In the early days of the pandemic, Jared Blake and Ed Be faced a problem. Demand was rising for the vintage furniture and interiors products that the co-owners sold, but customers couldn't visit their Brooklyn-based store Lichen during the lockdowns. So, Jared and Ed took the initiative and became delivery drivers.
‘We were taking orders and dropping them off from nine in the morning until three or four in the afternoon, every day,’ Ed says. People were buying so much stuff from Lichen, in fact, that the shop became too crowded. So, they moved into a bigger location, triple the size, only seven or eight blocks away. It was a gamble, Ed says, but ‘we decided to take a chance and see what we could make happen’.
The story of the company began only a few years earlier, in 2017, on online classifieds site Craigslist. Jared was selling a yellow Eames Shell chair on the site and, as fate would have it, Ed was the one who bought it. The two bonded over their love of design and got into business together, sourcing objects and furniture – from auctions, friends and elsewhere – and selling them online. In 2019, they moved into their first bricks-and-mortar spot and eventually quit their day jobs.
Then came Covid. The two couldn't have foreseen it, but a shop like Lichen was made for such a moment. With the rapid rise of working from home, most people were re-evaluating the quality, function and beauty of their home desks, chairs, storage space, bedding and even lighting. Well-designed, affordable homeware like the kind Lichen sold had rarely been in such high demand. ‘There are designs that are thriving right now because they've met a need – maybe it's affordability or lightweight construction or modularity,’ Jared explains. ‘If you were doing modular furniture 50 years ago, your stock is way up right now.’
Yet, while a new generation discovers designers such as Eames and Aalto, Jared and Ed say some design houses and shops have become a bit too comfortable relying on these mid-century powerhouses. ‘I don't see the same thirst to find the next Eames,’ Jared says. ‘We can't be comfortable in the fifties, forties and thirties of design acumen forever. We should be able to contribute to what's next. And, honestly, just get our own points of view across as a generation.’
This has led to them focusing less on vintage and more on acting as an incubator for new and local designers. It's also led to them designing and building their own products – from a coffee table to a candle. ‘We don't come from a traditional design background,’ says Jared, who previously worked in online retail, while Ed worked in hospitality. But running the shop and living in the community have fine-tuned their observational skills. They're good at picking up signals of what price-conscious, city-living 18- to 35-year-olds want and need in their homes.
‘Our DMs and emails are loaded with so many people looking for items; you can almost develop your own algorithm based on the commonality of what's sought after,’ Jared says. ‘So, when we present something, it's pretty internally crowdsourced. If 10 people who don't know each other are asking for the same thing, it probably works for everyone.’ They also factor in price right from the beginning. ‘We're pretty dogged about price point,’ Jared says. ‘We start at a price point and then go: OK, how can we make this thing?’
What's in store for Lichen in the coming years? ‘There's a world domination plan, but it changes every year,’ Ed says. What's certain is that commercial projects will be a higher priority, they say, along with building out their new product lines.
‘The goal is to have you second-guess that vintage piece for ours in the next five years,’ Jared adds. ‘You're going to be like: Damn, I love [this famous designer]… but this [Lichen piece] is looking good, too. And it's made by someone my age, someone from this generation – at least someone from the past 50 years. You know?’
We asked the Lichen founders about an untapped opportunity in the design industry.
‘Upholstery! It's such an antiquated yet important craft that just no one's touching,’ says Jared. ‘There are only a few people that we know of doing it. More or less no one under [the age of] 100 does upholstery. It's just an OG's game. And who doesn't have something in their home right now that would just be so much better if someone sewed it in a different material? But no one's doing it in a way that's contemporary. Textiles, too. We have the Garment District [in New York]. You can go from shop to shop looking for that perfect thing, but we don't really want to do that. And they're mostly for commercial purposes. They're not built for you and I, you know? They're built for companies, so the textiles have got bus-station vibes for the most part – a conference-room-from-the-eighties mentality.’