Blu skies: Blu Dot receives 2018 National Design Award

The design firm and retailer Blu Dot has received the prestigious 2018 National Design Award in Product Design from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Founded in 1997 by School of Architecture alumnus Maurice Blanks (MArch, ’91) and his partners John Christakos and Charlie Lazor, Blu Dot grew out of the motivating personal experience of having a sophisticated eye, on a limited budget. “As friends in college we shared a passion for art, architecture, and design,” Blanks explains. “After school, we went looking for modern design to furnish our first homes, but the things we could afford we didn’t like, and the things we liked we couldn’t afford. We figured we weren’t alone. The three of us – two architects and a sculptor – have been designing things we love in our Minneapolis studio every day since.”

Praising Blu Dot’s “inventive use of materials, fabrication technology, and assembly methods,” the Cooper Hewitt online gallery of winners notes that “Blu Dot produces furniture that is determined by an economy of means while maintaining a playful sensibility.” In short, Blu Dot designs stunning, sensible solutions that don’t skimp on the fun factor: the One Night Stand sofa opens like a book, elegantly and unexpectedly, to become a queen-size bed; the Dang Media Stand invites remotes to communicate effortlessly through its perforated steel doors, rendering all unsightly cables and boxes invisible; and the Who Goes There candleholders recall the romantic hallways of a Gothic country estate while simultaneously evoking a stylishly spare mid-century ranch.

Blanks and his partners describe the process that produced these and a host of other exquisite designs as collaborative, from idea to product delivery. They begin with an identified need, followed by a design brief and prototypes. To learn more about the process underlying Blu Dot’s success, and to mark the firm’s achievement as a National Design Award winner, Robert Somol, Director of the School of Architecture, and Marcia Lausen, Director of the School of Design, asked Blanks some questions about the ways his years as a graduate student at UIC have informed his development as a designer, colleague, and entrepreneur.

Robert Somol: How did studying and practicing architecture influence your work and success with Blu Dot?

Maurice Blanks: In architecture school I learned a lot, but there are two things in particular that have stayed with me through my career. First, I learned a great work ethic. You have to be incredibly productive to make it through architecture school. Second, I learned how to see things, how to really look and think about the built world. In school and as a practicing architect, I learned how to solve problems and figure things out. You’d have a new site, a new client, a new program, a new building code, so I’d have to quickly learn and research and educate myself. I have always loved learning new things, and in the process I have learned not to be intimidated by things that I don’t know anything about. Starting Blu Dot was all about figuring things out. How does furniture get made? How do you organize a warehouse? How do get something UL listed? How does a balance sheet work? There’s always something new to figure out.

Marcia Lausen: The product development process at Blu Dot seems very experimental, with hand drawings and many iterations of prototypes. This sounds like design school. Do you feel as though you are still a student?

MB: Our product development process is exactly like school. We literally have a two-hour studio review, basically a crit, every Thursday. My cofounder John Christakos and I meet with all of the designers, the product development managers, the head of sales, and the lead engineer, and each designer presents the projects they are working on. Everyone chimes in with comments and suggestions, and the next week the designers come back with revisions. That process continues until the product goes into production.

RS: How do you encourage this level of production and discovery in the designers on your team?

MB: My role is more like a teacher or a creative director. The design team does the real production and the founders provide direction and suggestions (sometimes demands), but it’s a very collaborative process. That’s one reason we never credit a designer, in a catalog or on the web, for a specific design – because there are many voices and influences. It feels old-fashioned and a bit naïve to say that one person was the designer.

ML: We have read that Blu Dot has “created a great combination of commerce and design.” At UIC, we now have the year-long course Design Entrepreneurship. What guidance or advice might you give the students in the current course?

MB: The two skills that seem to be really valuable are collaboration and compromise. You have to work with other people – who you will cajole and influence and persuade – to get things done, to commercialize your creativity. And you’ll have to compromise, which will be hard, but possible to do, while keeping your integrity and pursuing your vision.

RS: In crossing between architecture and design in your education and practice, what lessons have you learned, or how do they inform or contribute to one another? How would you advise students to take advantage of the lessons they learn while in school?

MB: When you aren’t sure what to do, just do something, make something, build something. It’s easy to get paralyzed looking for the perfect solution or questioning every decision. Make something and you’ll learn something. Another thing I’ve learned is to move quickly from 2-D to 3-D. A model is so much richer and more informative than a drawing. Also, it’s easy, and safe, to spend hours tweaking a design in the computer, trying endless permutations and variations. But making it in the real world forces you to make decisions and commit. It forces you to move forward.

ML: The language of your website and catalog is very clever and entertaining. What is the role of this “fun factor” in your furniture design and marketing materials?

MB: When we started Blu Dot, we wanted to make modern design accessible. And part of that was reacting against the elitist idea of a designer as a hero, the cult of personality. We wanted everyone to feel welcome, not intimidated. And we use humor as a way to do that, to disarm people. While we take our work and our customers very seriously, we don’t take ourselves seriously.

 

Photo credit: Real Good Chair, 2007, Dan Monick