Recent college grads, newly weds, and anyone else who remembers their first taste of adult life may also remember the cheap-and-easy furniture offered by the likes of IKEA, which promises efficient, flat-pack designs at low prices. But now the beloved (?) Swedish furniture tycoon faces a strong competitor: Greycork. CEO John Humphry brings an extensive manufacturing background to the table, hoping to take the familiar archetype — simple, affordable furniture – one step further. Not only are all materials (except upholstery) ethically sourced right in the USA and manufactured at their Massachusetts factory, but a side-by-side comparison shows Greycork products cost even less than their Swedish counterparts. Not to mention the assembly is twice as easy – no more missing parts or confusing multi-lingual instructions. Flat-packed and delivered straight to your door, the brand’s latest living room set – which is already halfway funded on indiegogo — makes buying quality furniture a breeze.
We recently got the chance to speak with Alec Babala, one of two co-founders to graduate from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the past year (the other is Myung Chul “Bruce” Kim). He has a lot to say about Greycork’s unlikely origin story – and what it means for the rest of the design world.
Before you ever heard from Bruce and John, what were your post-graduation plans? Had you always hoped to pursue a career in furniture?
I never thought I would find myself at a furniture company. I never even considered it when I got into RISD. I originally thought I would be studying architecture, because of my “mild” obsession with systems, but I ended up pursuing that same obsession in industrial design. This route fed the design-consulting gig I had going during school, by building up both my soft and hard skills with clients, mainly startups. One of them was Greycork. I always thought that I would be doing similar kind of work in a design consultancy or leading a project at a tech company. I was actually interviewing at Google months before graduation, and was strongly considering the move to [San Francisco], until John and Bruce caught me with this job offer out of left field. It was a tough decision to make for a couple of reasons: I’m a cyclist and you can’t beat bike riding in California, and woah…a startup that’s not an app. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build a company from the ground up.
What role(s) have you played in the company so far?
I’ve gone through a few titles already, Digital Director, Creative Director and now I’m currently Chief Design Officer. It’s also still debated if I was a consultant or an intern for a point in time. But titles don’t mean much to us in terms of what we do. We think of our roles like how the design consultancy IDEO thinks about innovation: viability, feasibility, and desirability. John handles the business side of thing, making sure Greycork is viable. Bruce takes care of the product design and manufacturing inside the factory, making sure Greycork is feasible. I’m responsible for design research and brand building, making sure Greycork is desirable.
You were the last to join the team. What did Greycork look like before you signed on – and what convinced you to become a partner?
Greycork was just an idea with a few concept prototypes and a website. We didn’t have an office, and were working out of cafes like Cafe Zog in Providence, RI, co-working spaces like Headquarters Boston in the Seaport, or in borrowed space at our manufacturing partner Horner in Somerset, MA. We’ve been scrappy since the start, and we still are. I think what’s convinced me to stick around is the hearts that both John and Bruce have. They are both super passionate dudes without a single bad intention. Sometime in September, after a couple of months being the first employee, John and Bruce took me out for a drink at Harpoon Brewery and popped the question, “Do you want to be our third co-founder?” It’s rare to find honest people to work with, and I knew that this shared trait among us would get the company far.
How did you imagine Greycork’s evolution a year ago – and how has your vision changed?
I always tend to be the realist between the co-founders. Before, I thought Greycork would grow slowly, like stay a company of 3-5 for a couple of years . You know, a humble beginning. I felt like we should get to know each other and play the slow game for 10-20 years to be as big as IKEA. Now it’s over a year later, and I’m managing 15 contributors to the Greycork magazine, developing a showroom apartment concept, we’re campaigning our living room set on Indiegogo, and preparing to grow the team. We’ve learned a lot about each other that’s helped us become better, and my vision has changed completely. Now tthe company is aligned towards a specific goal. We call that True North.
In an interview with Forbes, your co-founder John Humphrey shared his reason for changing the company name from “Howse” to Greycork, primarily because of the freedom the unassuming title allows. What does Greycork mean to you – and what should it mean to us?
Brands nowadays define who we are. I see Greycork as an opportunity to redefine who we are, much like a transition between two stages of your life. I want the people in the community we build to define the brand by how they interact with Greycork and discovering what it means to them. To me, there’s plenty of inspiration from the author Kurt Vonnegut, and I like to draw parallels with his book, Bluebeard, and what that name means to the story.
Describe a typical day at the “office.” Where are Greycork’s ideas made?
Greycork is my life right now, and I mean that in the literal sense. Bruce and I have currently been living and working out of the “office” apartment since March. John and Jonah come to our apartment every morning before 9am to work together. Being a home furniture company, it’s honest to say all our ideas are made at home.
What are your long-term goals for the company?
There are plenty, and if I talked about all of them we’d be here for a while. To name one goal I’m most looking forward to, it’s to grow our in-house creative team to a point where we can grow our Greycork magazine, create fun marketing campaigns, and still keep up with tasks related to our furniture products.
Do you have any plans under way to open another factory, launch another line, or even branch out of furniture altogether?
I can’t tell you much about our plans, but we are thinking about what room our next line of furniture will be in. Aside from product, I look forward to continuing the apartment showroom concept. We’ve run a pilot for the Greycork Loft in Providence, RI, and so far, feedback has been great. We’re excited to keep building on it!