers as well as the product. We had a great understanding of everything we carried: the designer, the materials, the inspiration for the product. We were selling value and wanted to express it fully to our customers.

Product & Designers displayed in-store.

First, we had 50 chairs in our inventory. Then beds, mattresses, etc. In our 3rd year we sold used Vespas from Italy. What a mistake! But a good experiment.

In 2002 we started Design Notes, a little newsletter.

Imagine back to the pre-blog Era. In this issue we talked about Holland, which really holds its own - from a Design standpoint - against Italy. Getting around on bikes in Holland changes the citizens' entire relationship with their environment - it makes them slow down and take in the world around them. This could be a reason why they have such inventive design.

Family transport in Holland. In the US we have kids strapped in cars, but there, they are free and open to the world around them.

People of all ages enjoy bike transport!

The city bike program in Paris - Vélib' - is amazing. It really makes paris a "Livable City". There are a lot of cities around the world that are starting similar programs, many of which are underwritten by advertising. New York will be getting a public bike program next summer!



I met with Mayors around the U.S. as well as urban planners. Most cities are asphalt, for autos. Cars are beautiful - don't get me wrong, I love mine, although I don't drive much anymore - but cars have done a number on the way we interact with each other.

Case Study House.

The 20th century in America was a great period for modern residential architecture and design, but not so great for city design.

Cover of PUBLIC catalogue. We target both women and men.


Image at big bike show in Europe.

PUBLIC Headquarters in San Francisco.

We had a "slow" race a while back, seeing how slow everyone could ride. We're encouraging folks to slow down and enjoy!

Retail store at 300 square feet.

We do sell nationally - the bike comes assembled and ready-to-ride. It's 15 minutes to unwrap & go.

We started slow, wanting to cover all regions but not gaining momentum. We had to rethink the program, and realized that "ready to ride" made more sense for our business model.

This is an aerial shot of where we work in San Francisco. It's called South Park, and it's a really unique little sliver within a fairly commercial district.

New York is really a fabulous model for urban living, as you all know. Parisian park furniture in Times Square - fabulous!

Some hotels have spec'd our bikes.

People lined up to get bikes.

People getting married on our bikes!

Maxwell and I met this woman outside Balthazar - Maxwell spotted the bike for its color, and I spotted it as one of ours! She was excited to see us and agreed to pose for a picture.

View of the High Line. I just love this project, it's such an amazing use of public space for all to enjoy. From PUBLIC's viewpoint, we're a staff of 5, and we make the effort to market everywhere. In the end, it takes a long time to change people's behaviors.

The bike movement is happening, but we don't want to be negative about cars, that's just not productive. Lauren, and SF store owner, created this installation on her own car. Again, a way to think differently about our transport.

Another High Line shot.


Thank you for a wonderful presentation. Can I ask where your bikes are produced?

We design them here, and produce them in Taiwan. Our mission is to be influential, and to do that, we need to be at a price point that is affordable and open for as many people as possible. The U.S. is the leader in hand-made bikes, but to produce a $500 bike, we have to go elsewhere. In fact, our Italian friends suggested Taiwan.

Do you know if the bike theft rate has gone down in cities that have PUBLIC bikes?

It's still a problem. I believe that with GPS imbedded chips it will definitely get better. Theft just happens everywhere - the thieves know what they're doing! We find that the majority of theft is user error ( not using a U-lock, for example). You just can't leave a nice bike out anywhere.

You said you make your bikes out of steel. Why not carbon or aluminum?

Steel provides for a slightly softer ride. It's also durable and provides smaller tubing. Carbon breaks a bit easier as well.

With PUBLIC you fully design the product. At DWR, you imported most of your product from Europe. Why aren't you attempting to make the product here?

Besides the cost issue, it's a fact that most U.S. bikes are made in Taiwan.

Is there a particular bike brand that you look to for design inspiration?

We call them high-quality generic - bikes that have endured through time. The mid-60's French design is a good model. The classic diamond frame ( a guy's bike, if you will) is a form that works well. Subtle changes in geometry make it more comfortable to ride upright, etc.

Your bikes come in beautiful colors. How closely are you involved in those choices?

I don't do the CAD drawings but I work right alongside the designers. I'm close to all of the visual details and decisions.

I'm a woman cyclist, and I'm really excited that you thought about us in your designs. I do find, however, that I often have difficulty figuring out what to wear when I ride. Any suggestions?

Adeline Adeline in Tribeca has some great clothing options for women. Camper pumps are also great for bike riding. I can say, though, that many women ride our bikes in all different sorts of clothing, which we believe in. The bikes work with you.

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Gabriel Sperber and Amy Patrick!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!
The evening's wines are graciously donated by Greystone Cellars!


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