They Could Call It Fun-iture

Blu Dot's belief in solving design problems playfully extends to its whole operation

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Dot's furniture has won awards from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design. So you might be surprised to learn that Blu Dot furniture usually ships flat in a box, and that customers assemble it themselves. But for Maurice Blanks, John Christakos, and Charlie Lazor, college buddies and Blu Dot co-founders, good design isn't only about being recognized by critics dressed in black. It's about being creative on the cheap, with a dash of fun thrown in.

That ethos has served them well, helping the Minneapolis company double revenues last year, to $7.5 million, and staff, to 16. "They take a lighthearted approach but are still serious about solving design problems. Their furniture has spirit and ingenuity, a down-to-earth appeal," says Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and owner of several Blu Dot pieces. "I love them because they assemble in literally two minutes." With a side table that runs $159 and a king bed that costs $2,399, Blu Dot fills a gap between budget-conscious Ikea and, say, label-conscious Philippe Starck.

About 150 independent retailers carry the furniture, as does high-end chain Design Within Reach (DWRI ). On May 20 tastemakers at New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair will get a sneak peek at Blu Dot's most ambitious project to date: a full line of color-coordinated home furniture for bedrooms, home offices, and living and dining rooms.

Blu Dot was started when the founders, each now 41, got sick of compartmentalizing their creativity while toiling at their day jobs. With $50,000 in savings, they went out on their own. Christakos, who had been a Bain & Co. consultant and a sculptor on the side, set up in a 300-square-foot office and waited for Blanks and Lazor to quit their architecture jobs. As president, Christakos is the ringleader and business guru. Blanks has more responsibility for the administration while Lazor remains a designer.

With the company's launch in 1997, the trio moved into the first of many warehouses. Their goal was to build not just furniture but a personality for Blu Dot. So the instructions for bed assembly say at the start: "For safe sex fasten securely." Packages include a "thank-you-for-buying" note. Return it, and you get an old-fashioned rubber grip for opening bottles. The company's Web site plays up the fact that Blu Dot is as much about attitude as it is about furniture, offering recipes that often allude to the benefits of wine for both the cuisine and the chef.

From the start, the founders tried to keep costs in line -- creatively. They paid the graphic designer of their logo with plans for a tree house, and their first Web designer was paid with tables. Getting the word out about their new line of furnishings meant bartering for print ads with Minneapolis ad agency mono. "Furniture's our favorite currency," says Christakos. "Having a small budget or no budget forces us to be creative." That's why most of their furniture ships flat. It lowers inventory storage costs, shipping bills, and prices.

The idea for an expanded line popped up a year ago, when Blu Dot set up a shop-within-a-shop at Los Angeles home furnishings emporium HD Buttercup. Christakos realized their selection was strong in storage and tables but lacking in other areas. The line now includes the company's first upholstered seating as well as child-size items. It's playful but not juvenile, like Blu Dot itself.

By Reena Jana

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