Meet New Zealand-born and Guangzhou-based Logan Komorowski. As the Co-Founder and Creative Director of UNITED STRANGERS, he talks us through his idea of a modern furniture brand that celebrates recycled furniture and home accessories, and sheds light on a sustainable design process.
Logan Komorowski’s passion for creating furniture from recycled materials struck when he was just fifteen years old. His first dabble was shortly after he dropped out of school and together with a bunch of his rugby mates started doing house demolition work. Logan filled his father’s garage with collected wood from the building sites. Eventually, he made some tables, sold them to family and friends, and started a company by the time he was sixteen years old. After a short stint in the USA, Logan studied product design in NZ, headed to China and landed a job as Head Creator with Halo by Timothy Oulton. It was there where Logan had the opportunity to explore every material and every idea, and then find the courage to go do it for himself.
It is probably not surprising that he co-founded United Strangers and under his title of Creative Designer, Logan has taken the brand from an idea to thirty-three stockists in thirteen countries in just five years. Known for repurposing bruised, battered and forgotten materials like aged brass and surplus army tents, United Strangers stands out because of the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into every piece of work. The result is a collection of timeless classics with a modern appeal and personal touches like hand stitched leather work and hand patina finishing.
We caught up with Logan while he was in Singapore launching the collection at Journey East. In this candid interview, Logan shares his love of furniture, unique design process, Singapore debut and thoughts on the future of the furniture industry.
What do you love about creating furniture and accessories?
I have a huge passion for the development process. I just got off the plane from Bali this morning and I found a new technique in Bali that I’ve never seen before so it is something that I want to try with our leather. I enjoy just trying to find a new way in doing something and use that on the production line.
In 2009, UNITED STRANGERS was created as a design company and in 2013 the brand started. How did UNITED STRANGERS come to be what it is today?
When we started the design company, I was still young and didn’t know the business side of things. I just knew the creative element and we did quite a few years of helping other companies build their brands. It got to a point where I knew I could do this for myself. At that time, I was surrounded by guys from France, NZ, China and Korea. We were just a bunch of strangers who came together to start the brand so even though I founded it, I had a lot of these guys around me to help get it off the ground. That’s how United Strangers came about.
Our brand has never been constrained to a specific look. Trends come and go and I just want to keep evolving. I didn’t want to be a brand that was pigeonholed into a certain look. So when I started United Strangers, I decided that it could be anything. When you say United Strangers it could be a record label, hotel business or anything. That’s the point with it; to keep having fun.
UNITED STRANGERS means “to be unique, to think differently and to create a world where everyone is welcome”. How have these values played out in developing the brand?
We have a tagline, “Some things mean everything to us” because there is a lot of stuff that gets discarded and maybe we can’t put it into a mass production but we can take elements of it. That takes us off in another direction. We start off with something we’ve found along the way. It might not be viable for mass production but there will be an element we’ll take out of it to recreate the process on a larger scale.
Tell us about your aesthetic ‘furniture with a twist’, what does that mean?
To run a workshop and have stores, you need to have an x amount of products which you know can move and sell. You need to have cabinets, tables, etc. but you also need to be able to produce those things that are a little different. For an example, the stitching on the Drum Round Coffee Table is done by hand. I want it to have some hand element, something that feels a little different or special. Or the hand-formed piece of brass on the Pilot Chair. Just to have a feel so that it doesn’t look like it has come out of the assembly line. It’s got to have soul to it.
I’m not trying to make products that are so expensive that my age can’t buy. That’s the whole purpose. There’s too much high-end product and low-end mass produced product out there, so we’re trying to fit into that sweet spot in the middle.
You are a Kiwi based in China, how did that happen?
One of my friends from back home was doing charity work in China and asked me to join him. I was doing charity work for the first year in a very poor part of China back in 2003. We got put up into quarantine because of an outbreak of the SARS virus. We were in these tents in a small province and there was a guy who saw me sketching furniture. He had a house in Xianjin and told me to build furniture once I was out of quarantine. I started making some sofas there and moved back home after. When I was back in New Zealand, I thought, “What am I doing here?” so I moved back to China.
Tell us about the design process from concept to finished product.
A lot of designers would come up with the form and idea first but when you tend to work with your own manufacturing base, if you don’t think about how to manufacture the beginning, you can have huge issues. The development process could be five times longer.
Our approach is a bit more practical in the sense that it starts with the material. We think about what can be done with that material inside our manufacturing base and then we work on the final concept. There is a lot of work done in the background to get it to that point. Like the leather on our Pilot Chair. Even though it looks like a piece of leather, it’s a 13-day process of hand finishing of leather. It starts in a tiny tannery in Argentina. We bring it across to China and then we have to cut, stain, dye and hand finish it together with the brass elements. Every year we try to look for three or four new directions we can take.
So you base it on the materials you have and not the design element?
Yes, it always starts with the material. For an example, a piece of leather has the raw shape of a cow hide. If I design something with it and the wastage is 50% of the hide, no one is going to buy it. Then I can’t get to the people I’m trying to reach. I’m not trying to make products that are so expensive that my age can’t buy. That’s the whole purpose. There’s too much high-end product and low-end mass produced product out there, so we’re trying to fit into that sweet spot in the middle so it definitely starts with the material.
Why is sustainability an important part of your process?
I think sustainability should be engrained in what everyone thinks. I don’t go out of my way to do it necessarily but it’s how I always found our materials and ideas. Maybe it’s the background coming from New Zealand. We’ve got a pretty green image down there and I think we should all be doing it. As long as we’ve got the ability, it’s not difficult. Definitely, it’s a lot harder than going to find a normal piece of wood and making a table but in the end, you can get a lot more out of your process in the long term. I don’t think it should be a selling point. It should be part of the company anyway.
You’ve collaborated with brands like Matt Blatt. How do you choose projects/collaborations?
We’re based in SEA and Southern China and traditionally Southern China is a place where you buy a thousand chairs at the cheapest price. So when I started out, I decided that I did not want to be that type of company. I just want to work with retailers that can give me a small in-store gallery of 80-100 sq.m. I don’t have to go out to find a retailer that buys a thousand pieces. I’m after a retailer that can give me a showroom space that I believe I can work with for the next 10-15 years.
The whole concept is to have in-store galleries, provide the business model, which is small volume so we are not taking up huge warehouse space, as that’s a waste of resources, energy, time and money. We are trying to create collections our retailers can buy in small volumes and in the end it helps everybody. We don’t have to hold too much stock, we can produce more containers for them quickly and it just has to feel right.
Who else have you collaborated with?
In terms of our product, we’re doing some interesting collaborations in Japan with a fashion company called Journal Standard, WeWork, a co-working space in New York and Airbnb. In terms of our showroom space, we have 33 around the world, in 14 countries. In America, we work with a company called Four Hands; Matt Blatt in Australia plus China is growing quite fast for us at the moment.
Your stockists are located all around the world, how much do you travel in your role?
I love to travel so I try to stand grounded at the workshop for 3-4 times a year for a solid month for the development process. The rest of the time is either furniture shows, travelling to get ideas or customers. I would say once a month I’m outside somewhere.
Journey East in Singapore has become one of your most recent stockists, what do you look for in a stockist?
I really think a big part of the furniture is the owners of the company. Especially in our type of niche industry, these owners love furniture. They are not in this for financial gain. Essentially, we are in a partnership together and partnerships go through hard and good times. So it’s a big thing to know if they’ve got a good history behind them and it just feels good.
I don’t have a strategy. If we try it for 2 years and the retailer decides to open a store, that’s great and if they want to do it slightly differently, we’ll do that. It’s an evolving thing. Gone are the days with big flagship stores everywhere. You have to keep evolving.
Journey East is 22 years old now. They’ve been through a lot to keep the company going. So you just know, with a company that has got that kind of history and when you meet them and get the feeling of how they talk about furniture, it’s not just about the product they are selling. I met Terence and Anita before the Shanghai furniture show in 2016 and we didn’t really talk about furniture for the first hour. And that tends to be how most of our retailers come about. And once we have a good retail base, we don’t look for anyone else.
"In my travels, I can only count on one hand the stores I walk into and say, 'This is a great furniture experience and this is what a furniture store should be.' I think in the future, your retail store is going to become a showroom for your online store. Enough people aren’t thinking that way and it’s a little crazy because everything is bought online."
In your opinion, what’s the future of retail and in particular how is retail changing for the furniture industry?
Obviously, online is going to start playing a bigger part. If you look at the furniture retail game at the moment, a lot of stores are going to die in the next 2 or 3 years, as the rents are too high. And especially with our generation, we’ve done our time with IKEA products. We’ve gone through our first window where we’ve bought our first flat or house and then we start earning a bit more money and want to individualise the house.
That is where the retail stores have to hit and I think there’s not enough that are doing a good job. I don’t know about Singapore but in my travels, I can only count on one hand the stores I walk into and say, “This is a great furniture experience and this is what a furniture store should be.” I think in the future, your retail store is going to become a showroom for your online store. Enough people aren’t thinking that way and it’s a little crazy because everything is bought online.
Maybe my mother’s generation is never going to buy furniture online but if you can build credibility with the brand or if you’ve walked into a store and say “Yes, I know that brand and I trust them,” they’re going to buy it online. If they know it is going to be delivered in 48 hours, they’re going to shop online. So the showroom is going to be more of a support to the online store.
Retail stores have to also provide an amazing experience. I think there’s no reason why we can’t have a cool café in places like the Journey East’s showroom, there’s no reason why on Friday night we can’t have a guy pumping some music in the corner. There has to be some different elements.
I know that United Strangers can’t take an 800 sq. m. space to make the store interesting but what happens if we make an indie line of organic products from India or something that is completely different from United Strangers? I think that’s what brands have to start doing. My job in the backend is the keep providing a certain culture and trend and put that into all the stores.
What’s next for UNITED STRANGERS?
We have a Las Vegas show next week, for the launch of a new product and a Shanghai show in September. We also have two new showrooms opening in Japan next month and a new workshop in Vietnam in October. The workshop in Vietnam will focus on more wood elements. We are also looking at providing a long-term experience to connect with partners and focus on what each market and customer need.