Product design at architecture firms is typically job-specific, with pieces like hardware, millwork, and furniture made to complement a particular project. Some firms, however, market those pieces as stand-alone wares, turning product design into its own revenue stream, which requires careful analysis of demand, production, and distribution.
HOK Product Design, one well-known example of such a spin-off, launched in 2009 and operates independent of the architecture firm. “We were given some beta money to prove that we could be successful, we got a couple of contracts, and, voila, [the firm] said, ‘OK,’” says director Susan Grossinger.
For Seattle firm Olson Kundig Architects, the idea for a product line—designed by and named for its principal and owner Tom Kundig, FAIA—came from local fabrication partner 12th Avenue Iron. The resulting collection (shown above) of industrial-chic hardware, a collaboration between the firms, debuted in 2012 and recently expanded to include lighting. Such work might not be right for every firm, however. “It’s not necessarily [worth] doing a hardware line because everybody else is,” Kundig says. In other words, don’t do it just because you can.
Marmol Radziner, in Los Angeles, employs roughly an equal number of architects as carpentry finishers, lathers, painters, and concrete and metal workers in its shop to accommodate the design and fabrication of its furniture and jewelry collections. But the workflow initially took some getting used to. “With building out cabinetry for a home, we know probably eight months in advance when we’re going to need to be producing those cabinets,” says principal Ron Radziner, FAIA. “With furniture, the order just comes in and we’ve [maybe] got eight weeks, so we have to be a little more flexible.”
Production doesn’t always need to happen in-house. HOK Product Design partners with manufacturers to conceptualize and then produce the product or system. Its most successful piece yet—Gather, a seating system for collaborative work (shown below)—was realized with furniture maker Allsteel, for example. The manufacturing partners hold inventory, since many of HOK’s pieces are sold in the thousands.
Going to Market
Capturing revenue from product design differs from the typical mode of billable hours. For example, when pricing their products, firms should consider the cost of materials and design complexity. When Marmol Radziner adapts a one-off piece for the commercial market, it might remove or reduce detailing, or switch materials to manage cost. “There is a simplification to make sure that we can sell at our wholesale prices to a showroom at a number that they can then add their overhead to,” Radziner says.
Competitive pricing is critical for Olson Kundig as well. “We’re not making a tremendous profit,” Kundig says. To maximize efficiency, the firm uses its architectural staff for its product-design services. HOK Product Design, meanwhile, takes advantage of its network of designers in fields from healthcare to aviation to source ideas and work with industrial designers and creative directors to bring them to life.
Promoting a firm’s product-design arm independently of its architectural services is important, too. While Marmol Radziner shares clients between product design and architecture, it also uses social media and online marketing to drive sales. And HOK Product Design relies on its manufacturing partners for production, distribution, and marketing since the networks are already in place.
Olson Kundig shows new products annually at the ICFF trade show in New York, and it also employs email newsletters and social media to market the pieces. “It’s not rocket science for us to imagine how a piece of hardware, an object, or an accessory works and how it’s used,” Kundig says, and then communicate that to the market.