In this world of company buy outs and aggressive take overs, it was only a matter of time before a small new start-up furniture business was acquired by a big online outfit with money to burn. I'm sure Joel Roos, the former CEO of One Nordic Furniture is not crying into his beer after selling his two year old company for what has been reported as "10's of millions" of dollars to American online retailer, Fab but already I'm feeling somewhat sad. I liked the little brand from Finland fighting to get its design message out with large amounts of credibility and intelligence much more then when the same products are pushed by an American online outfit that claim to be everything to everyone who has an interest in design. It might excite some that Fab is considered the Amazon of the design world but not me. Cost and convenience isn't everything after all.
One Nordic was/is a great company with some of Europe's best young designers - GamFratesi, Staffan Holm, Sylvain Willenz and Hallgeir Homstvadt - contributing to the label. The model was to keep everything as cost effective as possible while sourcing young designers that were interested in how to design for a global market. Flat pack was not the only tool in the shed but it was one of the most important and certain designers were happy to reinvent archetypal furniture and lighting concepts with freight and manufacturing costs firmly front of mind. The brand was very focused on providing a mix of quality, design & affordability.
While it has to be acknowledged that several of the key personnel from One Nordic will continue to be part of the creative direction and design team at the new Fab offshoot, HEM, large companies typically find it hard to recreate the energy of the authentic start up experience. I hope I'm wrong but after my initial enthusiasm for Fab I quickly saw it for what it was - another e-commerce site selling a lot of very ordinary (I'm being polite) product with a small number of quality items attempting to justify the DESIGN focused mantra. It's been publicised that One Nordic Furniture Company has retained a 5% share in HEM and that the brand will continue to release products under its own name (but sold exclusively through HEM) so perhaps there is still hope that HEM will lift online furniture retail to new heights.
With HEM set to launch at Maison & Objet and London Design Week later this month we certainly don't have long to wait. A public launch is also scheduled for October with distribution to 30 countries across the EU. The initial offering will consist of 300 exclusive products - of which the One Nordic Furniture Company designs are just a small part. The new brand will also be launching in the US and has publicised a few American designers who will be working for them - all of whom seem to have been working for, or selling through Fab previously - Anne Lopez, Isaac Krady and Evan Clabots.
Fab's expansion into the European market has been planned for some time. In 2013 they acquired German manufacturing company Massivkonzept to allow the production of customisable joinery - particularly bookshelves. They have taken over Massivkonzept's showroom in Hamburg as the first HEM of many bricks and mortar showrooms where customers will be able to get a better sense of what they buy online. This reversal of the original Fab model is curious but probably much needed for larger and more costly items of furniture. People are happy buying gifts and accessory items online but many need to see and test an object before committing to bigger ticket items. While it will be some time (if ever) before there is a HEM store in every major city across Europe, the way the brand can market the look of the stores helps to create a more complete brand image. HEM is also keen to use instagram in a big way to help promote the brand. When enthusiastic customers post pictures of HEM objects in their own homes the brand will suddenly become more tangible and real.
It will be fascinating to see if the HEM model works. The furniture industry has been very slow to move their sales online so it is entirely possible that HEM will succeed - but only if they maintain the type of integrity that small operators like One Nordic Furniture have been able to flourish under. The infrastructure of online retailing while highly complex follows a set pattern. Capturing the hearts and minds of the public is the tricky part.