When Whitney Frances Falk was growing up, her family loved visiting garage and estate sales to find antique furniture. But when she graduated from college and started shopping for furniture, she realized that most things on the market didn’t seem durable enough to last centuries or even decades.
Falk is now on a mission to bring back the high-quality, long-lasting, locally-made furniture that filled her house as a child. In 2014, she launched ZZ Driggs, a startup that partners with design studios to make durable contemporary furniture and also curates antiques. Falk first worked with corporate clients, designing spaces for Virgin Hyperloop and 30 Rockefeller Plaza. But in 2020, ZZ Driggs launched a new wing of the business, renting and selling this furniture to consumers, finally achieving Falk’s dream of making heirloom-quality pieces accessible to more people. ZZ Driggs is one of the winners of Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards.
Falk has always been passionate about art and design. When she graduated from college, she moved to New York and briefly considered getting a job at an art gallery, only to realize she couldn’t afford to live in the city on that salary. So she tried her hand at finance, starting as an administrative assistant at a hedge fund and rising through the ranks where she analyzed speciality retailers, including furniture companies. “That’s when I started to discover the nefarious side of furniture,” she says. “In their finance models, companies list the ‘lifetime value’ of a product. Some retailers intentionally make furniture to last only three to five years so they can make the best financial estimate of when the consumer will walk back through the doors and repeat the purchase.”
A century ago, America had a thriving furniture industry, but in the 1990s, furniture manufacturing moved overseas to countries like China and Vietnam, where the cost of labor and raw materials is cheaper. Over the decades, furniture retailers began competing with one another on price, giving rise to the fast furniture industry—with brands like Ikea and Wayfair selling cheap, trendy pieces that are designed to be thrown out after a few years. All of this has been terrible for the planet. In addition to the carbon emissions required to make all of this furniture and ship it around the world, disposable furniture creates a lot of waste: Americans throw 12 million tons of furniture into landfills annually.
Falk wanted to help solve this problem. She knew that there were still many skilled furniture makers around the country who could make long-lasting pieces. But most of these craftspeople sold their products in small speciality boutiques that didn’t have an online presence. “I truly believe that well-made furniture is the most sustainable product out there, because it will pass from generation to generation,” she says. “The issue was that consumers didn’t have access to these furniture-makers.”
When she launched the company in 2014, she first worked with corporate clients who wanted to redesign their spaces, since this allowed her to work on smaller projects and build relationships with makers. She reached out to businesses like Microsoft and Virgin, making the case that she could design their offices in a more sustainable way using locally sourced furniture. She eventually designed iconic spaces like the mezzanine lobby of 30 Rock and rooms in Lincoln Center. “We were able to outfit Virgin Hyperloop’s downtown LA campus with furniture that was made in an eight-mile radius of the building,” says Falk. “We outfitted the lobby of 30 Rock and the Tishman Speyer building with furniture made right across the East River or 30 miles upstate. These companies were really eager to support local American design.”
In 2020, ZZ Driggs launched its direct-to-consumer business. By then, Falk had built strong relationships with a dozen small furniture workshops around the country. She curates pieces from their collections to sell on the site, and ZZ Driggs also designs its own collection and commissions these makers to produce them. Everything can be purchased outright or rented. And if customers are interested in antiques, ZZ Driggs also has a “collectibles” wing that sells pieces by designers like Phillipe Starck or Indonesian daybeds from the 19th century.
ZZ Driggs’ furniture, which is sold entirely through its website, is significantly more expensive than what consumers have come to expect from fast furniture brands. Sofas cost between $4,000 and $8,700. Dining tables cost upwards of $3,000, and shelves cost upwards of $1,000. But renting these pieces costs between $100 and $300 a month, making them significantly more accessible, particularly to young professionals who aren’t sure how long they might be in their apartment. (If someone rents a piece and eventually decides to purchase it, all the money they’ve spent on the rental will count toward the price.)
Falk has found that many consumers are now tired of disposable furniture and are looking for better alternatives. They’re drawn to her brand because of the sustainability but also because they want pieces that will be part of their homes and families for decades. “When I launched the company, consumers weren’t really thinking about sustainable furniture,” she says. “But that’s changed. Today, my customers have the mindset of “buy less and buy better,” and if they can rent a piece of furniture, that’s a win.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.