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How a San Francisco firm brings design smarts to home tech

Wit and beauty

Photo courtesy Branch

When it comes to design, sometimes it’s all about sweating the small stuff. Or so says Nick Cronan, a cofounder of San Francisco design and branding agency Branch. With a focus on advanced craft, and a penchant for intelligent work, the studio is giving home tech products exceptional form alongside their futuristic functions.

“Design in home tech is now table stakes,” adds Josh Morenstein, the other cofounder of Branch. “The home is a place where people typically surround themselves with objects the love. Poorly designed home tech will quickly become trash and without design, companies run the risk of never even getting a foot in the door,” Morenstein explains.

For the Branch team, this focus on the timelessness of an object’s look and feel is as much about benefitting the next generation as it’s about a reverence for the past. The studio tries to “balance new interactions, new technologies, new ideas, and, ultimately, new solutions,” says Morenstein.

For his part, Cronan says he was reminded by his daughter Sophia, who recently spent the day with him at Branch, of “how much of my childhood was spent drawing and building things at my parents’ design studio, where I learned to constantly challenge assumptions.” (Morenstein, too, has a parent in design; his father was an industrial designer and metal foundry owner in the 1960s.)

And this heritage is evident when you consider their work, and their philosophy. Recently, Branch—which was founded in 2013—moved into a brand-new workspace, a former foundry, to ensure they’re not far from a place to do what they love: get their hands working.

“Airplane Mode,” which Branch designed for Wallpaper* magazine’s Handmade exhibition at this year’s Milan Design Week, encouraged people to disconnect from their smartphones by stashing them away in a sarcophagus-like vessel.
Photo via Branch
In 2015, Branch worked with Google on designs for the company’s modular smartphone, Ara. Google later tabled the project.
Photo via Plume

And they’re spreading this love. Aside from the work they have created under their own banner, they have also collaborated with other creatives, like Italian lighting company Ghidini, Wallpaper* magazine’s Handmade exhibition at Milan Design Week, and Harry’s razors. They’ve also created a new furniture line, Drift, for Council (debuted at ICFF last year) and a new brand and product line for Plugged, offering luxury audio accessories at an affordable price.

Branch has also lent its design eye to Fellow Products, for whom the studio designed a minimal electric kettle with the deepest of black hues. “We pledged that we would try to maintain a diverse range of projects and clients: tech, housewares, medical, industrial, furniture—to have these wide range of experiences to draw on,” says Morenstein.

The base of the Stagg EKG kettle, designed by Branch for Fellow Products.
Photo via Fellow

“The Ghidini factory is in Italy, so when we started the project, we weren’t able to meet face to face at the project ‘kickoff,’ which is unusual for us,” says Cronan. “That said, working with them has been like working with old friends you haven’t seen for awhile. They have a strong history as a metal foundry so, ironically, despite the distance, we have lots of shared experiences.”

With Plume, a home Wi-Fi optimization company, things were much closer to home: The CEO of the company, Fahri Diner, was their neighbor in San Francisco’s Jackson Square. “It rarely works out that way, but it was nice to have that close proximity to a partner,” says Morenstein.

When asked how the Branch team approached reconceptualizing a humdrum object like the Wi-Fi box, Morenstein put it this way: “We needed to understand what Plume pods are replacing: ugly, confusing, unconsidered, blinking routers.”

Plume’s Wi-Fi pods plug directly into outlets in your home to distribute your wireless internet signal across your home.
Photo via Plume

Most Wi-Fi routers are designed in a way that seem “as if no one had ever considered that these devices live in the home,” Morenstein quips. “So we did exactly that; we created objects that feel at home in the home. The colors and materials reference traditional furniture and interior materials. We wanted the Plume pods to be your second or third read when you enter a room.”

“Tech doesn’t need to look and feel like tech, it should just work,” Morenstein says. “And it should be a pleasure.”