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For Blu Dot, a Little Humility Goes a Long Way

Unlike furniture, with people, it’s easy to spot a fake. Blu Dot‘s cofounders John Christakos and Maurice Blanks—who started their modern home furnishings company in 1997 with the aim of making good design accessible to everyone—are anything but. The Minneapolis-based brand’s pillars of democratic design, humility, and collaboration aren’t marketing-speak, but a way of being, and have successfully differentiated Blu Dot among an ever-growing sea of design brands for more than two decades. To honor this landmark anniversary, Blu Dot released a book, Less is More (Difficult): 20 Years of Design at Blu Dot (Rizzoli) to detail its journey.

A few days ago, Christakos and Blanks were in Seattle to promote the volume by giving a talk at Blu Dot’s Capitol Hill storefront. Before guests arrived, GRAY spoke to them about how they put the book together, their forthcoming store in Portland, and “perfs.”

This volume marks Blu Dot’s first-ever book. What prompted you to put it together?

Christakos: We have two friends, Kyle Blue and Geoff Halber, who are graphic designers at the Brooklyn-based studio ETC, which stands for Everything Type Company. They approached us and said, “Why don’t you have a book? We’d like to work with you on a book.” So we started working with them, and they had relationships with some publishers and Rizzoli was interested. We worked with them on the project for around a year and a half.

All of the pages are perforated. Why is that?

Christakos: The very back of the book has an archive of everything we’ve ever designed. It’s laid out in a three-by-three grid. Rather than doing lines, [ETC] thought it’d be fun to do perfs. We also do perfs on all of our bent-metal stuff, so it was a riff on that.

Blanks: I think it was also a riff on materiality—getting away from the abstract quality of paper. When you’re looking at a book, you don’t really pay attention to the pages. This treatment pulls them out as a material but has a three-dimensional quality to it.

Is that what you call them in the industry? “Perfs?”

Christakos: Perfs!

The book is divided into five sections: an essay by Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Blauvelt, an oral history of Blu Dot, a photo essay that juxtaposes furniture details with the built environment, selected projects, and an archive of everything you’ve ever made. Is that organization something ETC proposed?

Blanks: The oral history was their idea. They suggested some sort of an essay, and we recommended Andrew, the director of the Cranbrook museum, who wrote the forward.

Christakos: It’s more scholarly [than the rest of the book].

Blanks: It seems like it was essential. We didn’t want a dry, academic book at all, but we felt like it was important to have the perspective that Andrew could bring, to put Blu Dot into context through an outside voice.

You’ve been helming Blu Dot for more than 20 years. I imagine when you’re in it day-to-day, you don’t think about what it was like in the beginning. How did the process of revisiting the old photographs and documents we see in this book affect you?

Blanks: It was really hard to put all that stuff together. It wasn’t like we had an archivist who was doing for for us. [In the early days of Blu Dot,] we never imagined we’d be in business after five years, so we were never thinking, “Oh, what would the future think of us?” when we were starting out.

Christakos: You’d jinx it if you did things, like, save stuff for your MoMA retrospective in 20 years. That’d be so cocky!

Blanks: Yeah. But the most compelling thing that came out of it was how consistent the way we talked about Blu Dot before it was Blu Dot—what we wanted it to be about, and what it is about today, are almost exactly the same. That was actually really awesome.

Christakos: Did you see the faxes?

I did. They’re printed in the book on material that feels like thermal fax paper, and document your initial ideas about Blu Dot’s mission statement, designs, and philosophy.

Christakos: We kept the faxes in random files somewhere. That’s how we communicated with each other then, because it was pre-email, and we were in different cities, riffing on what Blu Dot would become. So that’s a lesson: You should stick to your guns. It’s hard to do, because you’re pulled in a lot of directions. Different opportunities present themselves along the way, and it’s tempting to veer off.

Do you have a favorite part of the book?

Blanks: I like the fax section.

Christakos: It’s a little cringy, because we’re 30 years old and totally sophomoric. During one of the weekends we got together to talk about [Blu Dot], this CD came out called “The Jerky Boys.” You’re too young to know about it. It’s basically a comedy, with these New York dudes doing prank phone calls. We were having a blast working on things while listening to that CD over the course of a long weekend. After that, when we sent the faxes, we included quotes from the recording as funny one-liners. So if you read it [without knowing that], you’re like, “What’s this all about? These guys are weird.”

Blanks: There’s a lot of inside jokes in the book. But I like the fact that it’s so raw. [The early stuff] hasn’t been processed for public consumption. It fits with this idea that we try to live by authenticity and straightforwardness and directness. What do the next 20 years have in store for Blu Dot?

Blanks: Maybe internet search? We were talking about that today. Or social media?

Christakos: I recently looked at how long some of our competitors have been in business. I looked at Crate & Barrel—I remember going to [founder] Gordon Segal’s retirement party, and I think they’d been at 22 years then. So that’s [potentially] 20 more years for us. Room & Board has been around for almost 40 years; Restoration Hardware has been around for almost 40 years. I think we’ll be around another 20 years.

Blanks: I think the short-term answer is that [the future] will entail expanding what we’re doing. We’ve gone into additional categories in the past 10 years—lighting, rugs, outdoor—so creeping out in terms of the categories we have. And maybe deepening a bit in the categories we’re already in. I don’t think there’s a seismic shift in there though.

Christakos: We only recently are getting to be better-known outside of the design [world]. That’s partly because of the way we decided to design the company: brick by brick, as opposed to buckets of venture capital [funding]. The next 20 years will be really fun, because in the last three or four, our vision of what Blu Dot would always be has finally come to life. Our stores today, including this one, are just the way we want them—whereas the first store in New York was what we could afford. We built it out ourselves for $80,000 and we were there scraping chewing gum off the steps. It was fine, but it was definitely junior varsity. So it’s really rewarding now to see everything come to life the way you’d always envisioned it. We have seven stores in the US, and will have eight later this year when we open in Portland, Oregon. We have room for another fifteen, probably. There’s plenty of runway.


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