5 mins with…Joni Steiner, co-founder & creative director of Opendesk

This week we sit down and chat with Joni Steiner, co-founder and creative director of Opendesk, a furniture company that connects people with local independent manufacturing companies to get exactly what you are looking for.

Joni Steiner -Opendesk -landscapePlease explain who you are, what Opendesk is, and what it does/aims to achieve?

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 to do so. 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 is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?

Working in an amazing team! We’re a group of people sharing a mission to creatively rethink how things are designed and made – enabling supply chains that are more social, human and local. Also hearing great stories from designers and makers around the world, telling us how they have made the Opendesk platform part of their livelihoods is really fantastic.

I’m not a huge fan of lengthy meetings. In fact we designed a standing height ‘breakout’ table to keep our in-house meetings short and sweet. If you’re standing up you can’t snooze – and things get decided and done. It really works!

Where did the idea for your business come from?

As architects, myself and co-founder Nick Lerodiaconou designed a piece of furniture – the first Opendesk – for a software company called Mint Digital. Their brief was to design a number of bespoke workbenches 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 the benches with them when they moved office – quite a challenge! We found out that we could make desks from sustainably-grown forests, and build them 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.

The great thing is that several years later, they are still customers – every time they grow we’re able make them another locally-built desk in less than a week.

Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?

At the beginning we set ourselves a massive challenge – we dreamed about making all types of furniture local to all locations around the world. This led to huge online demand that we couldn’t initially serve, as we were still building our network of local fabricators. We learnt that we needed to focus on a core idea first – which we quickly discovered was about disrupting the workspace furniture market. Now that we’ve built a network of over 500 independent fabricators we are more than capable of serving many locations globally!

Would you do anything differently if you could start again from scratch?

There are always the ones that got away. I’d probably try to worry less about them and concentrate more on doing the next thing better. And spend a bit more time with my family.

I’ve also learnt that being rigorous is everything – my co-founders have taught me that.

What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?

I’m really just an architect, so I’d probably be designing a house I couldn’t afford to live in. Either that or getting my hands dusty in a wood workshop – making things is very rewarding – and massively underrated in my view.