Aalo

An Interview with Sejun Park

 

Back in August I got to sit down with Sejun Park, Founder & Design Lead at Aalo. We talked about furniture design, why he started his company and memories of his favourite designers. 

Brett: There’s a very famous product designer Dieter Rams, most known for his work with Braun in the 60s. His principles to good design include: ‘Good design is innovative’, ‘Good design is aesthetic’, ‘Good design is durable’. What would you say you look for in good design?

Sejun: I think adaptability is a big part especially now in the days where everyone is so mobile. Part of the thing I look most forward to when I’m talking to my customer or trying to get design inspiration is not just what they look for in a design, but how they actually use it. More often than not, I think people tend to miss how they can actually use the same product and bring it into a new lifecycle. Especially being in the furniture space, a lot of people tend to just have this idea of throwing away something if they don’t need it. Same thing with fashion — with fast fashion, fast furniture, things are cheaper now [and] easier to get. But when you’re trying to move into a different space what are you going to do with that?

To counteract that in the past few years, a lot of people have come up with new uses for the same product, such as IKEA Hacking. You don’t have to necessarily throw it out. People are coming up with creative ways to repurpose the items. I think adaptability is really important because we are already doing so much harm to the environment that I think it’s better when people start to think about how they can use the same item in a different way when they are making the purchase decision. I try to build that into the design; and I’m not sure if it was Dieter Rams, or it might just be the ethos of IKEA, but they actually say that a good design is also one that’s approachable by as many people as possible — meaning affordability. I also think that’s very important for the future. How that gets built into the new brands that are coming up? I’m not sure.

B: His most famous words are “Good design is as little design as possible.” Would you say you agree with that? In a sense of minimalist type?

S: When I hear that phrase, I do think that he had an underliying implication that when he says, “as little design as possible,” [it’s] what’s perceived. People think that it should be super easy or super simple, super clean. But he knows the best how much work actually goes into making a product look as simple as possible. Often it’s harder to make something look super easy and simple than to make it look more complex than it actually is. So I do think it’s very important to have that kind of approach as a designer. In the end you want people to think that “Oh I can make that!” I think that’s pretty important because it makes your design more approachable. But more often than not when people say “Oh I think I can make that it’s a super simple design” chances are if you try to build it yourself or design it from scratch yourself, you’ll be surprised how much extra work [and] detail has gone into making that look that way. So yes, totally, I think that is very important for designers to have in mind.

B: Aalo’s furniture is very minimal, very clean design. Would you call yourself a minimalist?

S: To a certain degree yes; but I’m not a traditional minimalist. I like minimal design, but I’m a hoarder. I tend to keep a lot of stuff, so my lifestyle isn’t minimal at all. But I do see the value in minimal design. For example when I’m talking about my product, part of the advantage of building a product with all the common parts — like what we do at Aalo — is that it streamlines our manufacturing, our shipping, our packaging because we don’t have to manufacture or design individual furniture items from scratch every time. By going modular into [every piece] that make up the furniture we are creating a minimal system where we manufacture about 10 different products, 10 different connectors; and using those same 10 connectors we can come up with over 50 different furniture designs. That actually minimizes the work that goes into design and also production. That’s part of the thing that I’ve actually got to see and learn while I was working at Toyota. There’s a word that they have called eliminating the muda. Muda means waste. It’s kind of [where] minimalism is right, eliminating waste. I tend to like those kind of design approaches, but I need to get better at throwing away stuff. Actually eliminating the muda in my life.

B: That’s something that I definitely don’t do, I’m definitely not a hoarder. Every six months I’ll go through my closet and say “I haven’t worn this in six months, haven’t worn this. It’s gone”.

S: I would definitely get called out if I went online or somewhere and said I’m a minimalist. The minimalist subreddit has a lot of criticism towards people who just buy all these minimalist stuff, but that kind of defeats the purpose of minimalism if you’re buying so many things just because they help your minimal life. The whole point is you wanna cut down on all the unnecessary stuff. I think there’s a good balance to it. For me I’m a minimalist in my design approach, but I like to have the options of being able to maybe use something in the future even if I don’t have an immediate use for it.

B: Tell me how the vision of Aalo started. What made you want to start a company?

S: I was always interested in entrepreneurialism. I ran my first startup when I was in my undergrad in Waterloo but the reason I wanted to start this specific idea was I’m a mechanical engineer, and like I’ve said, I’ve learned how to manufacture things in a scaleable and more cost effective way. One time, I was actually moving to a new condo in Toronto and I had a den I wanted to outfit with custom shelving. I look for design when I look for furniture items, so I went to online sources to try and find customizable shelving solutions, only to be surprised that the cheapest option I looked at was $1200. Obviously I could not afford that. Also knowing the fact that I’m probably going to move out from this place in about a year and a half. So I decided to resort to a ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) galvanized pipe fittings. Ended up making a few trips to Home Depot, realized it’s super time consuming and not as cheap as I thought it would be. I’m living in a condo with no space to do any kind of machine work or anything like that. Abandoned that idea. So I went to IKEA again, decided to buy a shelf that was longer than what I needed, cut it off and attached the legs back together. The mistake that I made was that I went with the cheaper options because that was the whole point of me going to IKEA. As soon as I chopped off my shelving I realized it was made out of cardboard in the middle. So I effectively cut out the supporting materials so I couldn’t use it anymore. I had to throw out the whole thing. I started to think about [it] because I’m living in a city, I have changing needs every time I move, how can I make DIY customizable furniture easier and more approachable for everybody. Of course my thought then was “Okay I think I can make this as cheap as IKEA” but it turns out that isn’t as easy to achieve. Especially as a startup. That’s how I decide to begin to work on this idea and also because I had confidence that I can actually go to develop the most minimal viable product by myself, without relying on anyone else.

B: Are there products that you use on the daily that inspire your design?

S: I’ve been so mobile in the past couple of months that I don’t have any thing, in terms of my own space, but things that I really been using on a daily basis now is the basic sketch book. Moleskin has this thick bound sketch paper notebook. It really helps me draw out the [product] and they also have a very minimal design. I probably use too many different notebooks at a similar price point, but I keep going back to Moleskin because even though they focus on very simple designs, they have such a broad range of niche notebooks geared towards different professionals. I think they kind of capture needs of their individual customers really well. What else?

B: What products can’t you live without?

S: I mean it’s such a cliché answer but my iPhone. What can’t I live without? I should know this… I probably think about this a lot, but I don’t have an immediate answer.

B: I know for myself it would be my phone and my MacBook. Probably those two.

Yeah same as me. My MacBook and my iPhone.

B: I can do without anything else.

S: I wish I could give you a better answer but I’m honestly blanking out right now. And I did say I was hoarder, right?

B: In six months your answer might change because you’ll rediscover a product you were hoarding.

S: Oh I know one. Now, in the past couple years, I can’t live without slip-ons. I’ve never purchased a shoe with the laces in the past three years. It was life changing. It literally is!

B: Slip-on and go!

S: Yeah! Even with my winter boots, I get these ones from UGG that actually look super sleek, you wouldn’t tell it’s an UGG but it’s just one of those Chelsea boot kind of style where no strings, it just kind of pull it on and you go. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve discovered. I preach it to everybody. I hate strings now.

B: Have you always has an interest in furniture design and interior space growing up?

S: Yes, absolutely! Even when I was a young age I always kind of wanted to tag along when my parents went furniture shopping. Obviously parents and I have a very different taste in furniture, so I was never satisfied. And they are also sticklers for good deals. I just admire all these higher brands, right? I learnt about Charles & Ray Eames from a very young age because I was always interested in design, but I was always frustrated that I could never see them in a live setting. No one that I knew ever had those Eames chairs everyone wants to have. The price point is what makes sense for most people. But yes I’ve always been interested in furniture design because I think it’s what makes your place unique. If you think about moving into an empty space you wouldn’t immediately call it your home, right? It only becomes your home when you start to outfit it with things that you actually care about. A big part of that is furniture. More so than cars or anything like that I’ve always been interested in interior design and furniture.

B: Would you say Aalo’s mantra [centres around] adaptability, sustainability and functionality of your products?

S: We’re trying to make our product be a furniture solution that [is] adaptable. What I always tell our customers is I want the product to be able to serve multiple functions over its lifecycle. And I think that actually goes really well with todays generation where a lot of young professionals are moving so often. For example, according to a recent study Millennials are moving at least once every 1-2 years, on average. I for myself have moved already 4 times in the last year. I think if we had to rely on disposable furniture and always throw something out, especially for a hoarder like me, that’s very hard to do. It’s just going to create more problems for people. That’s one thing I want my product to be. Something that can serve multiple functions over its lifecycle.

B: I feel you don’t see that very much now. You see people buying something then moving on to the next thing so quick, where you’re creating a product that you want people to change into something new. Quickly change a leg, change an arm and they’ve got a brand new product in their space. That’s really cool.

S: It’s big homework on how we are going to actually make that scaleable. There’s obviously some return system that we need to implement, something like that so we can easily provide new parts, exchange it for our moving customers. I think it’s a good challenge to tackle for sure.

B: This last question I hate answering personally but I feel every entrepreneur needs to be ready to answer this question. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Oh that’s actually an easy one. Running a start up, you ask me where I’m going to be in five years, that just means where is Aalo going to be in five years — and in the five years I’ve actually laid out a plan to be able to get to the level of scale, so that we can reach the economy of scale ,so we can manufacture our products and parts at a significantly lower price point. We can offer the same adaptable, multi-functional furniture, with high-quality materials, at the exact same price point as our counter-part IKEA products. I think five years [we’ll get] there, as long as we can focus on our long term goal, get our sales up and build [our] brand. That’s my hope.

 

 

Aalo (Website | Instagram)

Photos provided by Sejun Park.

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