In 2014, furniture designer Jamie Wolfond started a small business with the goal of making affordable, well-designed products. Called Good Thing, the company’s ambition was to support up-and-coming American designers while making good design accessible to the rest of us.
Now, Good Thing is relinquishing its direct-to-consumer business and will be sold exclusively at West Elm. Wolfond will continue to act as creative director of a scaled-back version of Good Thing. Crucially, the company will no longer manufacture its own products; instead, West Elm will take care of production as well as marketing, sales, and distribution, both online and in-store. Wolfond still owns Good Thing, which will continue to be a separate company, but West Elm is the brand’s exclusive retailer.
This enables Wolfond and his team of three full-time staffers to focus entirely on design. It also gives Wolfond the time to launch his own studio, which will debut its first prototypes at the Stockholm Furniture Fair in February, with the aim of selling to the Scandinavian market. After four and a half years of working in the U.S., Wolfond believes he’ll find an audience there that’s more receptive to his design aesthetic abroad because of the region’s design heritage.
The partnership is one of many West Elm–which is owned by one of the world’s largest etailers, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.–has inked with independent designers over the past five years. Other brands include Goods That Matter, Dusen Dusen, and Hemlock & Heather, making West Elm an unlikely incubator for small studios. By working with smaller makers, West Elm hopes to lure consumers with more unique offerings than some of its biggest competitors–Wayfair and Amazon.
As for what the partnership says about the ability of small design outfits to survive independently in the United States, Wolfond suggests that American consumers haven’t embraced design as fully as consumers in other parts of the world: “Not a lot of the North American market is really ready to place the emphasis on design that the Scandinavian market does,” he says. Indeed, Scandinavia has countless affordable design brands–so many, in fact, that some are now opening in the United States.
It is also exceedingly difficult to run a small design business in the U.S., especially one that focuses on inexpensive wares. Margins are slim, and Trump’s trade war with China is only exacerbating the problem, making it more difficult for businesses to source materials and manufacture goods. Even West Elm is more of an aspirational brand for the upper-middle class than one for the masses. For now, if consumers want to support independent design, they might need to get comfortable supporting large corporations, too.