At 35, Joe Gebbia is cofounder and chief product officer of Airbnb, where he shapes the $31 billion company’s design aesthetic and seeks out new opportunities for growth. Last summer, he launched Samara, Airbnb’s new design and innovation lab, which is poised to expand the company’s scope beyond hospitality and into urban planning. Since his company launched in 2008, it has grown to include listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries, with a user base of over 150 million people. But lately, in his spare time, Gebbia’s been doing something he hasn’t done in years–making furniture.
Last weekend, Gebbia launched a brand-new collection of modular office furniture, called Neighborhood, at the ICFF furniture fair as a part of New York City’s design week. Created for Bernhardt Design, a furniture company known for working with international and emerging designers, Neighborhood marks the first time since studying industrial and graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design that Gebbia has revisited his interest in furniture making.
The design is borne from Gebbia’s personal experience–that of shaping the office culture of one of the fast-growing companies in the world. The entire collection is based on two simple pieces that can be put together in various configurations, giving open offices a sense of both flexibility and privacy. It’s adaptable office furniture for the 21st century company, from one of the leading examples of one.
[Photo: courtesy of Berhardt]
The project is part of an ongoing Bernhardt initiative to seek out collaborators outside of the design world. This year, that includes Gebbia, actor Terry Crews, and musician Tift Merritt. Of the three, Gebbia is the only one with experience in designing furniture: During a summer in college, he worked with a local furniture maker in Providence, Rhode Island, learning Japanese joinery and working with different lacquers and finishes. The physicality of the process and the joy of making a product with his hands lead him to switch majors from painting to industrial and graphic design. It was also around that time that Gebbia was introduced to the work of Charles and Ray Eames. “Learning about the Eames on campus was my first introduction to the idea that you could apply your approach to creativity toward design, and change the lives of the people surrounding you,” he says.
After graduating from RISD in 2005, Gebbia moved to San Francisco with his fellow RISD alumnus Brian Chesky. What happened next is now the stuff of startup legend: Gebbia and Chesky, strapped for cash while their apartment rent rose, started renting out stays on their air mattresses. They launched Air Bed and Breakfast with their former roommate Nathan Blecharczyk soon after, which in 2008 turned into Airbnb.
With Airbnb, Gebbia was using his design skills in a new way. He and his cofounders designed a platform that uses graphic design and UX to make their service feel safe–and eventually, normal–for people to open up their homes to perfect strangers. Gebbia says he applied the same philosophies of design that he had fostered at RISD, just to a different medium. His design education had taught him that design was about creating delightful experiences for people.
After nearly a decade, Gebbia’s return to furniture design sprung out of the workplace that he created. With rapid growth at Airbnb came several office moves and frequent office rearranging, and Gebbia saw a need for furniture that could easily adapt to a changing environment. “I’ve been working every day out of the [Airbnb] offices for over nine years now,” he says. “I have a firsthand perspective on companies that want to be fluid–have flexible IT systems, work from the cloud, use cordless devices–with nothing tethering you to a desk. We haven’t adapted furniture to the new fluidity of how companies work.” Neighborhood is a 42-piece collection, the most extensive that Bernhardt has ever produced. Its seats interlock to form long benches with high backs that offer some privacy in an open office. The tables offer charging stations, and all of the pieces are sound absorbent.
Most importantly, it can grow and evolve along with a company. “As the nature of an organization changes,” says Gebbia, “it should never be held back by the furniture that you use.”