Slate: What was Blu Dot like in its early days, and how has it evolved?
Maurice Blanks: From the very beginning it was basically the three of us sitting around a table with a big roll of butcher paper, sketching out ideas and coming up with the initial designs for the company. It was very collaborative, and iterative; one person would come up with a basic idea, and the other two would interpret or misinterpret it, and riff on it. It would evolve into something. Those products eventually became our first collection.
John Christakos: Beyond the strict value proposition that we try to hold ourselves to, we have an attitude about the company. Design can be an industry that takes itself a little too seriously. We wanted to have not only a democratic product, but a democratic attitude, where everyone's invited to our party, and we're not too cool for anyone. We poke fun at ourselves and have a good time; humor is a big part of who we are as people, and who we are as a company.
Slate: How did you come up with your name?
Blanks: When we were looking at names, we noticed that most design brands out there are individual's names. If we used our three last names or our three middle names it sounded like we were part of the hifalutin design world. We liked the idea that blue had these connotations like blue collar or blue plate special, things that weren't higher than everybody else. This was around the time that the singer Prince changed his name to a symbol, and he became the artist formerly known as Prince. Someone threw out the idea, what if it was just a blue dot: something simple and graphical that we could use on our packaging as a logo for the company. That's how the shape came about.
Christakos: Early on we funded the company with a small amount of our own savings, and we were scraping to use every available resource. A friend of ours is a graphic designer, whom we asked to do our ID. We couldn't pay him in cash, but he wanted us to design him a modern tree house for his son, so that was the barter. He was the one who dropped the letter E from the word blue, mostly because he liked the way the letters lined up in the logo, and he's sort of a Paul Rand fanatic. He was trying to channel Paul Rand in designing our logo. We objected to it, thinking it was too tricky. We wanted to be all straightforward: "what you see is what you get" design. He basically said, this is the logo; if you guys don't go this route than I'm done. So we were like, "OK, OK, we'll go with no E."
Slate: Blu Dot has had some really unusual marketing campaigns lately, like your Real Good Chair Experiment [which left GPS-tagged chairs on city streets and tracked who picked them up], and the more recent Swap Meet [which invited people to offer up their talents or crafts as barter for Blu Dot furniture]. How did those come about?
Christakos: From the get-go we had zero marketing budget, so all of our marketing efforts had to be very practical. How can we tell the story of who we are and give people a sense for what we're about without a budget? In the early days it was making really great assembly instructions for our products that were humorous, or instead of packaging our hardware in clear plastic bags, putting them in cool little branded cloth bags. As we've grown we've gotten to a point where we've got a slightly bigger budget, but it's still tiny in comparison to any real large consumer brand. The Real Good Chair Experiment and the Swap Meet are fun examples that we can't take total credit for internally. We work with a great agency in Minneapolis, friends of ours. It was a little risky with the Real Good Chair Experiment: We were placing GPS tracking devices on the undersides of these chairs, unbeknownst to the people who were picking them up. It really was an experiment. We had no idea how it was going to unfold. But that's what made it exciting, and that's what made it powerful in the end. A company our size: We're not small anymore, but we're not huge either. We have the luxury of taking some risks. If we were some big huge company, all sorts of committees get involved, and before you know it the soul of any good idea's been sucked out of it.
Blanks: The Swap Meet was basically creating an armature for our customers or people that were interested in Blu Dot to create content. John referred earlier to the fact that we swapped the design of the tree house for our logo: The whole idea of a swap is something that's really part of the history of the company.
Slate: What did you do with the stuff you bartered for in the Swap Meet?
Blanks: It's all in our offices right now. When you walk in the front door, there's a motorcycle made of 9,000 popsicle sticks.
Christakos: The second ugliest couch in America is here. Some of it's in our stores too.
Blanks: Then there are some things that aren't physical. Like we have somebody's mother who sends us a care package and a letter every Sunday.
Christakos: We were concerned when we did this. We created a couple of swaps just to seed the website in case nobody came. Within a couple of hours we had, I think, 200 proposals for swaps, and over the course of two weeks, I think we ended up with 2,000. It was awesome. A total productivity killer: We just kept going back to the website to see what people were proposing. It was really a blast.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Click here for a slide show of Blu Dot furniture.