year in review | Dec 16, 2021 |
The biggest design stories of 2021

With huge mergers, emerging tech and unprecedented supply chain issues, change was a constant this year. Read on for some of the stories that caught the attention of the design world in 2021.

Lead times get even longer

When the Ever Given container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal back in March, it seemed like it would be the biggest global shipping news of the year—not the case, it turns out. Snags in the global supply chain persisted across all industries in 2021, and as BOH reported, the storm had been brewing for the design industry since last year’s home boom. By now, you know the story: A rise in demand caused prices for shipping containers and raw materials to spike, while slow-to-climb vaccination rates in international manufacturing hubs like Malaysia and Vietnam coupled with a domestic labor shortage only made things worse. In mid-November, the Biden administration began launching a series of short-term projects designed to alleviate supply chain congestion, including shifting major ports to 24/7 operations, though experts still say the crisis is likely to continue well into 2022.

The industry’s biggest-ever acquisition

Last spring, two of the design world’s biggest players made waves when they unexpectedly announced they would be combining operations. Iconic furniture brand Herman Miller acquired close competitor Knoll in a cash-and-stock deal valued at $1.8 billion, bringing together each company’s multitude of subsidiary brands (Maharam, Holly Hunt, DWR and Hay among them) in the process. While Herman Miller CEO and president Andi Owen stayed on with the new business, Knoll chairman and CEO Andrew Cogan announced his departure following the deal’s close. A few months later, the newly combined design giants announced they would be moving forward under the new name MillerKnoll.

Design brands get eco-creative

2021 brought several devastating bouts of climate change-related extreme weather, from extensive wildfires in the West to ice storms and hurricanes throughout the South and Northeast. For their part, industry organizations took steps toward improving the industry’s sustainability efforts—the Good Future Design Alliance, which challenges design and building industry professionals to cut 50 percent of their companies’ waste by 2025, has grown its membership to 200 firms and manufacturers since its 2020 founding. Design brands, meanwhile, experimented with sustainable materials, as Herman Miller pledged to use 50 percent recycled content in all materials by 2030 and began producing its Aeron chair with recycled ocean-bound plastic, while other manufacturers tested out seafood waste as an alternative material used in performance textile production.

Bed Bath & Beyond meets Wall Street Bets

In late January, shares of Bed Bath & Beyond more than doubled, shooting up from $25 to $52.89 in a matter of days. The company’s performance, however, had little to do with the phenomenon. The surprise spike originated with an online community of amateur traders who convene on the Reddit thread Wall Street Bets to target stocks that Wall Street investors are aiming to short (essentially, betting that the company will fail.) The loose coalition of online investors first directed their efforts toward video game retail chain GameStop earlier in January, puffing up the company’s share price from $41 to $469 at its peak and prompting several large hedge funds to lose out on billions while amateur traders made out with small fortunes. The informal group then turned their attention to companies like Bed Bath & Beyond, whose stock price swung wildly before eventually evening out when the online craze subsided.

Barry Diller buys Meredith

In early October, Meredith Corp., publisher of Better Homes & Gardens, Real Simple, Southern Living, Magnolia Journal and more than 40 other titles, agreed to be acquired by billionaire Barry Diller’s InterActivCorp. If the $2.7 billion deal passes by the end of the year as expected, the media behemoth will fold into the group’s digital publishing division, Dotdash, which operates 14 digital titles, including Brides, The Spruce and Investopedia. Meredith has experienced quite a ride over the past few years, first acquiring Time, Inc. in 2017 before selling off many of its major titles, and then selling its own 18-station television division to Gray Television earlier this year, all the while struggling with significant debt as newsstand and print-advertising revenues have slowed. Now, in combination with Dotdash’s digital audience, the publisher will reach more than 175 million online consumers monthly.

Material Bank levels up

In May, sampling service Material Bank made its presence in the industry known when it announced a $100 million Series C funding round led by General Catalyst and Durable Capital Partner LP. The new capital placed a $1 billion value on the Sandow-owned company, which made its debut in January 2019 as a digital marketplace connecting manufacturers and brands with architects and designers for materials sampling. In the years since, Material Bank has grown from 25 to 400 brand partners, tripled its revenue in 2020, and boosted user adoption from 35,000 in April 2020 to 65,000 one year later. With the new investment, the company plans to expand services for its brand partners, build out a 3D visualization studio for product libraries, fund several acquisitions (including the August purchase of procurement platform Clippings) and make a significant push into the residential sector.

The Expert proves there’s a market for high-end e-design

When the pandemic made e-design a necessity, entrepreneur Leo Seigal and Los Angeles–based designer Jake Arnold swooped in to streamline the process. In early 2021, they founded The Expert—an online interior design platform connecting homeowners with designers for hour long video consultations. The business launched with an enviable cohort of designers on tap (including Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Leanne Ford and Bobby Berk) and placed designer star power at the forefront of its services, bringing a new strategy to the world of e-design. (It also netted a $3 million seed round a few months later, led by blue-chip venture capital firm Forerunner, that included A-list investors like Gwyneth Paltrow and designer Brigette Romanek.)

Rising inflation

One of the biggest stories in the latter half of 2021 has been rising inflation, which comes as a result of a toxic mix of supply chain snarls, rising costs of shipping and raw materials, and an ongoing labor shortage—all combined with a skyrocketing demand for consumer goods. The design industry, however, remains largely unperturbed—high-end clients aren’t necessarily put off by marginal price increases, and demand is still high enough that designers and industry players have remained confident in their staying power.

Homepage image: ©Piman Khrutmuang/Adobe Stock

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