Yvonne Hung, a city-dweller who has lived in some of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, knows firsthand the challenges and constraints of living in small apartments. It can be difficult to have friends over because there isn’t enough space or seats.
For this reason, she founded Otelier in 2020, a San Francisco-based furniture studio with a focus on sustainability, and providing innovative products that are useful even for small spaces.
Yvonne believes that the home is the most intimate social space, and people shouldn’t have to sacrifice that due to a lack of space. Her latest project is called the Quartet, a multi-functional side table that unstacks into four stools.
While the retail industry and consumers have embraced fast furniture with low prices, poor construction, copied designs, and single usage, Otelier is committed to changing that. Yvonne and her team are determined to create sustainable, high-quality furniture that will stand the test of time. With Otelier, urban dwellers no longer have to choose between comfort and the environment, and Quartet is just the beginning of a new era in furniture design.
OTELIER STRADDLES BETWEEN A DESIGN STUDIO AND AN E-COMMERCE BRAND
I’ve always had an obsession with cities—the way they develop over time, how they are shaped by their geographies and industries, and of course how culture and way of life make each city unique.
In fact, I started my career in urban planning, which is what I studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. My goal, as cheesy as it sounds, has always been to make the world a better place to live for all. With Otelier, I’m trying to do it at a much smaller scale—the home—because that allows me to get up close and personal with users, and also be hands-on with the creative process.
So much of my design principles still go back to urban planning. For example, I chose to focus on apartment living because higher-density housing is a much more efficient and sustainable way to accommodate a growing population, as compared to single-family homes which encourage urban sprawl. Likewise, sustainability and the cradle-to-cradle approach is always a huge factor in the product design process because protecting the earth is always top of mind.
This generation is going through a lot of changes—higher housing prices, more frequent moving, and smaller apartments are some trends that make life different from what it was 20+ years ago. Activities that used to take place in person, such as work and meetings, now happen online. Social media is both hastening new ideas and increasing anxiety. I think there are many opportunities to address these issues. For me, it’s starting with the most intimate space, the home, and how we can make it a happy experience.
Otelier straddles between a design studio and an e-commerce brand. It’s rare to be both. Most consumer furniture brands aren’t strong on design—there’s a lot of copying of whatever’s trending—and most design studios don’t follow through with the manufacturing and sales process.
I aspire to do both under Otelier. As a designer, I want to explore and experiment, whether it’s with product ideas, new materials, or collaborations with little constraint. And as an entrepreneur, I want to create an e-commerce brand whose products make an impact at scale. I’m still figuring out how to do both with very limited resources as a solopreneur.
BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN SUSTAINABLE FURNITURE DESIGN
It seems there’s a race to the bottom in the consumer furniture industry—make it as cheap as possible, sell more, and maximize profits. It’s no wonder why the EPA says the US produces 12 million tons of furnishing waste a year. Not only are these items going into the landfill, but they also contain a lot of non-recyclable and/or non-biodegradable materials. The challenge is that now consumers are trained to believe their furniture should be dirt cheap and don’t realize these problems, similar to the case of fast fashion.
There’s also a lot of greenwashing everywhere. For example, using recycled plastic bottles is great, but turning them into something that cannot be recycled again is worse than just making another plastic bottle from it because it could then be recycled several more times.
One of my pet peeves is when companies call plastic leather vegan leather. It’s just plastic! Otelier is far from perfect, but I am committed to being honest and looking for the best alternatives that are currently available and financially feasible.
Fortunately, I do think there is a subset of mindful consumers that want high-quality furniture that’s sustainably produced. There are several smaller independent brands, like Otelier, that are trying to address this problem in the furniture space, and a lot of material science and manufacturing companies exploring more sustainable alternatives.
That said, when it comes to innovation on the sustainability front, it’s easy to design or prototype a concept, but much harder to make it commercially viable. I’m fascinated by a lot of the new materials that are currently in development, such as bioplastics. I’m also interested in blockchain for tracking supply chains. But in reality, these ideas are far from being commercially available, especially to small companies like Otelier.
My long-term goal is to have two areas of focus: one for blue sky explorations, including the use of new materials, and a second for producing durable and commercially viable products for the masses. For now, since I’m bootstrapping, the current focus is more on commercially viable products using what’s available today.
There’s plenty we can do now to improve the furniture industry. Taking a methodical approach, I typically break down a product into its materials, manufacturing, logistics & transportation, usage, and end-of-life condition, and then minimize the footprint for each factor.
MAKING SURE OTELIER PRODUCTS ARE SUSTAINABLE
I use materials that are biodegradable and/or recyclable and minimize the use of petroleum-based plastics for both our products and packaging. The Quartet, for example, uses wood and suppliers that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to ensure that we’re sourcing from sustainably managed forests. I also use hardwood because it’s more durable since longevity is key to sustainability. Metals are also great for durability and recyclability. My hope is that we create zero landfill waste.
Otelier is not perfect; I still rely on the existing transportation and energy systems that are available today. For what I cannot control, I use carbon offsets so that our products are carbon neutral. And I also plant trees to compensate for the wood used in our products.
If all businesses take responsibility for their own environmental footprint, we’d be in a much better place.
THE GOAL IS TO ENCOURAGE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL WELLNESS AT HOME
I’m still at a very early stage with Otelier, but I have so many ideas! It takes me a lot of time to develop each since I work alone.
I think the way this generation lives, post-COVID, requires more flexibility from our home, no matter if you’re living alone or have a family with kids. Some recurring themes in my furniture are multi-functionality and space-saving features. I also am fascinated by objects that are interactive. In a way, I enjoy designing experiences enabled by an object rather than the object itself. For example, the Quartet is a side table that unstacks into four stools. But the goal is to encourage friendship and bonding at home. The furniture is a means to that end.
LONG-TERM GOALS FOR OTELIER
The ultimate goal is to build a brand that creates beautiful and useful furniture that enriches the lives of urban citizens, while also being sustainable and accessible. I hope Otelier will be an international brand, given that apartment living is relevant everywhere.
From a service perspective, my vision is to create a platform that sells both new and used Otelier furniture. Resale is really a key to countering the fast-furniture problem. Although our furniture is heirloom quality, I think most people of this generation would prefer to just sell their used furniture rather than passing it down to their kids and grandkids. So making resale easy is a service that could benefit everyone.
Innovation is really important to me. I’m not here to create what already exists. I really hope that Otelier can pioneer commercializing some of the sustainable materials that are currently in development. It’s still early days, so there are lots to explore, learn, and create.
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