Design shoppers inevitably encounter this dilemma: The affordable stuff isn’t appealing and the appealing stuff isn’t affordable. For over a century, modern designers have attempted to create the best for the most for the least, but few have been successful. And, in an increasingly volatile global manufacturing industry, it’s getting even more competitive, as West Elm’s new “exclusive retailer” arrangement with the cult design brand Good Thing shows.
Founded by designer Jamie Wolfond, Good Thing is known for designing, manufacturing, and retailing home accessories, furniture, and decor at affordable prices. The brand has grown steadily over the years to become a favorite of design blogs and boutiques; however, it’s always evolved in the context of an increasingly challenging design market. The West Elm deal reflects how hard it is for independent designers to thrive, how big brands are trying to remain competitive, and how the industry’s economics impact shopping for design.
Under the “exclusive retailer” agreement, West Elm will manufacture, market, and distribute all of Good Thing’s products. The retailer has not yet decided which products from Good Thing’s existing collection it will stock, or when the products will go live, though it estimates it will be within the next few months. The deal gives West Elm access to exciting new design and gives Wolfond steady business—without the headaches of managing a global supply chain.
“For what we were trying to do, a partnership with West Elm is a really great outcome,” Wolfond says. “Operationally, Good Thing is a very heavy company. We have a lot of different factories, different designers, and different products. For those reasons, it lends itself to a big company that has a big infrastructure, like West Elm.”
Wolfond established Good Thing in Brooklyn in 2014 to fill a gap in the market for affordable American-made modern design. As the company grew, its mission and execution changed with the realities of the furniture and design industry. Scaling with the existing vendors in Brooklyn was more difficult than anticipated and in order to grow and keep prices attainable, Good Thing decided to fabricate some of its products overseas with larger manufacturers. It also expanded its offerings from small household items—like hand-held mirrors, wood containers, and metal trays—to include textiles, lighting, and furniture—think terra-cotta umbrella stands, cast-metal accessories, small electronics, glass pendant lights, cotton rugs, wood tables, and more. The company produced brand partnerships, exhibited at design fairs, and by many measures was poised for success.
Still, profitability was difficult and the realities of a fluctuating global manufacturing economy took hold. Last fall, Wolfond explained to Curbed that price fluctuations for something as basic as cardboard packaging could cost $1 a unit one day then $4 the next and Good Thing was “constantly struggling” with its vendors to maintain margins. Meanwhile, the U.S.-China trade war introduced more volatility to the furniture and design industry.
Last May, Wolfond and West Elm—who first partnered in 2015 through the West Elm Local program, which spotlights and sells independent designers and makers from across the country—began discussing a potential shop-in-shop retail agreement. Soon, they realized there was an opportunity for something more comprehensive and the two cooked up the “exclusive retailer” agreement for Good Thing.
“[Our arrangement with Good Thing] aligns squarely with what we hope the Local program achieves for independent designers and makers,” a West Elm spokesperson told Curbed. “It’s a true success story for us in which Jamie has really compelling products that complement our assortment and allows us to offer unique products for the everyday.”
Wolfond will keep his own Toronto-based design studio—Jamie Wolfond Studio—and will consult with West Elm on new seasonal product collections and still plans to collaborate with other studios on these products. They’ll still be the affordable, thoughtfully designed, and oh-so covetable pieces Good Thing customers have grown to love. Through his studio, Wolfond also plans to design and license products to other companies and brands; he has no plans to launch a consumer brand of his own in the future.
“Is it more fun to work on the mechanics of a new lamp versus the mechanics of a new distribution center? Yes,” Wolfond says of his transition.
The challenges Good Thing faced as a brand are emblematic of the increasingly difficult design industry: It’s hard for the independent designers, mid-size brands, and even legacy brands to survive let alone remain competitive in the era of Amazon. Consolidation seems to be the path forward.
In 2014, the American contract furniture company Haworth purchased the Italian luxury furniture brand Poltrona Frau. In early 2018, Knoll finalized the acquisition of Muuto, a contemporary Scandinavian design brand. Michigan-based furniture manufacturer Herman Miller recently acquired stake in Danish design brand Hay to help bring it to North American audiences through online and physical Hay stores and a presence in Design Within Reach stores.
But can an independent designer-manufacturer scale mass-produced, affordable, “good” design in today’s economic system? Wolfond believes there’s room for emerging designers to make their mark and remain independent.
“If I wanted to maintain total control over everything, I would focus on one material, one process, and one type of customer,” he says.
Based on his experience with Good Thing, Wolfond has more advice to dispense to entrepreneurial designers.
“Focusing on making a product good is something a lot of people forget to do,” he says. “It’s tempting to get things out there and get things seen, but at the very beginning of Good Thing, we learned first hand that it would’ve been better to spend a year putting our manufacturing infrastructure in place, instead of assuming we’d be able to ramp up when we needed to.”
But good products aren’t enough, either.
“There are young designers on the other side who think that if they sit in a room and make good work, success will come.” Wolfond says. “There’s so much saturation that you have to be good at self promotion. In general, I think good design is communicative, good designers are communicative, and good business people are communicative. Refining communication is something everyone can benefit from.”