Kalon Studios, the LA-based sustainable design studio, launched its first furniture collection in two years this week called Rugosa through the (now-online) designer showcase, Sight Unseen. Named after the Rhode Island seaside retreat where the founders, husband and wife duo Johann Pauwen and Michaele Simmering, have gone to reset and recharge for the last twenty summers, Rugosa has come into the world during a very complicated time.
While the collection’s design was completed almost a year ago, its final iterations were shaped by the pandemic with an awareness to what is happening in the world. And as the designers contemplated its release with much consideration, their ultimate realization was this is the right time to release pieces which are so deeply personal to them and also reflects an overall societal desire to get back to basics.
Consisting of a new sofa, daybed, coffee table and bookshelf, Rugosa is the designers’ love letter to the living room, inspired by their own love of a space which for them is a place to immerse oneself with their thoughts or to get lost in conversation.
“We look to create the perfect marriage between beauty and utility. It’s such a huge thing for us. We are really trying to make furniture that people can live with and want to live with for a long time,” says Pauwen when asked to describe Kalon. “We aren’t making statement pieces that make a big splash or a conversation piece. We are creating emotional pieces that people will use every day.”
Rugosa is just that—useful, comfortable, clean and dynamic. The pieces invite the user to interact with them, to become one with them, to be unafraid to enjoy them, and yet, at the same time, hold them in high appreciation. The designers describe the collection on their website with a simple, yet accurate, phrase: boldly simple.
When they started their business with the idea of being a fully sustainable brand—which for them means high quality products, domestically made in small batch production, with zero-compromises on sustainable materials and finishes, using only healthy, chemically neutral products and processes—every business expert they spoke to told the couple they were crazy.
“The running advice was to offshore production, import in large volumes, worry less about quality and more about margins and focus on sales. For us, sales have always taken a backseat to product and message. If the products couldn’t sell themselves, then maybe they weren’t worth making,” explains Simmering.
This commitment to doing it one hundred percent in their vision did come with some challenges.
“There’s a real lack in material science when it comes to sustainability. There are products but they are not market ready, like natural synthetics or bio plastics which are made of orange oil. It may exist, but then you run into problems of not being enough orange oil. We run into challenges like this all the time,” says Simmering. “And the industrial infrastructure in the US is not geared towards creativity. In Europe, why are they able to create such interesting things is because they are much smaller and able to be open to flexible. That’s not the case here, and it’s limiting.”
Keeping this commitment to complete sustainability has meant they have made interesting—and unplanned—creations along the way. Case in point, Kalon Studios makes a truly, 100% organic mattress. It was born when their customers would ask them for healthy, organic mattress recommendations and neither designer felt there was one they could genuinely refer. They knew mattress companies are not legally obliged to disclose any material beyond the outside cover so a mattress described as organic could very well be filled with all sorts of synthetic materials. So they created a fully organic and sustainable mattress made of only 4 natural materials: wool, cotton, shredded coconut husks and natural latex made from the bark of a rubber tree. All the ingredients together means the Kalon mattress is naturally hypoallergenic and resistant to bacteria and mold, naturally fire-retardant, and naturally cooling.
The COVID crisis has revealed a lot for the sustainable studio. “For example, it has made it clear how much domestic supply chains matter. It’s also laid bare the incredible inequities between the invested class and the working class,” says Pauwen, commenting on the economic victims of coronavirus. “We have never lost the founding principals of equitable fair business practices that sustain both us and the tradespeople we work with. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that provides a solid income, security and pride in work for all of the people involved in the production process. Exactly right now, we are reminded of how much that matters.”
They have always been light on their feet, which is something that has helped them weather various storms, from the recession in 2008 to the current crisis. They began the company with two cell phones and two laptops, a setup which they say has not changed very much since they started in 2007.
“Producing in the US or locally has been a good decision. We don’t have to deal with importing large volumes of inventory to warehouse and ship. We are able to produce on demand and to ship direct, all while greatly reducing our carbon footprint,” says Pauwen.
This lean operation has allowed them to shift the scale of production up or down on a dime since they outsource manufacturing, keep a small staff, and run the office out of their home. While production costs associated with this structure are slightly higher than if it were done otherwise, the leanness of it all has allowed them to focus on what is most important to them—design and process. Making the work they are doing feel incredibly relevant to them at this moment as people contemplate everything in their lives.
“The sustainability part is where I get hopeful right now,” says Simmering. “I really hope that when we walk out of this disaster that people will be more proactive and make sustainable choices.”