Customization has always been part of home furnishings. Urged on by their clients, interior designers seek out luxurious fabrics and collaborate with workshops to design special pieces. And even mass-market items like Crate & Barrel sofas come with size, finish and upholstery options. But in almost all situations, the more personalized the piece, the more you will have to pay, and the waiting time for made-to-order is months.
It doesn’t have to be that way. A new wave of e-commerce furniture companies, including Inside Weather, The Inside, Interior Define and Benchmade Modern, are promoting speedy customization for all.
To buy a sofa in Inside Weather’s online store, shoppers choose among a dozen arm styles, including fat upholstered perches and grooved timber slabs; upholstery options like woven linen-and-polyester fabrics and vegan leathers; and details like tufting and stitching.
If a credenza is wanted, shoppers can pick the finish for the top and sides, one of more than a hundred ornamental door patterns, and their favorite pulls and legs.
The sofas start at $898, and small credenzas begin at $518 — a substantial savings over traditional custom furniture, which can run into five figures. These are shipped (from California) typically within a couple of weeks and in some cases just a few days.
“In apparel, customization has moved downstream and become more and more accessible,” said Ben Parsa, the chief executive of Inside Weather, which began in 2018. He wants to do the same for household products. “Being able to visualize tens, and soon hundreds, of millions of combinations of furniture from the comfort of your home is something that we think has tremendous mass appeal.”
The Inside, a company that started in 2017, makes fabric the object of dizzy decision-making. On its website, shoppers choose a shape for a lounge chair, bed, room divider or other piece, and then select from about 150 textile patterns, including translations of terrazzo and malachite, leafy botanicals and galloping zebras licensed from the revered design house Scalamandre. Each piece is made and shipped in two to four weeks.
“The people who are shopping online have spent years on social media saving gorgeous interiors, and they have a sense of what they’re looking for,” said Britt Bunn, a co-founder of The Inside. “We’re excited to be able to make those visions come true.”
As with so many other industries, technology has changed furniture production. On the front end, digital tools and apps allow companies to reach consumers, no showrooms required, and provide real-time visualizations of what custom pieces will look like. Interior Define even offers an augmented reality smartphone app that inserts the prospective piece into an image of your living room.
Behind the scenes, the companies hold essentially no inventory and rely on computer-controlled machines to do much of the work. At Inside Weather, a sofa is merely raw lumber until a customer places an order. When this is done, a CNC machine cuts the necessary wood components at the company’s facility in Rancho Cordova, California. When someone orders a credenza, a flatbed digital printer applies patterns to panels.
“Frankly, we couldn’t have done this at all 15 years ago,” Parsa said, “and it would have been significantly more cost prohibitive even five years ago.”
It’s a similar story at Skyline Furniture, a manufacturing company outside Chicago that was founded in 1946 and offers quick, custom-made furniture produced through recently acquired equipment.
Skyline’s digital textile printer turns out upholstery fabric on demand. “Previous to that, if you wanted to do a custom textile, it took 90 days, and you had to buy a minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 yards,” said Meganne Wecker, the company’s president.
Now Skyline can print just enough fabric to cover a single chair, in any pattern. The company manufactures many pieces for other retailers, including The Inside, but also has its own consumer-facing brand, Cloth & Co.
In a recent partnership with One Kings Lane, Cloth & Co. created Palette, an online service that allows shoppers to play with the color and scale of their patterns, even changing elements within them.
Online furniture customization “is a challenge to a company like West Elm or Ikea, which does carry a lot of inventory,” said Patricia Johnson, the graduate program director for furniture design at Rhode Island School of Design. “It gives a populist element to design — it’s more democratic — which I think is never a bad thing.”
Less appealing, however, is that many of the pieces offered by new online companies venture into knockoffs. “A lot of them are derivative or copies of things,” Johnson said. Inside Weather’s Vita lounge chair ($473) looks almost exactly like the Shell Chair ($3,865) designed by Hans Wegner for Carl Hansen & Son in 1963.
But imitation is hardly a deterrent, certainly not at these prices.
Jessica Stambaugh, an interior designer who splits her time between Nashville and New York, has purchased upholstered beds, benches and ottomans from The Inside. “I’ve recommended them to clients and friends on a regular basis,” she said, adding that the products resemble the custom pieces she creates with expensive fabrics from design centers.
Alex Burrow, the head of home design at Zeus Living, a San Francisco-based startup for furnished rental homes across the country, likes that Inside Weather products can be altered to meet the particular aesthetics of different regions.
“Having that baseline foundation of a good silhouette and a good design, and then being able to customize it with fabric, wood grain, stitching and things like that, makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Cultivating trust remains a hurdle for digital retailers, however. Ordering a sofa without flopping down on a sample can feel like a roll of the dice.
To help ease shopper anxiety, some online furniture companies are opening traditional showrooms, much as Casper has done with its mattress stores.
When Interior Define began in 2014, it had a single showroom in Chicago. But after finding that shoppers were more likely to buy furniture they could actually touch, it opened outposts in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Austin, Texas.
“Our conversion rates when people get into the stores are exceptionally high,” said Jill John, the company’s chief customer officer. “We’re hoping to open another five or six this year and then expand at the same rate in years to come.”
Inside Weather is contemplating doing the same thing. “We probably get customer inquiries on a daily basis, asking ‘Where can we see your products?’ ” Parsa said. “It’s something we’re seriously entertaining.”
But precisely how the company’s wares might be displayed in such stores remains an open question.
“Why predesign a product,” Parsa asked, “if technology allows us to have a manufacturing process, and the software, to let the customer do it for themselves?”