Opendesk is an open-source furniture brand. Users can download open furniture freely, make and buy workspace furniture. That's really new and smart idea! So, I asked a couple of questions to Joni Steiner co-founder of Opendesk about this smart project. Here it is!
As far as I know you are an architect. Please tell us what you are doing as an architect...
I studied architecture at the University of Bath for my BA and then the Royal College of Art, London, for MA. The formative years in Bath were really important - I met & studied with a group of like-minded folks and a group of us who went on to form an experimental architecture & design studio, called 00 (project00.net). One of this group is my co-founder at Opendesk, Nick Ierodiaconou. We’ve known and worked together since those days back in Bath.
00 was founded as a ‘collaborative studio of architects, strategic designers, programmers, social scientists, economists and urban designers practicing design beyond its traditional borders.’ The initial group included not just architects but a sociologist and urban geographer - and more recently a web coder and economist have joined.
Opendesk has grown out of 00, which we’ve always considered as an ‘experimental incubator for ideas’. Like WikiHouse - which is a sister open source project - Opendesk’s evolution from a tiny commission to digital startup is true to the way we’ve always wanted 00 to operate - a platform for ideas and projects supported by a group of like-minded individuals.
Opendesk is a furniture company with a new operating model, and in this it shares something with everything Project00 is doing - rethinking operating systems, and for any given project, using design challenges as opportunities to try and maximise social impact.
I think this is an exciting time for designers and architects to employ the skills at our disposal - to leverage design and technology to ask wider questions about how we make. In so doing we have an opportunity to bring about a supply chain that’s more human, social and local.
You have a global platform called Opendesk. Could you tell us what Opendesk is doing? How does it work?
Opendesk is a new kind of furniture company. We’re a global platform that’s about making things locally, and we’re a furniture company without a factory or any inventory.
Opendesk connects you to independent manufacturing workshops around the world, to produce furniture as close as possible to where it's needed. Our furniture - digital designs hosted on behalf of a growing group of designers - is made on demand for you. It’s also available to be downloaded freely under creative commons licenses to make yourself, if you have the tools. We think this is interesting because it’s a very human way of seeing the impact of enabling technology - where digital tools, local craft skills and international designers combine to unlock an alternative, decentralised supply chain; a global model for what we have started to call ‘Open Making’.
This model cuts out shipping and logistics, turning the traditional economics of manufacturing on its head. The result is beautiful, hand-crafted furniture that's affordable, sustainable, faster to make than the competition - and can be personalised to your company's brand and workplace.
What’s the advantage for Opendesk of being open source?
We have always been interested in new ways and models of operating - and we see that an open source model allows, through the sharing of data and ideas, innovation to happen more rapidly and freely. Open source principles facilitate building the infrastructure to help foster collaborative production - socially-conscious and democratised - to deliver on our mission: to enable a new and transparent understanding of how everyday products are made – through a process that we’ve started to call ‘Open Making’. With Opendesk, we’re really asking the question: “Can we build a business model for Open Making…?” So far the answer to this has proved that, yes, this new way, this new supply chain is possible. Open models excite us because they are inclusive and speak to the many. We’re open-first, open by default - but not dogmatic in that position. We believe that making things open is beneficial but that this is not binary, and choice is important. In being agonistic to say the licensing of the designs on the Opendesk platform - in the same way as GitHub acts for software - we bring everyone to the table and say ‘your point of view is valuable, we want to share it and learn from it’. We think this dialogue is really important.
How do you describe “Opendesk”?
One way would be... Opendesk explores a different approach to designing and making furniture. By offering global access to designs for download, Opendesk furniture is made as closely as possible to where it’s needed. A global network of fabricators enables zero-shipping, on-demand production - turning the traditional economics of manufacturing into something more social, human-scaled and local.
Opendesk is also a platform for a growing community of designers and makers working under open source principles. It rethinks how goods are made for the benefit of all parties: the maker, designer and customer.
How did you begin the search for workspace furniture?
Myself and co-founder Nick Ierodiaconou began by designing a desk because we were commissioned by a client - a software company in London - as part of their office fitout.
Their brief was to design a bespoke desk that would be not only affordable but could be made more quickly than ordering from a major supplier. They also wanted them to be made from sustainable materials and to be easy to assemble / disassemble so they could take with them when they moved office - quite a challenge! We found out that we could make desks from sustainably-grown forests, and built in less than 3 weeks. Because we used digital fabrication tools we were also able to make them less than 3 miles away from their central London offices.
The real breakthrough came when Mint wanted to replicate the same desks in their New York office. Rather than shipping heavy timber around the world we found a local workshop and used the same digital files to make the same desks in Brooklyn. By turning hardware into software we were able to ship only the digital file across the atlantic - and the core idea behind Opendesk was born.
Our architecture practice designed a co-working space (like Atölye) and we used the first Opendesk designs in there.
What was the most exciting part of the process?
The initial idea was turning hardware (desks) into software (digital files) so that we can make things local to clients wherever they are (distributed manufacturing). This is summed up well by John Maynard Keyes’ when he said that “it’s easier to ship recipes than cakes or biscuits”. The moment we realised this - that we could ship desks as recipes - was perhaps the most exciting so far :)
Another more direct part of the Opendesk process is the way we work with new designers and can prototype new designs very quickly; we can take a design from a computer model to CNC-cut wooden parts in 24hours if we want to :)
How did you bring together all the local workshops and international designers for the project?
When we first got interested in Digital fabrication as designers we searched for workshops that we could use for prototyping and found that there are lots, but no easy way to find them. So we built a really simple directory website, Fabhub.io . This lets digital fabrication workshops *sign up* for free by creating a profile and listing the services they offer together with their location. Many of these fabricators have CNC machines and we started to talk to them and ask them if they would like to make Opendesks! Most people (99%) say “yes!” because we are effectively asking if we can send work to them :)
The furniture designs we have listed on opendesk.cc were initially designed by me and my co-founder, Nick Ierodiaconou. I also worked on quite a few designs with my brother, David. Soon afterwards we started to talk to friends who were architects and designers, and realised that many of them had furniture designs that would be appropriate for Opendesk, so we asked them to contribute!
We also started to receive emails from designers who had found us online and wanted to offer their designs for the platform. We got lots of designs sent over, some great and useable… some a bit less so! We continue to work with international designers, however we are now starting to curate the designs on offer by setting *design challenges* to make sure the designs we are prototyping are not only functional and build-able but relevant and useful to the Opendesk collection - which is initially focused on workspace furniture.
You worked with some amazing clients such as Greenpeace, Kano … How did you feel when you worked with them? How did you create their workspace?
It was fantastic to work with both Kano and Greenpeace because they’re both organisations that are driven by a set of values, a mission. This meant they were were very clear about why they wanted to work with us., but also made the projects collaborative, as we had common interests and shared values (Open design, sustainability etc).
We worked with them by spending time with them and understanding how they work & what they needed, then taking some of our current existing designs and doing some customisations to meet these needs. We also ended up designing totally new pieces - such as a bookshelf with a planter on the top for Greenpeace, that acts as a space divider… and a storage wall system for Kano that’s really designed around their computer kit - but which is also flexible and adaptable…
How do you feel when you come across one that uses your design?
It’s great! It’s actually quite humbling - because we aren't really marketing at people so when someone buys or makes and Opendesk it means they really chose for it themselves :)
You were in Istanbul. Did you enjoy being in Istanbul? How was your workshop at Atölye Istanbul?
Istanbul is a fantastic city, and it was a pleasure to be invited by the British Council and Atölye! I’d been to Istanbul some years before but this time it was great to see not just the amazing buildings and sights but meet such great people!
It was humbling to see so many folks at the talk showing an interest in Opendesk & open design. The workshop was also a lot of fun - for me at least :) It’s great to work in a team to learn, design and make - all of these are core to the Opendesk mission - to make making local again and share knowledge and stories about how this is happening all over the world…
Thank you Jonathan!