By Lynn Bronson
A Q&A with John Christakos, co-owner and co-founder of Blu Dot, which produces stylish modern furniture that’s also affordable, useful and fun.
Blu Dot was founded 17 years ago when John Christakos and Maurice Blanks realized the only way they could afford the furniture they wanted was to design and build it themselves. Figuring they couldn’t be alone in their frustrated quest, they decided to start a new kind of furniture company. One that would make modern design accessible to more people. Today, in addition to their flagship store in Minneapolis, Minn., they have stores in New York, L.A., San Francisco and Sydney, Australia. “Their furniture has a spirit and ingenuity, a down-to-earth appeal,” says Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
STIR recently sat down with Christakos to talk design, inspiration and process.
STIR: What’s the design process at Blu Dot? Can you describe how a typical piece develops?
John Christakos (JC): Often we start with a design brief — sort of an assignment for ourselves. It can flow out of a look at our existing assortment. We look for what we’re missing. For example, we might have three or four nice lounge chairs, but we don’t have any with a high back. So we assign ourselves a lounge chair with head support. At this stage, we’re not necessarily proscriptive about materials or aesthetics, although we may give ourselves a rough estimate of a price point. And then we start designing. That can be pencil sketches, or crude computer renderings.
It’s a collaborative process. We put up designs on a bulletin board and have a group critique. We’ll settle on one or two ideas that seem to have the most promise for refinement.
If it’s a chair, we might build what we call a seating buck to test the seat position relative to the angle of the back position. It’s adjustable so we can tweak it until it’s just right — sort of like Goldilocks. It might not look like the final chair, but it gets us to the right angles and dimensions.
Then we do more detailed production drawings. We ship those drawings off to the factory and visit the factory to get first samples, critique them and review them. Normally it takes more than one sample to get to the final design.
STIR: When do the material and color choices come into the process?
JC: Early on, from the first round of designs. It might evolve over time, but from the earliest design there’s an idea of what the materials will be.
STIR: Is there a Blu Dot palette?
JC: Sort of, but we’re not very methodical about it. We don’t subscribe to any color trend forecast. We never have. We just go with what we like; with what feels right. We think about what already exists in our palette and how well any new color we might introduce coordinates with what we already offer. We don’t want to have a ton of colors, but our work generally is pretty colorful.
We like bold colors, but we pick our spots. It’s easy to choose bright blue for an accessory like a coat rack, but not if you’re buying a $2,000 casegood.* We might put color on the inside of a drawer. It’s the equivalent of a really cool lining on a Paul Smith suit, but it’s not something that dominates your interior space. It’s a nice little surprise, but the outside can still be walnut, or something more neutral.
STIR: How would you describe your aesthetic to someone not familiar with Blu Dot?
JC: Simple and straightforward. Some might say graphic. Bold shapes and colors, simple forms. I hope there’s clarity in our designs. Often when critiquing our own work, we’ll say, “that’s too many moves.” Too much stuff packed into one thing. A lot of what we do is editing as opposed to adding.
STIR: It sounds like you don’t really follow trends when it comes to design.
JC: I’d say so. More than ever in a way. When we first started out, we were really immersed in the world of design. We went to all the trade shows and were really tuned in. I don’t really look at the shelter magazines at all anymore. I would say that’s true of Maurice, too. We’re out visiting stores, so we’re not totally isolated from the design world, but we’re more focused on our own vision.
It’s one of the benefits of being in Minnesota. We’re not in New York or San Francisco, where I think you’d have a tendency to look over your shoulder at what other people are doing. We have the luxury of being out here in the Great Plains doing our own thing. And we hope that people like it.
STIR: So where does the Blu in Blu Dot come from?
JC: We were dreaming up a bunch of names — this is in the late ’90s — and felt like a lot of the names we were coming up with sounded like snowboard companies or microbreweries. We were worried the names would be too fleeting. Not timeless enough.
At the time, Prince had changed his name to just a graphic symbol. We thought that was cool. What if our name was a symbol? Someone said, what about a blue dot? We latched on to it because it was so simple and didn’t tie us down to any specific product. We’re all about making modern design more affordable and more democratic. Blue was good from the standpoint of blue plate special, blue jeans, blue collar. It had a lot of connotations that we liked.
A designer friend who did our branding identity dropped the letter “e” from the word blue. We objected at first, but he was so in love with his logo that he threatened to stop working on it if we didn’t agree. I’m glad we did.
STIR: Speaking of blue, what is your favorite Sherwin-Williams blue?
JC: I’d have to say Sleepy Blue (SW 6225). The name alone, which is great, says a lot about the color: a soft, tranquil cloud blue with undertones of grey.
*A casegood is a piece of unupholstered furniture made of wood. The term is often used in reference to furniture for bedrooms and dining rooms.