Table of contents
- Founders - Dan Black & Martin Blum
- London , UK
- Started in 1998
- 17 employees
Hey Dan. Tell us your backstory?
I grew up in Yorkshire. My father and uncle had a factory that made shoes and bags. They had taken this over from my grandfather, who had started it.
Along with my three older brothers, we grew up discussing business around the kitchen table and the products he made, so this definitely influenced what I ended up doing.
There was always a strong work ethic as my father worked long hours and weekends, and we had holiday jobs working in the factory for pocket money. My grandfather started the business making webbing for the army, so there is something almost nostalgic that my company is now starting to do more soft goods and outdoor products (more on this later).
My three brothers also went on to found their own companies. Two worked together and built and sold the UK's largest childcare agency, and the other has a successful bed business www.buttonandsprung.com.
I guess this early influence on my life made it easier to start the business, as there was always so much advice on-hand, encouragement and support.
I wasn't very academic at school, but I always loved art and design. At the time, I'm not sure product design was that well-known as a career. I left school and was all set to study business studies at university.
I had my gap year planned (going to Australia). I remember the week before I was meant to fly, my parents sat me down and asked what I would do after I graduated. I think they suspected that business studies wasn't my passion.
They had a friend who was an interior designer/architect (the first lady to study at the Royal College of Art in London). She was brilliant at questioning my interests and, at the end of the chat, gave me the names of a few product designers I could go and visit.
In the space of this week, I cancelled my gap year and booked my place on an art foundation course with a focus on design. Looking back, I guess it was a real 'sliding doors' moment that set me on the course of where I am now.
After the foundation course, I went on to study Industrial Design at Northumbria University, where previous graduates include Jony Ive (ex-head of design at Apple).
Below are photos of me and mates at Uni celebrating after our final exams.
As part of this degree, I interned at the design consultancies of IDEO (London) and Frog Design (California) which was an amazing experience. I graduated in 1996 and went to work for a brilliant designer called Julian Brown (ex-partner of Ross Lovegrove) in Bath.
I learned a huge amount, but always had the burning ambition to start my own company, and the initial idea for this started at university. The National Lottery had just started while we were studying, and as students, we always sat around contemplating what we would do if we won the million-pound jackpot.
Me and one of my friends, Martin Blum, used to say we'd start a design company where we could design anything we felt passionate about. And so started the founding idea behind Black+Blum, which we finally launched in 1998.
But it wasn't a glamorous beginning. Martin had an uncle who owned a big old caravan in the New Forrest; this was our studio for the first three months. We had a couple of desks, and even though we had a future plan for our company to design our own products, we knew we had to start somewhere.
Initially, we spent every day thinking up products we could design for other companies. We then rented a flat in London and started to try and win design contracts from these concepts. For the first two years, we were a consultancy and took on any project we could (anything from promotional products for Budweiser to office chairs). One project was for a lighting company. Some of the concepts that we came up with weren't relevant to the brief, but we felt they might be something we could make ourselves. This was the start of designing, making, and selling our own range of products.
We started with some very simple lights and exhibited them on a tiny stand at a London design trade show called "100% Design". We didn't really know what the reaction would be, but we sold all our made-up stock on the first day and so knew there was a market for what we were designing.
The designs were very minimal, as we didn't have any money for tooling or items that needed to be made in huge volumes. We were producing them in batches of a few hundred, making them up ourselves and hand delivering them to the design shops around London who had given us small orders.
There were 'Reading Light' and 'Climbing Light', which were minimal with just a wireframe and cordset. Then there was 'Bag of Light', which was made from just a cordset and pillow pack piece of polypropylene. The name was an in-joke with our old design friends from university.
If anyone on the design course ever did a bad project, we'd always call it a 'bag-of-shite' (said with a Geordie accent), so 'Bag of Light' was a wink to this. It was called 'Bag of Light' because the cordset wrapped in a loop, and the polypropylene shade became a bag and its own packaging.
This made the design super minimal and meant there was no waste packaging. The other lights were packed in natural brown corrugated cardboard boxes, which is similar to our packaging today. Back then, I have to admit that we did this style to keep the price low, whereas today, it is more of an environmental consideration.
It was a really fun time to be a designer, as companies like Alessi were championing superstar designers like Phillip Stark, Richard Sapper and Mendini and making iconic product design mainstream. The market was suddenly waking up to product design and how it could add value and improve products that previously had been engineered but had no personality or character.
There are certain stepping stones in a career path that stand out, and in 2002, we had our first lucky break. We had just moved into a new office which had a large heavy glass door. We cut out the shape of a little man from wood to wedge the door open. Everyone who came to the office always commented on it, so we thought, why not make it a product people could buy?
We launched 'James' the doorman at our next trade show, and it got an amazing reaction. It was a simple rubber door wedge in the shape of a man pushing the door, but completely different from any other door stops on the market at the time.
This shows how the market has changed from today, as back then, so many areas had not been exposed to product design.
At the trade show launch, a buyer from Target in the US came on the stand and ended up ordering James by the container load. This gave us a big leap in turnover, allowing us to invest in bigger and more complex products.
We developed the iconic James into bookends and even a magnetic bottle opener that hung from your fridge door and held onto the bottle top. Other award-winning designs swiftly followed with the ‘Flik’ waiter’s friend corkscrew, ‘Heavy Weight’ and ‘On a Roll’ tape dispensers and ‘Loo Read’ loo roll holder and magazine rack. Each design was unique, sometimes with elements of humour and personality, but always truly functional… or ‘fun-ctional’ as we called them.
We also explored many different sculptural tabletop designs, such as candelabras, fruit bowls and flower vases, with our hand-formed ‘Loop’ range.
As our company and experience grew, we were able to invest in launching more complex and larger designs. These included ‘Propello’, a silent running rubber-bladed desk fan, and ‘Venti’, a larger remote control oscillating floor fan. There was also ‘Hot Pot’, a barbecue that looked like a plant pot when not in use, which allowed you to season your food with the herbs you grow on top.
We also explored designs for the kitchen with innovative space-saving products such as the ‘High & Dry’ dishrack, which folded flat and was inspired by the architect Santiago Calatrava. Then there was ‘Flow’, a wall-mounted wine rack and ‘Forminimal’ knife and utensil holder with a chopping board.
In 2010, we launched our first lunch box, ‘Box Appetit’. It took inspiration from Japan, a country that had developed the designs of Bento lunch boxes into an art form. At the time, the West made do with boring, waxy plastic food containers.
‘Box Appetit’ was the first adult lunchbox that catered for Western cuisine and presented food beautifully - greatly improving the user's eating experience. This was swiftly followed by our ‘Lunch Pot’ and ‘Bento Box’.
In 2011, we took further inspiration from Japan and introduced our first filter water bottle, ‘Eau Good’. The filtration power of active charcoal has been used by the Japanese for centuries, so we incorporated this idea into a bottle that both reduced single-use plastic and made tap water taste great. It was an instant hit and has become iconic for the brand.
The success of these products, plus our growing interest in and passion for sustainability, caused us to make the business decision in 2018 to focus solely on the reusables category. As product designers who create 'stuff', we felt a real responsibility to only make products that encouraged sustainable living, were built to last and age well. We wanted to make products that deserved to exist and actually helped people to reduce their single-use packaging, be healthier and fight food waste.
Every product we release is developed in-house and is unique to us. Every single detail is considered for lifelong use and reuse, and we are incredibly passionate about creating genuinely functional and innovative products that offer something better than what is available.
We were the first company to launch an adult lunch box that organised the contents beautifully and catered for Western foods, a natural charcoal filter bottle, a food thermos that incorporated a non-folding spoon, a lunch box with a bamboo chopping board lid for prepping food on-the-go, an all stainless steel leak proof lunch box, and a lightweight leak proof glass lunch box.
We also offer an excellent aftercare service, with replacement parts for nearly all our designs. This way, if something like a lid or a fork goes missing, the part can be purchased without replacing the whole thing and further adding to landfill. In this very crowded and competitive on-the-go market, our aim is to create the best quality products to be used every day that you don’t need to buy again.
What does your company do?
We design high-quality reusable products for food and drink on the go. The entire range is original, beautiful, functional and built to last, helping our customers live healthier and more sustainable.
How have you grown the business?
The business has now been going for nearly 25 years. It has grown, shrunk and grown again over the years and changed with the times.
We have always been pretty international, with the UK only ever making up 25% or less of our total sales.
For many years, France and Germany was our biggest market, with mainly retail stores being our biggest customers. We now sell our products in over 60 countries to over 1000 stores, from museum/design shops such as MoMA NY and to supermarkets such as Wholefoods.
In the last two years, we’ve launched our direct-to-consumer channel online with great success, with three websites serving the UK, EU and US markets.
We’ve also invested in the Corporate Gifts and Cobranding space, working with some of the world's most prestigious retail, fashion, hospitality/hotel and sports brands.
We are personally used by some of the most well-known food experts, nutritionists, and clean living advocates globally as we continue to create innovative designs that excite and engage.
What 's your biggest selling product?
Our Stainless Steel Lunch Box was the first on the market that was truly 100% leakproof. The innovative vacuum air-tight seal meant there was no need for bulky clips, allowing the design to be kept minimal.
It has a modern utilitarian timeless look that is built to age well. Not many modern products get better with age. Our design might take on the odd scratch or dent through use, but this will only add to its charm and gives the product what we call 'soul'... something we try to incorporate into every product (like a cherished leather belt, warn canvas bag, or silver pen).
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
Sometimes you get too close to the design and lose sight of what and why you were trying to develop in the first place.
It can take two years to develop a new design, and when the final design launches, it isn't really what it started out as or needs to be, and you can't understand why it doesn't sell.
Over the years, we have developed a tight brief formula that we now follow for every new design, so we can keep referring back to it during the concept development. This includes things like key functionality, cost price, and target market.
What's next for you and your business?
We are starting to do more products that are aimed specifically at the outdoor market.
We previously came more from the homeware market (things for the home /kitchen). The outdoor market is more focused on performance (how something might be stronger or lighter), and we believe there is a lot we can still innovate in this area.
As primarily a design company, it is always exciting when we find a category that allows us to differentiate and improve on what is already on the market.
What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
The one book that we always recommend every new employee reads is 'Let my people go surfing' by the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard.
Patagonia is a business for good and never more so, now that Chouinard has given ownership of the company to a non-profit environmental trust. It is an inspirational read about how businesses can be run and exist.
As a company, we are members of 1% for the Planet (an organisation co-founded by Yvon Chouinard). It commits us to donate one per cent of our total annual sales to non-profit environmental causes.
Any quotes you live by?
'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful'
- William Morris was a designer, poet, craftsman, activist and radical socialist 1834 - 1896.
This quote was taught to us at university when we were studying design. It definitely made an impression. Too often, designers have been guilty of creating products that don't deserve to exist, and we have seen the catastrophic environmental impact of mass consumerism.
As a company, we hate the word 'gadget', something we describe as the type of product you get given, use a few times, but then put in a drawer until you throw it out and it becomes landfill.
We want our products to be everyday items that are used regularly and perform well, are built to last, and can even be repaired to keep them functional if, say, one component should be lost or fail (we always keep spare components for all our designs, so customers don't. have to buy a whole new product to keep the product working).
What do you love and hate about being a founder?
I love the pride I get when someone discovers the brand for the first time and voices appreciation for the level of thought and detail we put into all aspects of the design.
I don't like not being able to see how our brand looks with fresh eyes. Having done it for so long, I can't distance myself from the brand. So when someone new joins the company, it is always interesting to see how they perceive the brand with fresh external eyes.
It’s also always disappointing when people copy our designs, and I take it personally. We get copied regularly and actively legally pursue companies who infringe on our design rights, but this can be such a waste of energy and time.
In a few words, sum up what it means to be the founder of a business.
"Amazing, terrifying, challenging, rewarding... everything. I feel very lucky that for most of my time working, I have worked for myself and had the privilege of working with a great team along the way.
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
"Put yourself to work doing things that you are best at."
As the founder, it is always easy keeping busy in all areas of a company, but you have to keep asking yourself if you are the best person to be doing that particular job (especially in a small company where it is all hands-on deck).
Where do you actually add the most value? This might be specific to me. I know that I am creative with ideas, but definitely not the best at being organised or structured... luckily there are lots of great people at Black+Blum who are good at this.