When West Elm launched its Workspace brand a few years ago at NeoCon, the focus was on introducing its concept to the market, establishing showrooms in key markets and getting six new benching systems launched. This year, West Elm Workspace is sweating the details.
The brand added height adjustability to five of its six benching lines and added a host of ancillary items to round out its offering. West Elm Workspace Vice President of Design Paulo Kos says they first worked on creating “really robust” systems. This year they are rounding out the rest of the assortment.
“First, we had to establish ourselves as a real, serious office furniture brand,” he says. “At the beginning, people were asking us, 'What are you doing at the Merchandise Mart?' This year, people came to NeoCon with a different understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, and we wanted to round things out.”
In some ways, the trajectory of its product introductions is following a similar path to its launch into the contract office furniture market. West Elm, the retail furniture juggernaut, got into the office furniture industry because it couldn't find what it was looking for from anyone else. When the company went looking for office furniture for its Brooklyn headquarters that would fill the needs of its corporate office while fitting its brand of upscale residential, the company came up empty. The division of Williams-Sonoma and sister company of Pottery Barn could not find furniture that was homey enough for its new DUMBO offices and still rugged enough — contract grade — to use every day.
So its executives went to NeoCon to search for a partner that could help. After “interviewing” a number of manufacturers, West Elm decided to partner with Inscape, the Toronto furniture maker led by Jim Stelter.
West Elm is now in its Brooklyn office, and Kos says it has become a living laboratory for its own office furniture. The company is studying what works and what doesn't and how its employees are using the space — with some surprising results.
“Each department (at West Elm) has a different collection in it,” he says. “Now that we are in the space, we are looking at what is missing and what is working great. In our own office, we created these ancillary zones or breakaway zones where (employees) can work by themselves or in a small group. It is interesting to me because on day one, right when we moved into the office, those zones were full. I thought there would be a comfort curve. Instead, it was immediate, and people gravitated to those areas.”
West Elm Workspace started with the idea that it would have a limited number of highly styled office furniture lines with very few options for customization. To keep prices low — West Elm Workspace comes in above IKEA, but well below brands like Coalesse, Herman Miller, Knoll and Turnstone — what you see is what you get. Customization is possible, but highly discouraged.
Despite that, the brand is spending the next year expanding its options. Look for a number of new colors, finishes and options from West Elm Workspaces. It isn't caving in to designers who seem to want limitless custom options, but the brand does understand that it has to give them more options. Though options will increase, the company's commitment to “softening” the office will not. West Elm is a residential brand at heart and that shows in its product lines. Its products fall into two main aesthetics — industrial and mid-century influenced. Again, West Elm Workspace was created, in part, because West Elm couldn't find existing products that matched its need for office furniture that represented its brand.
“We had trouble finding that stuff,” Kos says. “Everything on the market was this modern, space-agey, cold-looking furniture. West Elm is a residential brand and finding office furniture that fit that was difficult, so we said, 'Maybe we should get into this since no one else is.' It was the convergence of giving people choice, options for wellness in the office and instilling a residential feel. Everything we've done, we've done through that lens.”
West Elm Workspace's new collection also focuses on how people work, including an examination of the merits and failures of the open office. People need space to focus, and they need space to collaborate. Through West Elm Workspace's six benching systems, Kos says, workers have a place to focus. New products like two screening products, two sectionals and tables to work with them help workers find spaces where they can come together comfortably.
Though West Elm Workspace does tap into its massive collection of residential furniture for inspiration, it is learning from the office furniture industry. Its screens are powered. New tables in its collection are powered. The brand responded to the demand that it offer height-adjustable options. Still, West Elm Workspace did its height-adjustable benching a little differently. It kept the residential aesthetic by hiding instead of showing off the industrial looking legs of height-adjustable desks.
Since West Elm is a residential company at heart, it also moves with a speed seldom seen in the office furniture industry. Kos says the brand uses a 12-16 month development cycle. “When we came into the contract market, we realized that as an advantage to us. We get things moving very fast,” he says. “With Inscape and West Elm, we have the industry resources to bring things to market very quickly. That is part of our DNA. Coming into the office furniture, we definitely had a learning curve, but we come from a completely different way of thinking. Speed to market is something that we are used to.”
So what's next for West Elm Workspace? Look for those new finishes next year. Also look for new partnerships between the brand and others in the industry, though the company isn't ready to talk about them quite yet. “We are working with industry experts because that's the way we learn,” Kos says. “We have a few new interesting collections coming out with a couple of groups.”
West Elm Workspace is already working with Designtex. Who is next?