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Studio TK Update

by Bob Beck

There are innumerable books offering advice on change management. But when it comes to actually managing change in one’s own company, the options can seem wide open, uncertain and more than a little daunting. Against a backdrop of significant change in the way offices are being fitted out, the companies with the biggest market share in the panel systems segment found themselves scrambling to find a place in the growing market for the new, more residential or hospitality-like look, feel and function. 

The market shift from a planning mode where panel systems and private offices along the window wall predominated to a much more casual, social and communal, planning mode brought about the decline of panel systems and the rise of what the biggest companies had previously referred to (and often overlooked) as ancillary products. In a period where the total volume of the industry was flat, companies strong in “soft-seating” and products with a more relaxed attitude were growing by double-digit percentages.  So it was, that in 2011 David Feldberg and his C-Suite team found themselves thinking about how to increase Teknion’s presence in the manufacture of furniture for these new social spaces. Some of Teknion’s largest competitors – Haworth, Herman Miller and Knoll – chose the acquisition path, and acquisition has the advantage of being the fastest way to gain strength in a new market segment. But it carries integration and culture risks, and often the result is less than a happy successful arrangement.

Mr. Feldberg chose to start a whole new company with the mission of creating a new brand associated with but apart from Teknion. Starting from scratch is the long game.  It’s slow and deliberate, but the advantage is that what it grows up to be is precisely what you make it. By 2012 Mr. Feldberg had acquired an excellent factory building in Clayton, NC, and his longtime industry colleague, Charlie Bell, had joined the new venture as president.

Mr. Feldberg’s vision was to create a brand focused on the design and development of products that provide solutions to the new social applications with both beautiful aesthetic design and great function. He charged Mr. Bell with engaging the best product designers in the industry and with growing the company aggressively.  Mr. Bell sprang into action signing an
exclusive agreement for North American distribution rights to the prestigious B&B Italia Project Collection. That gave the fledgling company a kick-start, but commissioning new design was always intended to be the primary focus of the plan. So in that first year, Studio TK began collaborations on new designs with Mario Ruiz and with the talented team of Jeffery Bernett and Nicholas Dodziuk.

The upshot is that Studio TK made its public debut at NeoCon 2013 with a credible collection of world-class products from the B&B Project Collection along with the first fruits of the commissioned designs. If proof of the strategy were required, the Fractals Seating Group designed by Bernett and Dodziuk won the Best of NeoCon Gold Award for collaborative/work seating. It was an auspicious beginning.

But starting a new company isn’t all roses and gold awards. Finding skilled factory workers is hard these days, and even harder for a start-up. Clayton is near Raleigh, and the reservoir of highly skilled upholsterers is nonexistent. On the other hand, the Raleigh area has a long history of companies in the apparel industries serving both the military and civilian markets.

Since that industry is in decline in the Raleigh area, Studio TK was able to attract experienced, talented people for the cut and sew functions while providing new jobs and a soft landing for people whose skills were transferable from clothing to furniture.

In a start-up, if you’re smart you wear as many hats as possible for as long as you can. In the beginning, Mr. Bell was running the factory as well as overseeing product design and development, along with the marketing and overseeing sales. But in reality, perhaps the most important thing a leader can do at that moment in a company’s history is build a high-functioning management team.

In an officeinsight interview during a recent visit to the Clayton headquarters, Mr. Bell said, “It pretty quickly became obvious that trying to run the factory and do all the things I needed to do on the new product side was not going to work. I had previously witnessed the power of lean manufacturing to build customer value, so I searched for someone with strong lean experience to oversee our operations. 

In the residential furniture industry, Hickory Chair is the company with the deepest experience in lean manufacturing.
At the time our VP of operations and manufacturing, Kevin Williams, was a lean manager at Hickory Chair, and he was excited to have the opportunity to build a lean manufacturing operation from the ground up.”

Lean manufacturing goes hand and glove with sustainability. Teknion has had an enviable dedication to sustainability
for a long time – even before it was popular. So as a child of Teknion, Studio TK implemented sustainability best practices as it established its manufacturing footprint. As a result the company has gained ISO 14001-15 certification, and it products have been certified Greenguard Gold and BIFMA e3 Level 2.

I asked Mr. Bell for a sketch of the other members of his executive team.  He told me, “Jay Chapman joined Studio TK in 2016 as VP of product development. A SCAD grad, Jay had been with Geiger prior to joining Studio TK, and he brought to the company thorough knowledge of the product development process including product planning and project management.

And significantly, given the Studio TK strategy, he had experience collaborating with outside designers in a way that draws the best from the designer and improves the final result.  He moved his family from Atlanta for the opportunity to lead our product development efforts. He’s shown real leadership in assembling an impressive team of young industrial designers to support and collaborate with the outside people.”

“Dan Winer joined us in 2014 as a product manager, and he was recently promoted to Marketing Manager. Dan grew up in Grand Rapids, where his dad was an engineer at Steelcase.  He had always lived in Grand Rapids and is an  accomplished barbershop quartet vocalist. He’s quite talented.  It took some effort to uproot him from Michigan, but I found an active group of barbershop quartets in our area and promised his dad I’d have his back!  While the actual development of a new product is a complex task, preparing the product for the marketplace is equally complex. Dan has developed our costing, pricing systems, manages our photography/collateral/website processes and coordinates the data
requirements needed to allow dealers to order our products.”

As mentioned above, in the beginning the arrangement with B&B Italia Project was important in establishing the brand at a high-design level and in building critical mass of well-designed solutions for social spaces, but original design was always the intent. However, sticking to the new design side of the strategy doesn’t mean ignoring opportunities to collaborate with other companies.

What has evolved over the six years of Studio TK’s existence could be described as a happy hybrid of partnerships with European companies and products designed and developed by Studio TK. The list of product design partners is impressive: Toan Nguyen, Claesson Koivisto Rune, Khodi Feiz, Monica Armani and Christophe Pillet.

A company named Alki from the Basque country on the French side of the Pyrenees came to the attention of
Mr. Bell and his team at Salone di Mobile, Milan, and then again at Orgatec.  Notable for its use of sustainably managed French white oak, Alki has a particular strength in the development and production of oak seating. As a result of meetings at the trade shows, the two companies opened a discussion and ultimately Studio TK licensed the Kuskoa seating group and Laisai lounge series. Said Mr. Bell, “Their craftspeople have worked with Alki for decades and they are extremely skilled at woodworking. We import assembled wood components and finish and upholster to our clients’  requests.”

NeoCon 50 in 2018 marked at least two major milestones for the company.  As a sign of its growing size and strength, Studio TK proudly welcomed NeoCon visitors to its very own showroom.  Having previously shared space with Teknion, the announcement of its new strategic partnership with the Dutch company Artifort, clearly demanded more space than Teknion could logically provide. And most importantly, it was an opportunity to accurately communicate Studio TK’s
separate branding and demonstrate the breadth and depth of its product offering.

When I asked Mr. Bell how the partnership with Artifort came about he said, “In 2017 we were just starting the project with Khodi Feiz that ultimately became Cesto. Khodi also serves as the creative director for Artifort, and he suggested we meet the owner of Artifort, Sander van der Lande, during Salone in Milan that year. I was impressed with Artifort’s  vertical integration, commitment to design and the sincerity of the van der Lande family. This is one of those unique
industry partnerships that is cemented by strong personal relationships. We collaborate closely with Sander and his
sons Maurits, Reinier and Floris. I’m absolutely convinced this partnership will grow in importance for both brands
over the coming years.”

With the long-term commitment and support of Teknion, what appears to be an excellent and flexible strategy of combining strategic partnerships with self-initiated original design from top-flight designers, and a highly functioning
executive team, Studio TK is clearly on a high growth trajectory. And aiming right for the heart of the fastest growing segment of the market, the company would appear to be enjoying a tailwind. 


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3149 Swift Creek Road, Smithfield, NC USA 27577
Phone: 919-205-1232     E-Mail: econdev@johnstonnc.com