Endless combinations: how online shopping affects contemporary furniture design

March 14, 2018.

Written by: Dominik Cergna

Similarly to IKEA, whose innovativeness and approach in the past few decades have revolutionised the way in which we shop for and furnish our spaces, first of all by flat pack solutions and mass production of its items, the future brings some new and different methods of shopping, designing and manufacturing objects we use in our homes.

Millions of young people go to live in big cities, where they often change jobs and flats, and those flats are many times limited in space and decrepit. Their specific way of life affects what they shop for and the way they shop. Most of us today have an unlimited Internet access and there isn’t virtually a person without any online shopping experience by now. However, the statistics suggests a very small share of furniture e-commerce. Why is that so? First of all, because of a lack of experience of objects in the space when shopping online and because of expensive and complicated delivery. “Traditional” manufacturers who sell furniture mostly in physical stores and showrooms at attractive locations have to a great deal failed to prepare properly for doing business in which online furniture ordering will become very important. Some young companies and startups want to tackle the predicament of young people from big cities and to offer them exactly what they need at a given moment in their lives.

Photo credit: is a new furniture brand Yves Behar, one of the most influential global designers, worked on together with his Polish partners. Tylko strives to digitalise the furniture industry. You can use a simple slider on their website to literally design your own table or shelf within given parameters. You can use the application to visualise such piece of furniture in your living room and order it straightaway by a click generating a database for automated manufacturing. This example clearly shows a change in the existing shopping model. In this case the customer does not buy an off-the-shelf piece of designer furniture, but chooses on his/her own the size, colours and shapes of objects s/he wants to have. This triggers an avalanche of new opportunities for manufacturers and customers alike, as design adaptability and possibilities to adjust to different spaces are unlimited. How can the prices of such new, advanced brands compete with traditional companies? Direct sales without dealers and selling online exclusively cut down significantly the margin and the costs of the final product, making it better in quality and cheaper. It is very important in this context to have online selection and shopping process as simple and as intuitive as possible, similar to physical stores – without any fuss, ambiguities and complications.

The second example is a British webshop manufacturing products on offer only when a customer orders a specific product, eliminating the need for storage and physical stores. At the same time, it promotes young talented designers by offering and distributing their products. They have recently opened a brick and mortar showroom as well to allow potential customers to have a look at their products and try them out in person, in order to address the biggest challenge of online furniture shopping – a lack of immediate experience and testing – at least to some point. does everything in a completely opposite fashion from “old” brands – without famous designer names and dealers, and the decision on new products depends on their webpage visitors. invites their customers to vote for the pieces of furniture, and the most popular among them go into production.

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 Another interesting example is, initiated by Jason Goldberg. In the furniture market, Hem is making an attempt to replicate what Warby Parker did with eyewear or Nike with NikeiD custom shoes. Hem offers good quality Scandinavian design, relevant to people with different lifestyles. Now already a half of their company profit comes from customers who personalise products on their website. The customers want to have a selection and they want something of their own and unique, which they will be able to share on the social media and show off to their friends when they come to visit. These types of brands give them exactly what they want, as opposed to e.g. a small IKEA table or shelf that practically everyone has. and are also trying to adapt and humour a huge population of young people, adjusting to their fast lifestyles by custom-made and flexible products easily assembled and movable to other spaces. These new business models require quite different designing logic as well. Some completely change the existing paradigms and push the existing borders while considering the entire process of objects production and sales.

The company, i.e. the designer, no longer designs a single product but gives the parameters according to which the customer will shape his/her own table. The company doesn’t any more make its own decisions about the products to be launched into the market, but the market and the customers do it, who can now say what they want and what is relevant to them. In the designing process, a special focus is placed on the possibility of sending the product in parts and of assembling different combinations or modules into a single product, to facilitate many combinations the customer can put together. A good example of such design is the ILI-ILI lamp by Grupa made of differently coloured modular elements easily stack up, offering a very simple way of creating a practically unique lamp.

Owing to the advantages they offer, and given the social and technological changes happening continuously in our time, it is possible that such models of furniture shopping and designing will prevail in the future and occupy a large segment of the target market.