Blu Dot’s original NYC store in SoHo
Thanks to CB2, Ikea, Design within Reach, and their ilk, modern furnishings are as accessible as they are affordable.
But it wasn’t always that way. A couple decades ago, there were only two Ikeas in the U.S. (both on the coasts), and fans of modern design had to go through an interior designer to get access to the kinds of furniture they liked.
Enter Blu Dot. The Minneapolis-based designer and manufacturer of modern home furnishings debuted in 1997 with a small collection of sleek, modern furniture designs and a mission to bring stylish, affordable, functional design to as many people as possible. It was founded by three former Williams College classmates, John Christakos, Maurice Blanks, and Charlie Lazor—two architects and a sculptor who shared a passion for art, architecture, and design.
Blu Dot made its official debut at the annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), a high-end luxury furniture market in New York City, where it was picked up by several home retailers including Zinc Details in San Francisco (where Blu Dot is still carried); Moss, the influential NYC design store founded by Murray Moss; and the MoMA Design Store. Its first designs included the Chicago 8 Box, a clever arrangement of wooden boxes and steel poles that uses negative space for a stronger graphic statement (still part of Blu Dot’s assortment to this day); the Uptown Coffee Table, a table made of wood and sandblasted glass with bent metal legs; and the Detroit Cocktail Table, a natural blackened steel base with a sand-blasted glass top. Other early designs include the Modu-licious Collection, an award-winning series of beds, desks, dressers, and tables with a modular look that was introduced in 1999; Son of a Bench, a modern bench made of interlocking steel loops and a glossy black rubber-dipped skin that was released in 2008; and the SHILF Collection, a modular, easy-to-assemble shelving system made from powder-coated steel.
Today, the brand is much more than just a handful of stylishly minimal furniture designs. In recent years, it’s introduced goods ranging from area rugs and lighting, to kitchen accessories and throw pillows. In 2008, Blu Dot opened its first showroom, in New York’s SoHo district, where it could sell its full range of products in a stylized environment. The company recently opened several new stores in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, a Blu Dot Outlet in Minneapolis, and coming this fall, a 12,000-square-foot NYC store in the design-centric NoMad neighborhood and a Seattle showroom. With the two new stores, Blu Dot will operate a total of 11 stores. The locations feature Blu Dot’s entire assortment, including its popular Copper Real Good Chair and collaborations, such as the Blu Dot x Handsome Bike, as well as dedicated space and staff to assist interior design clients.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, the brand is working on a retrospective book that delves into their legacy, due out by the end of 2017. And next week, Blu Dot is celebrating by hosting its largest giveaway to date. It will partner with design influencers across the country to announce the sweepstakes on August 23. One lucky fan will win $5,000 worth of Blu Dot designs to be used in-store or online, and two runner-ups will receive $500 to use toward Blu Dot designs. To enter, submit your email at bludot.com/20-year-giveaway and follow @bludot on Instagram for additional chances to win.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Christakos, Blu Dot co-founder and CEO, about the brand’s inception and how it’s evolved over the years.
Let’s start from the beginning. How was the idea for Blu Dot born?
“My co-founders and I were very good friends in college. We spent a year backpacking around the world before we entered the real world, and had lots of conversations along the way. The idea of a design-related business percolated on an overseas trip in 1988. We all came back to the States and started the beginnings of our careers. When I went to graduate school, I left knowing I ultimately wanted to start my own business. I started to kick the idea around with Charlie and Maurice a little more seriously. That would have been in ‘93, ‘94. I got to a point where I felt confident enough to give it a go in 1996, and I quit my job to devote myself to the business. We were all living in different cities at the time, and they decided, probably wisely, to keep their jobs. Officially, Blu Dot was born May of 1997 at ICFF in New York. That’s when we made ourselves known to the public.”
What else can you tell me about those early days?
“We’re finishing up a book right now on our first 20 years and it was interesting for us to dig back into the archives. We have the original faxes we sent one another in ’94, ’95. We were still fleshing out what we would stand for, what we would be about, what kinds of things we’d make. A lot of it was pre-email, and in person as well. Charlie and Maurice came to Minneapolis for a lot of long weekends, walks around the lakes, kicking ideas around. Back then, we were furnishing our first homes and getting rid of dorm room furniture. We liked modern design but it was hard to come by. Room & Board was one of the few, Ikea existed but only in L.A. and New Jersey, there was no Design Within Reach, there was no CB2. If you liked modern design, you had to get a designer to go into showrooms and wait six months. We thought there were other people frustrated like us—enough where we could do this and make a living. That was the goal, to go to work every day and do something we love.”
Where did the name Blu Dot come from?
“It’s funny to look at some of the name ideas we came up with now because some of them were so silly. We rejected some because they were too restricting and specific or too trendy, and wouldn’t last the test of time. I think we set on Blu Dot because of its simplicity and the basic, humble kind of feeling to it which matched our mission.”
When you started out Blu Dot, did you have a five-year plan? Did you imagine you’d last 20 years?
“We hoped we would, but of course we had no idea. I had saved up $50,000 and decided I’d give it a year and invest that. If in one year it didn’t look promising, I’d go back and get a job. As soon as we made our launch in May of ’97, the response was strong, stronger than we had expected or even hoped. So it was clear we struck a chord in the market and realized there was something there.”
You’ve opened a number of Blu Dot stores in the last couple of years. Why this acceleration of openings?
“For us, it’s come in due course. We started having our own stores not quite 10 years ago in SoHo with our first store. We’d only sold before then through independent retailers. We only had one sofa and three chairs in our collection. We didn’t have rugs or lighting or accessories. It was a pretty sparse store. We design and create everything that we sell. We’re not a furniture retailer that goes and buys pieces from multiple suppliers and puts them together and sells them. Since we’re the designers and the makers, everything is created here, and it takes us longer to build products. It didn’t make sense for us to open piles before until our product selection made sense. In the last three or four years, we’ve introduced a lot of new things and our selection has rounded out to additional categories. We now have more than one sofa to choose from, but we don’t have 40. We don’t want to have 40. So instead, we’re getting a little more aggressive about opening stores.”
Anything special planned for the anniversary?
“The book will be somewhat of a celebration of that. It’s been a great project to force ourselves to document what we’ve done in the last 20 years. We’re not the best archivists so it taught us to do a better job of preserving what we’ve done.”
What makes you still wake up and feel excited about going to work at Blu Dot after 20 years?
“The work that’s coming out of our studio I think is the best we’ve ever done. We have a much larger design team now than when we started, when it was just the three of us, which gives us a lot more space to create. We have design reviews every Thursday, which makes it my favorite day of the week.”
The Blu Dot Outlet is open every weekend, Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at 1323 Tyler St. NE., Minneapolis, 612-354-7964. Select Blu Dot designs are also available at Roam Interiors, 2914 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-377-6465. Shop Blu Dot’s full collection at bludot.com.
Take a look at some of Blu Dot’s newest products:
Sunday 82″ Sofa: Comfy enough for lounging, but stylish enough for entertaining. Available in three colors. $2,799 @ bludot.com
Double Tuck Felt Baskets: Cleverly designed soft storage baskets made from 100% felted wool, available in small, medium, and large sizes. Available in three colors. $159 @ bludot.com
Flange Collection: Inspired by architecture, these terra-cotta Flange vases help elevate natural décor. $7.99-$9.99 each @ bludot.com
Cat’s Pajamas Lounge Chair: This design features a solid ash frame attached to a bent powder-coated steel seat, topped with a bright, angular cushion. Available in five colors. $499 @ bludot.com
Rule Large Dresser: Available in three wood types, this style features deep-set drawer fronts, soft close, and detailed wood pulls. Rule Large Dresser: Available in six shapes, this style features deep-set drawer fronts, a soft close, and detailed wood pulls. $2,899-$2,999 @ bludot.com