Can you name your favorite knife? Kitchenware is easily found at big box stores, but for younger consumers, it can be just as painful to shop for as anything else for the home. But Material—like its disruptor-cousins Burrow (furniture), Tuft & Needle (mattresses) and Weezie (towels)—wants to simplify that process. To do so, founders Eunice Byun and David Nguyen only sell what they think you really need. “We’re looking to tackle a 24-million-dollar industry,” Byun tells Business of Home. “How do we transform these everyday objects?” As it is, she says, the kitchenware industry is “not responsive to changing customer need
She has a point. Last week, Fast Company reported that home goods is the fastest-growing category sold on the internet, with $15 billion in sales, largely because millennials continue to prefer direct-to-consumer, digitally native companies over traditional retail. Material markets its products “friend to friend,” says Byun.
“How do you focus on high-quality items you really need, and what does that look like in the kitchen?” says Byun. “We want to make sure the cook feels taken care of, and perhaps has a bit more confidence, or swagger, in the kitchen.”
The duo’s first product line, Fundamentals, launched in March. The set comes with two knives, two spoons, a spatula, a pair of tongs and a sleek container to keep the utensils all in the same place. Today, Material debuts its latest collection, the Iconics. It’s similar to the Fundamentals, but with one key difference: The new set is designed with the avid cook in mind—“someone who’s cooking 80 different types of dishes,” says Byun—so there’s also a whisk, a serrated knife and a slotted spoon. The new additions came directly from customer feedback, which Material gathers on a weekly basis. (Talking to customers is Byun’s favorite part, she says.)
The products are designed in-house by Byun and Nguyen and fabricated in Southern China by manufacturing partners that have been crafting knives for more than 1,400 years. The knives have three layers of Japanese steel—the innermost layer has a higher carbon content to retain sharpness, and the outer two have less carbon to avoid rust—and all wood is sourced from Europe and the U.S.
Though they do consider themselves disruptors, kitchenware isn’t just a profit game for the founders. Both Byun and Nguyen grew up in families who loved kitchens, and Nguyen has a brother who is a classically trained chef.
“I grew up in kind of a classic Korean-American family where my mom really loved her food,” says Byun. “Every time I would come home from school, she would have a Korean soup or stew waiting for me. One of my most clear, distinct memories of childhood is, at the age of 7, knowing how to make Korean dumplings.”
It explains why the two make, say, cooking for friends, or shopping for your first kitchen, “an experience for people to remember” when they develop product design. “There’s a lot of conversations in the startup industry around how easy it is to manufacture things that look very similar,” says Byun. “We had to make sure we were [intentional with the process].” When Byun and Nguyen first formed the idea of the company, they shopped it around to friends and family, just to test and see if it could work. Their vision of Material resonated with friends in venture capitalism resonated with the vision of Material—and became the company’s first investors. From there, it was “seamless,” says Byun. “It was just aligning ourselves with people who understood what it would take.”