For over a decade, design-build firm Because We Can has been a pioneer in wielding in-house digital fabrication for the benefit of their clients. By marrying clever design with a mastery of CNC fabrication, BWC became the go-to firm for clients seeking stylish, functional and completely personalized work that could only be conceived of by human beings, and could only be (economically) fabricated by machines.
Their client list and range of work is broad--BWC's portfolio consists of architecture, interiors and furniture for both contract and residential clients--and during their 13 years of operation, co-founders Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup have run into plenty of challenges. Particularly with the furniture industry, where "the amount of waste is staggering," McGrew says. Environmentally-unfriendly materials being used to create short-lifespan furniture has been a sticking point for the sustainably-minded firm. And even when the furniture is manufactured in a sustainable way, the duo found that the lead times and sheer cost of custom furniture provided a significant obstacle for clients.
To solve these issues, McGrew and Northrup got together with industrial designer Adam Weaver and software engineer Vani Khosla. Together, the group co-founded Model No., an unprecedented type of furniture operation that leverages manufacturing technology in BWC's signature way. "We're using digital fabrication to make awesome, on-demand, customized designer furniture that folks have never seen before, and we're selling it directly thru the web," McGrew explains. "So it's like Nike ID and Nike Flyknit, but for dining tables and chairs." And as per the company's founding principles, both customizability and sustainability go hand in hand.
We interviewed McGrew, Northrup and Weaver to learn what Model No. does.
(This interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.)
Core77: What inspired the formation of Model No.?
Jeffrey McGrew: Through working with countless clients over the years to build and outfit their interior spaces, we came to realize the huge limitations in the furniture industry. We kept seeing the same problem come up again and again: People want custom designer furniture, but it was always too expensive, took way too long to get, and was really hard to order.
Are you talking residential or contract?
Jeffrey: Both. As one example, we're working on a high-end residence right now in Palo Alto, it's a fancy, minimalist modern house. The client ordered a custom dining table that's an unusual size. It took four months for them to get it, and the price was low five figures.
Another example: At Because We Can, we do a lot of creative interiors for start-ups and videogame companies. These aren't companies with a ton of money, but they really do cherish design and creative interiors--they actually use these interiors, which are sometimes over-the-top, as a marketing, recruiting and lifestyle tool, and to retain talent. And in all of the cases, these clients want custom conference tables. Even if we make it in our in-house shop with all of our digital fabrication stuff, it's still going to be a month or two, and it's still going to cost a lot of money.
Adam: And the other thing that we've identified over the years, is that the contract world is emulating the residential world, where the interiors try to be more like living rooms. And in some of these applications, the contract tables don't really match residential geometry. And vice versa with the home, where somebody sees a nice Steelcase or Herman Miller table that they like at work, and then they bring it home and find it doesn't fit. So there's this weird cross-pollination that's happening between residential and contract that's made clients a little more savvy about the dimensionality and what they want for their space.
How long ago did you notice the contract/residential line-blurring trend start to happen?
Adam: About six, seven years ago? And it's now mainstream.
Jillian: The residential look in the office is everywhere. Any large office you go into, they'll have a little space that feels like a living room. And vice versa.
Jeffrey: And as you know, much of the current furniture industry is very wasteful. It's not always made in very efficient or sustainable ways. One's options are often either 'one size fits all' or totally hand-made artisan bespoke. So much of it is made from unfriendly materials, and most ends up in landfills.
So the difference between what we're doing versus how the furniture world currently works is vast. We're on a trajectory to show the world that it does not have to be that way, that you can get a beautiful, striking piece of furniture that fits perfectly in your home or work (because you specified the size, shape and material), and not be contributing to harmful environmental practices by purchasing it or getting rid of it down the road.
How does Model No. tackle these issues?
Jeffrey: We've been interested in getting into a retail line of furniture for years, and the opportunity came to us last year to join up with some partners and seriously look into large-scale 3D printing and digital fabrication as a viable option for on-demand, customized designer furniture production.
After a lot of hard work, we've been able to develop what we think is the right combination of tools, technology, designs, and people to really change the designer furniture industry. Empowering customers to personalize their pieces, get quality designer items, but for reasonable prices and short ship times.
We're creating unique objects that are perfected for your needs, and not someone else's. Using generative / computational design, large-scale 3D printing, and other on-demand digital fabrication we're able to make all sorts of forms never really done before in mass-market furniture: Dynamic shapes that would be too hard or wasteful to cast or mill, and which can be totally customized to fit their uses much better. Tables that are just the size and shape needed, chairs that fit your body just so, interesting items that are really yours.
Also exciting are the bioplastics and sustainable materials we've been working with to manufacture all our goods, creating new material out of industrial food waste and turning it into something useful and beautiful. Then, at the end of its life, being able to city compost those goods, or send them back to us and we'll grind them up into new product.
That's a lot to unpack! First off, what led you guys towards generative design?
Jill: That's the answer to the ability to make things configurable for the consumer.
Jeffrey: And in order to hit a really short timeframe, where you can order a custom piece and get it in weeks rather than months, and possibly even faster, to hit that we have to leverage a lot of automation to make that happen. That naturally leads us into generative design. In the current scenario of ordering a custom conference table or seating element from say, Herman Miller or Steelcase, there are a lot of really manual steps that people are doing all along the way to fill that order. [Oftentimes] the designer has to go through everything manually and update all of this stuff to produce this one-off custom element.
Mainstream traditional manufacturing is actually pretty bad at creating one-offs. They're really good at when you need thousands of something, but if you only need one, traditional manufacturing is no more efficient or effective at doing that than a lot of bespoke shops are.
So part of our challenge was trying to figure out how can we hit the timelines and price points that we want to hit, but still maintain their design integrity of these really great, modern products.
Adam: Also, most manufacturers are building something once for a specific 99% of users in mind; but we're not taking the cookie-cutter position, and with that in mind, the generative design process allows us to write algorithms and programs that solve for some of the different geometries that it's going to run into.
Speaking of which, how will this work, from the customer's perspective? How will they be able to customize a piece?
Jillian: They can go onto our website, and there's a whole range of pre-configured products with different presets, so to speak, that we found were attractive. You can either purchase one of the pieces that's already designed, or you can click the 'customize' button and change that design to whatever specifications you're interested in: You can make it shorter, taller, skinnier, wider, you can add some form changes, you can change the color and the material.
Adam: And the configurator is highly thought out and thoroughly tested.
Jeff: It works in a way that you can't design something that's wrong--[it won't let you] configure a table that's ugly or that's going to tip over and not work.
Jillian: Or that can't be printed, that was a lot of it too. We are really pushing everything being made through additive manufacturing, and we have these designs that you can pretty dramatically customize. You can make them really short or really wide, and we wanted to ensure that we can print with no supports, so that we can keep both the lead-times and the post-processing low.
What are the sustainable materials and bioplastics you're working with?
Jeffrey: So the hardwoods we're working with are all FSC-certified hardwoods. We're sticking with domestic species that come from our region, so a lot of stuff that is coming from the western United States.
Jillian: The bio-resins are from a company that uses post-agricultural waste, mostly corn and sugarcane. These contain starch-like substances that they can boil down and create this plastic-like substance with. So it is compostable and county-waste-pick-up compatible, so you can literally put it in your city compost.
Adam: And most of the corn and sugarcane is initially used for industrial food operations, like factory farms and feed, and there is a lot of bio waste there. So they're taking the husks and the stuff that the animals aren't using, and they're turning it into plastic. Ordinarily they would burn those unused components or put it in landfill, so [this application is] better for the environment.
Earlier you mentioned being able to take the products back from the end user. Can you talk about that?
Jillian: We had an idea: We want to be able to accept pieces back, grind them up and use them--we can use 30% post-use bio-resin with 70% new bio-resin to make new products. Or we can use them for our prototyping purposes. We can also grind it up and send it to our local city compost. So we will accept pieces back and deal with them in the most eco-friendly way.
Jeff: And we've talked about restoring the pieces and reselling them.
Jill: The idea is that we could have a resale area on the site where prices are cheaper because they've been restored and they are used.
Jeff: In large part because in the contract and commercial furniture world, the amount of waste is staggering. Every five to eight years an office will get re-done and they'll throw away everything. There is a secondary market where some of that stuff gets re-sold, sometimes it gets reused, and to their credit some of the furniture vendors like Herman Miller have tried to make their products be more recyclable, or so that they can be disassembled and re-processed in some way. But we found, after doing research, that that only happens sometimes.
Jill: And we've been really inspired by the fashion industry, because right now they're doing it and really pushing it. There are high-end clothing brands that are taking back old product of theirs, rehabbing it, then reselling it at reduced rates, or turning it into new products, or appropriately disposing of it in an eco-friendly way.
Jeff: So in the future we might have a "creative colors series" or something like that, where the pieces are made using the 30%-recycled product, meaning the colors you'll get in those products are going to be a lot more varied and have a lot more interesting changes to them, and that's part of their allure and what will make them unique.
What are some examples of unfriendly materials used by the furniture industry?
Adam: Polycarbonate, which is a petroleum-based product that takes a lifetime to break down, and is not a very good one to recycle. And ABS, which is just in everything.
[Editor's Note: Both polycarbonate and ABS are technically recyclable, but are in the catch-all #7 category of "other" plastics, a mash-up of polymers that don't fit into the neat, single-material categories of #1 thru #6. As a result, special sorting and processing equipment is required to separate and recycle polycarbonate and ABS from the plastic lasagna that is #7, and if your local recycling center does not have this equipment, #7 plastics are simply diverted to the landfill.]
Jill: The ABS plastic is something that a lot of people are 3-D printing with. We are not using ABS plastic, we're using all PLA, which is the bio-resin.
Adam: Another unfriendly material are the foams the industry uses. There are so many styrenes out there--it's staggering, the amount of chemicals that are in furniture.
Jeff: Foam is a big one that we are really working hard to avoid. We're going to be launching seating soon, and we're doing it where we are not using foam.
Adam: Instead we're leveraging the flex of the materials we are using, and the geometry of bodies, to give comfort.
Jill: We're also investigating other ways to create a soft feel without using the traditional foams that most furniture uses.
What are some of the challenges you guys faced in setting up this kind of operation?
Everyone: [Variety of "Where do I start?" groans.]
Adam: All of it. I don't want us to sound big-headed, but being on the bleeding edge of how to have a graphical user interface that makes something highly customizable, and then put that into a manufacturing pipeline that's leveraging additive manufacturing in a different modality than is out there in the industry, is very challenging. For achieving the size of the printing and the volume that we want to do, we ended up going in a direction we never thought we would, and that's making our own 3-D printers.
Jill: We've had to solve a lot of problems ourselves, because there's not a lot of people doing what we're doing; we can't turn to another company for solutions on these manufacturing and design issues. From the technical side of the website and the design configuring to the printers themselves, the materials that we're using, and working with our vendors to solve additional problems.
Jeff: Like Adam said, not to get too big headed about it, but we've solved some big problems that nobody else has figured out how to solve. And we're doing things that nobody else can do right now, in terms of the production, the design and the configurability. So it's been extremely challenging for the last three or four months.
Jill: We started one year ago--but one year ago, we did not know that we'd be doing what we're doing now. I'd say six months is really how long we've been working on it, because before that we were still figuring out exactly what we were going to do.
What was your timeline?
Adam: The first four, five months, the first charter, was to see if this was possible. And once we had identified that it was possible, we rapidly shifted gears; six months ago we pivoted to bring products to market, because ultimately it was time and we could do some simple-yet-complex designs that would bring value to users.
And where are you guys at now?
Jillian: You can go onto the website and order pieces now, we're live.
Jeffrey: And because of the integrated design-to-sales-to-production tool chain we've developed, and the generative and parametric in-house expertise we've grown over the last year, we're really excited. I think we are going to be able to come out with new product lines several times a year, instead of the more typical once or twice a year most furniture companies do.
We're also coming out with seating and larger tables sometime this month. Watch Model-No.com.