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Design collaborations

Gary Evans, Tanya Merritte -- Kids Today, September 1, 2007

Who: Barry Nicholson, vice president of sales, Offi & Co.

Background: Offi & Co. was formed in 1997 by Kirk Hobbs, a longtime friend of Nicholson's. Before striking out on his own, Hobbs had spent time working at a design firm, Metropolitan Furniture/Steelcase, in California's Silicon Valley. Nicholson came aboard in 1999 after holding marketing positions with Proctor & Gamble and CorningWare. That was the same year that Offi first moved into the youth arena.

When Offi was first created, instead of hiring staff designers, Hobbs relied on the connections he had made through Metropolitan/Steelcase. Designers were hired on a contract basis to create product, a concept that made sense both creatively and financially for a startup. A bit later, Eric Pfeiffer came aboard and served as design director. But after five years, Pfeiffer got the itch to go independent, which was perfect timing for Offi, Nicholson said. "After five years, it was time to go back and develop individual designers," he said. "It keeps us fresh."

Pfeiffer still designs for Offi, and it was one of his products that brought Offi into the juvenile market. In 1999, he showed Offi his chalkboard table that he had had success with. Three years ago, Offi added the playroom collection from Jennifer Carpenter, and Roberto Gil handed off some existing product from his design collections. The company moved into larger pieces, including cribs, about two years ago. Baby and youth is now the fastest growing segment of Offi's business, accounting for 25% of sales.

The Process: Offi has about 16 designers/teams on its roster, and a select group that routinely creates items for the youth line. Nicholson said that sometimes designers will come to Offi with their own ideas. Other times, he and Hobbs will go to the designers with an idea and ask them to execute it. An example was when the duo decided to go into cribs and they asked Carpenter and Gil for designs. The team will also go to designers when they sense a piece is missing from a current collection, such as adding a high chair.

Nicholson says the inspiration for Offi's designs stem from Hobb's background. "(His vision) was clearly high tech, which in home office is clean and modern," Nicholson said. "We moved to other rooms and kept the same idea."

Nicholson said some designers come back with sketches while others bring an actual scaled model to demonstrate how the product works. Nicholson and Hobbs then choose one or two of the designs and study them more closely while asking several questions. Is the manufacturing base capable of producing this? Does the design need to be changed? Can the manufacturer handle the medium?

The sketches and/or mockups are then shown to a select group of retailers. "We talk to people who understand sketches and models," he said.

The sketches are then sent off to one of Offi's manufacturing factories, where prototypes and samples are made. Nicholson said it can take between 12 to 24 months from concept to shipping product, depending on the medium and amount of testing needed.

One of the top requirements for the youth line is that the products be a seamless blend of high style and practicality. "We believe design means design aesthetically and design functionally," Nicholson said.

One example of this is Offi's EVA foam collection, designed by Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino. The foam is sturdy and durable — each piece can support up to 300 pounds. But it's also washable, safe and lightweight — perfect for kids. "It's over-engineered, but kids can move it around," he said.

Offi shows at the ABC Expo, ICFF and the New York gift show. It showed at Kind + Jugend in Cologne, Germany, last year and plans to return in 2008. Offi's main buyers are retailers with a focus on design and children's boutiques that want something different, Nicholson said. "On the kids side, they aren't afraid to step out and try and something edgy," he said, adding that retailers recognize that some consumers want to try more modern styles in their children's rooms.

In addition to selling to retailers in the United States and Canada, Offi does about 20% of its business overseas. Offi also opened its own retail store, Pure Design, in Corning, N.Y., a few months ago.

The Challenges: Nicholson said Offi's biggest obstacle is finding the capital to develop products in the backlog. "We would do more product if we had the money," he said.

He said competition is also becoming a factor. When Offi showed at the first ABC Expo, there were no other modern companies, Nicholson said.

"In a very real way, the competition has come up significantly," he said. "It probably makes us better at focusing on what we bring to market."

Having been with Offi for about eight years, Nicholson says he occasionally gets an itch to try to design a product, but he notes that he doesn't have the background. "That helps me squelch that itch," he said. "We focus on what we do the best."

Offi's Pure Design store showcases many of its juvenile products.

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