Unmade meets Opendesk

  • Jess Fawcett
  • Clement Juillard
(Originally published on the UMd.studio Journal, 11th August 2016)
We visited the East London home of Opendesk and spoke to product designers Scarlett San Martin and Josh Worley about shaking up the furniture industry.
Opendesk are an online platform that connects customers with a global community of furniture makers and designers. Wherever you are in the world you can select a design and have it produced by a local maker - or download the files to make it yourself. And not only can the designs be produced locally but they can also be adapted to utilise local materials too. A desk in China, for example, might be made from bamboo, which is much easier to source than plywood. And we can vouch for them first hand - the Unmade team work from Opendesk's Unit Tables in our studio.
So how did it all start? The prototype desk, a bespoke design by Opendesk co-founders Joni Steiner and Nick Ierodiaconou, was commissioned back in 2011 for Mint Digital’s new London office [keen readers of the Journal may recall that Mint was where Mayku founders Alex Smilansky and Ben Redford joined forces]. Cut using a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) router and hand finished in London, the challenge came when they were later tasked with making the same desks for Mint’s New York office. Rather than ship a piece of furniture made in London to the US, they had the idea of sending the digital fabrication files to New York and manufacturing the desks there locally. And with this, a brilliant idea was born.
It’s an idea empowered by the Internet, however - as opposed to the current trend for new techniques such as 3D printing - the technology used in the workshops is not new. ‘The CNC technology we're tapping into has been around for a long time, around 60 years,' explains Josh. 'It’s well established in the industry - and frankly quite overlooked - and exists in many independent workshops all over the world. We're tapping into an existing infrastructure that's widely available, and at a pretty low cost.’
Opendesk are utilising more traditional methods of construction too. ‘Before screws and nails,’ says Scarlett, ‘people used wedges, pegs and joints as ways of constructing, and we're going back to this. We're trying to remove the reliance on specific, honed craft skills so that we can open up making to more people, distributing manufacture across a network of independents rather than centralising it.’
For the past year, a big part of Opendesk’s focus has been building their network of makers. They now have a community of around 600 worldwide, and Opendesk’s designs have been downloaded in 75% of the world’s countries. But with so many makers across the globe, how do they ensure that everyone’s meeting the highest production standards?
It's all down to the process of how they onboard the makers - communicating Opendesk’s standards to them, and giving the makers a way to demonstrate their understanding of these through a demo piece. 'It's about building up a level of trust with makers', says Josh. 'We need to be clear on how the product should be cut, how it's assembled, how it's finished, how it's delivered.’ Whilst they currently have around 600 makers in the community, Opendesk work regularly with a trusted core of around twenty in the UK and ten or so in the US. Ultimately, the factory of the future will be many micro-factories, with a focus upon local manufacture - pretty similar to the future vision of Unmade.
They’re not cheaper than other furniture brands but the make-up of their pricing sets Opendesk apart from the Ikeas of the world, and better represents the parties involved in the supply chain. Traditionally a piece of furniture might be manufactured in China, or wherever labour is cheapest, then shipped to the point of sale, where everyone is then squeezed by the retailer to maximise their own profits. At Opendesk, the price of each piece is set by makers, who typically receive around 70% of the fee for each item, with between 8 to 10% going to the designer and 15 to 20% to the Opendesk platform. Each party is rewarded proportionally.
Josh points out the growing need for transparency in today’s retail market: ‘There are less places to hide now. Consumers are much more sensitive to the relationship between themselves and the manufacturer. They want to know where their product has come from, and how it’s been made.’
Opendesk has in-house designers, like Josh and Scarlett, but they also have a global network of furniture designers, creating open-source design that can be downloaded by makers and customers around the world. The Valoví Chair by Brazilian architect designer Denis Fuzii has been downloaded over 5,000 times. Shared openly under a Creative Commons license, anyone with access to a CNC machine and appropriate materials can download this and make one for their own personal use. Similarly - and this is where things starts to get very exciting - anyone can download and version the design, adding their own modifications, so long as they continue to attribute Denis as the original designer, and they don’t use it for commercial gain.
When a designer submits a design to to Opendesk they set their own parameters - the license, terms of distribution and fee (within Opendesk’s boundaries). Some designs are paid downloads, however others are Creative Commons Zero, meaning the designer has waivered all intellectual property and rights to a design. This is open source design in its purest form, whereby source material is freely shared as part of a social process, engaging otherwise unconnected individuals in the design of an object. This is design for design’s sake, and Opendesk are looking for ways to facilitate these modified designs on their platform, creating a conversation around each design.
And as Josh points out, it’s already happening. ‘Just search for #opendesk on Instagram and you’ll find thousands of examples of people who have downloaded the digital files, creating their own physical versions and uploading them back to the Internet. It's amazing that our source files are powering that.’ 
Explore the world of open making at www.opendesk.cc.
Want more? Meet Alice Made This, the British accessory brand refining industry.  


Photography: Sasha Zyryaev