Ed Be and Jared Blake want to solve your apartment design woes with Lichen. Since 2017, the duo’s efforts to make designer furniture – both contemporary and vintage — affordable has landed its store on an impressive roster of best-of lists, but the project has always been more than its Ridgewood showroom of Noguchi, Eames and Mies. I chatted with the co-founders about their working relationship, Lichen’s community approach to design, and designing for your own wants and needs.
Evan Shinn: How did you two meet?
Ed Be: We met on Craigslist. Both Jared and I were selling furniture independently of each other while doing our side jobs in 2017. He was selling an Eames shell chair, and I was buying to stock and hold for a brick and mortar, which was kind of a pipe dream at that moment in time — everything was piled into my apartment — so when I came to pick up the chair from Jared, he was like, “Oh, what are you doing with it?” I was like, “Oh, I'm probably gonna sell it, honestly.”
He's like, “Wow, that's kind of something similar to what I'm doing.” So, we kind of just hit it off at that kind of weird moment, which is unusual for a Craigslist transaction. It's usually just, “let me get my shit, and I'm out of here.” But he was kind of curious and kept on asking more questions, and all of those questions led to coffee to talk about what we were actually doing with the furniture. While we were chatting, we came to the same conclusion that we were doing the same thing, just differently.
Jared was doing it digitally through a platform that he was trying to create on his own through Instagram. And like I said, I was collecting to start a brick and mortar. And so you kind of combine those two prowesses into Lichen. And after that first initial coffee meeting, we started a storage unit together a month later.
Ed Be and Jared Blake.
ES: I’m curious what Lichen was like in its inception. And when did you guys know it had legs?
Jared Blake: When it was in its inception – and still to some degree now – Lichen’s really much centered around affordability. Growth and scale kind of push you as far away from affordability as possible. It's like an oxymoron. You sell more furniture, you can afford more space; affording more space means more inventory; more inventory needs means you need more help. You have to hire, you have to scale, and it pushes you further away from affordability.
It's not impossible, though. You just have to try harder. You have to balance the line between what makes Ikea great and what makes other expensive furniture great, and then see where it is in the middle — the compromise — and I think that's what's defined Lichen — a series of compromising efforts.
ES: And at what point did the project really start taking off to where it started to feel like a domino effect of little successes?
Jared Blake: Honestly, probably right away. Obviously, in the beginning, no one knew who we were. The store was slow. You could read a book on the floor. But I think it clicked at our first party, which wasn't really even ours. Someone rented the space, and it was the first time we were like, “Sure, yeah, why not?” And the party was packed and people were chilling and drinking on Herman Miller furniture and not caring that it was that, and it didn't really matter it was that. But I think that was the first time I was like, “Oh, shit, this can be seamless with design culture and the culture we live in today.” Like peanut butter and jelly.
ES: When I first visited your old Williamsburg location in 2019 at an event, my initial impression of Lichen was how community-focused it was. It felt like what you all were doing was part of a larger social project – a vehicle to bring like-minded people together. Fast forward to today, you've now hosted designers at your showroom and collaborated on numerous projects with brands and artists. Talk to me about the social aspect of what you all are doing and what makes it unique.
Jared Blake: Diversity, really. I think we just have a really welcoming and diverse group of friends, and not even just culturally or racially, but also a diversity of backgrounds and skill sets. And that’s the beauty of design. There’s always a conversation to be had at some point about anything. It could be music-related, it could be jazz, it could be food. There's just something for everyone, You can walk in there and there's no type. Our other colleagues have a specific, really tight POV, like, “we do post modern.”
And ours is pretty chill. What we like is just all over the place, and I think and, and we’re not experts either. You know what I mean? Like Ed and I didn't come from a design background. So we're just like, “Damn, this shit is tight,” and we put it in a room and play music and that's just the soil. Whatever is happening now is effortless because we're really not really trying. We’re just a space in time. All of our community is just a reflection of each other in one way or another.
ES: I want to get into you guys' working relationship. Walk me through that. What's the dynamic, and has it changed over the years?
Ed Be: I mean, at its bare bones, Jared kind of handles our online POV – what that looks like on social media and how it’s represented online. I'm more of the day-to-day, sourcing furniture, looking for third-party to like stock at the shop – more of the behind-the-scenes stuff in the house that you don't see. It's kind of been that. We've taken on various roles throughout the growth of the business. For instance, I've had to kind of be our financial advisor, CFO, even though that's not my skill set. I just got my driver's license, but prior to that Jared was driving everywhere for us.
ES: How would you guys describe your personal tastes and how they influence the decisions you arrive at together? Lichen feels very cohesive in what it's doing. So I'm wondering how your tastes merge.
Jared Blake: They compare and contrast, but our fundamentals are aligned. The choices we've all made independently of each other are exactly the ones that have led us to cross paths. It’s like an equation, which I'm not going to get into deeper than that, but there’s a practicality. It’s all the things that don't equal to furniture until you apply it to furniture, like personal taste — they all paint a picture.
There are certain things we all are all on the same page about. We both like cool shit, and I think we're not so stuck in certain ways or eras.
ES: Did you guys always know that you wanted to become an incubator of sorts? How did that start developing?
Jared Blake: I think we knew we didn't want to be a store or really a showroom or really a studio or really any box someone wants to put you in. None of those things alone do it justice. I think early on, a lot of the articles were like, “Here's a list of our top ten vintage furniture stores that we love to go to,” and we would be on these lists. It would be wack. That’s not the same. That's that, and this is this. The people that we have in our community are what us who we are.
Our whole team is just homies that are hanging out. It was just a homie who walked in one day and was just like, “Yo, what’s good?” And that's how we built our team. So when you are on a list with a quintessential furniture store, it doesn't make any sense to be on that.
Incubator was in the rolodex of other descriptions that start to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, There's no point of reference, really. No one thinks about how the “inc” in NEW INC is incubator. I didn't learn that until we were gonna do a project with them – it's a part of New Museum. It's like a whole other service and platform to grow designers and concepts and just offer space for people. Early in its inception of that concept, we didn't really have anything figured out, we just had a bunch of ideas that we were sitting on and keeping it warm. There are designs that have just released that we've had for months, just under a bunch of shit in the back of our office. We’re just like, “Why don't we just run this real quick?”
And it sells out. You know, sometimes that's not the case, sometimes that’s not the case. You win some, you lose some. It’s that incubation period before something hatches. It's like a lot of ideas that have to hatch, and we're just like a space where someone else can water for you. You know, it's easy to have a great idea, but you can't action on any good idea without help. It's really hard to push one concept.
We put these seeds out there and someone else will come in water. Like, “Yo, what if you did this? What if it was like that? Instead of that, it was like, oh, that's a good idea.”
ES: I think about the specific type of consumer you two have courted, and I want to know what it is that excites this person and how. What are some things that either irk you or inspire you right now in interiors?
Ed Be: I mean for us, as far as designing on our end goes, we're always trying to solve a problem, so some of our “hit” designs are problem solvers. Sconces, for example. Lighting in New York sucks. You get into an apartment, and it’s fluorescent lighting that everyone hates and never changes out. You can't find a floor lamp. And so what we decided to do with the sconce Scots was just make some ambient lighting for your apartment that probably doesn't exist regularly for an affordable price.
And our pivot cabinets we get from Italy solve a storage need. We're just constantly solving problems.
ES: What's another problem, similar to lighting and storage, you’ve been encountering that you’d like to tackle next?
Ed Be: Jared has been on a kick with the kitchen lately.
ES: I mean my kitchen is miserable. I need help.
Ed Be: There you go.
Jared Blake: Since 2017 to now, we pretend to be adults, but we're not. I feel like we grow up a little bit every day in small ways. I think we're starting to look inward more at our own needs and wants and how that reflects our output. Before, it was really, like, “What do people want?” But now, it’s more of, “what do we want,” a little more selfishly. “What would we like to see” is a new question for a lot of design.
Obviously you wanna sell a bunch of things, and make money, and keep things going, but we're also transitioning into this idea of, “what do I want at home,” and designing more for that. Personally, I've never cooked as much as I do now, and it's also because I've never enjoyed it because I don't have any pieces. If someone gives you a nice knife, you probably will start using it. You know what I mean? If someone gives you a nice cutting board, you definitely will start using it. Understanding industrial design in the kitchen, these little things have a functionality to them. And there aren’t too many options. Most kitchen purchases are probably on Amazon, and they’re probably generic. That's a good opportunity; instead of going on Amazon and getting a pack of forks, ask yourself, “Is there anyone making a nice cutlery set?”
ES: I’m curious what the rest of 2023 and 2024 is looking like for you guys. Can you tease what the next chapter of the vision is?
Jared Blake: Definitely approaching sustainable practices. We have to. There are certain things we have to take a good look at. I think it's easy when you're on the rise and on the come up to just keep focusing on like top, but I think we have to definitely look around and become more thoughtful. Sales and commerce are important, per se, but you know, our workshops and the things that we do within the community are also important. Just remembering to balance the two because you have to make ends meet obviously, but I think It's like there's a community, there's like a rich, deep community there, and [Lichen] can't just be about buying and selling things. We have to find ways to empower. I'm being ambiguous, but we're coming up on five years, and it's definitely a milestone. It used to feel like a sprint, and now it's starting to feel like a marathon. All that initial just burst of energy we had in 2017 is definitely evolving into a well rounded game. It's a business. I think we're as people evolving into that, and as a brand evolving into that and understanding what that means exactly. I’m very excited for 2024. We got some big ideas that we fortunately have the ability to action on, so the balls in our court.
ES: I really appreciate you guys taking the time today to chat. It's been a while since I've been to the showroom, but I can’t wait to visit soon. I think the last thing I bought from you two was this Noguchi rudder coffee table.
Jared Blake: You got the rudder?
ES: Yeah, I got the Rudder. I think that one is the better of the two. It's not as loud.
Jared Blake: I'm proud of you, Evan, I'm proud of you. That was a good one.