Furniture and home furnishings company Groovystuff uses not-for-profit programs to integrate students and the marketplace.

After forcing himself through a degree in industrial distribution from Texas A&M University and five years in the corporate world, 29 year-old Chris Bruning decided he’d had enough. He purchased a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand, and spent the next three years traveling and working throughout the Pacific Rim. For the next several years he was a dive instructor on a shark-feeding adventure tour boat off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, then a bartender in the Outback, and finally the director of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base summer camp program in Hawaii.

The bohemian lifestyle suited him. “I was living in a 20-foot, air-conditioned shipping container on 40 acres of prime Oahu beachfront,” Bruning recalled. “My life was pretty good.” But a phone call from a college friend brought him back to Texas and the world of business — two places he thought he had left behind forever.

The college friend offered him an opportunity to unite his passion for travel and exotic places with a new vocation as a production manager overseeing the manufacture of jester hats in Kathmandu, Nepal. How could he say no?

On his travels to supervise the design and manufacture of the apparel company’s products, Bruning saw Thai furniture designers developing one-of-a-kind pieces from the region’s rich stock of old teak farm objects and architectural remnants. He was inspired by both the beauty of their work and the opportunity to improve upon it, creating products that were not only better constructed but also replicable in large quantities. The idea for a new company was born.

In 1997 Bruning launched Groovystuff, which designs and manufactures eco-friendly furniture, lighting, and home décor that incorporates reclaimed materials. The rustic style pieces garner upper-medium to high-end prices through independent retail outlets across the United States.

Finding a New Path to Innovation

More than a decade after establishing the business, Bruning realized he needed to infuse the company’s product line with fresh innovative design. Post-recession consumers were more demanding, and Groovystuff needed to keep pace with the evolving tastes and preferences of its market.
In order to find a source of new talent and ideas Bruning approached the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD), which then broadcast his design need to its members. Richard Prisco, a tenured professor in industrial and furniture design at Appalachian State, responded with a pitch for a student design challenge.

Bruning realized that furniture manufacturing industry was not doing enough to connect with design education — and was suffering as a result. “The ability of our industry to sustainably compete in the new global economy depends on our continual outreach to attract young talent and to keep our industry connected to evolving trends, research, technology, and human resources,” he said. “Before Richard Prisco called to say, ‘how about doing a design challenge?’ I had no idea that was the way to keep a company at the forefront of furniture and lighting design.”

In order to develop a student mentorship program that worked in concert with Groovystuff, the idea had to be consistent with the company’s foundation in sustainable business. The benefits to all parties — the company, students, educational institutions, and the furniture design industry — must be relevant, substantial and shared equally. Bruning envisioned a program that not only recognized the significant contribution students would make, but also compensated them fairly for it.

Groovystuff’s final goal was to develop a transferable model that other companies and industries could use to create their own connections with emerging design talent.

The Groovystuff approach

Since the first project with Appalachian State in 2010, the Groovystuff program expanded as opportunities arose to broaden and deepen its impact. It now includes three parts. Groovystuff by Design: Connecting Education with Industry Challenge provides students studio projects based on real market needs and constraints. The University Hall of Innovation & Job Creation connects students and their work directly to members of the furniture design and manufacturing industry. The Groovystuff by Design: Connecting Education with Industry Paid Internship Program offers the opportunity for students to deepen their hands-on experience in the “real world.”

Step one – The Groovystuff by Design: Connecting Education with Industry Challenge

Many aspects of the design challenge phase are similar to other sponsored studios in which companies pose real-world problems as student projects then provide feedback and guidance.

At the beginning of the process, the company ships a pallet of its signature reclaimed materials to the class so that the students can incorporate them into their work. The studio begins research into Groovystuff’s products and markets. Students identify unmet needs, then enter an ideation phase in which they find creative ways to address the problems and opportunities they have uncovered.

The key challenge for students is to design within realistic parameters. Their solutions must be sustainable, appealing, and incorporate reclaimed materials in a repeatable way—all while keeping production costs realistic for the eventual sale price.

Social media is a key tool in refining design concepts. Students post in a special Facebook group up to 20 sketches of ideas they want others to review. The forum is popular with participating instructors such as Abimbola Asojo, the director of the interior design program at the University of Minnesota: “The collaboration via social media made it very effective for students to get feedback visually and in a timely way…The structure also made it possible for students to get feedback from practitioners, their peers and instructors. This is very effective.”

Students continue to refine their top three concepts and work with their peers and instructors to arrive at a final design. They then complete the design challenge by producing CAD files and a product board as well as a 1:4 scale model and a pedestal on which to display it.

Step two – The University Hall of Innovation & Job Creation

All completed projects from the design challenge are installed in the University Hall of Innovation and Job Creation, an event that takes place during Market Week at the High Point Market. Located in High Point, North Carolina, the market has 11.5 million square feet of show space that holds more than 2,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries. Each spring and fall more than 70,000 retailers, designers, manufacturers, suppliers, journalists, and industry professionals attend Market Week.

At the University Hall of Innovation and Job Creation, students exhibit their plans and models in a space dedicated to the program. Industry professionals evaluate the projects on their appeal and marketability, and the winners of the “Popular Vote at Market” are chosen for commercial production. Students whose work is selected receive lifetime royalties on the sale of pieces they design.

University Hall of Innovation & Job Creation is a unique dimension of the Groovystuff model. Few other sponsored studios provide students such a level of exposure to possible future employers and professional connections.

Step three – The Groovystuff by Design: Connecting Education with Industry Paid Internship

Each summer and winter, Groovystuff offers a paid internship opportunity to a participant in the design challenge and University Hall. Interns are usually juniors or seniors, but the company has successfully worked with younger students.

Connecting emerging talent with work is the ultimate objective of the Groovystuff programs, and Bruning feels the paid internship program could expand exponentially in both outreach and scale. The 2015 design challenge and University Hall programs will involve 60 students, though the company is able to provide only a fraction of them with essential experience of trade show networking and paid internships. “I can see a day when a nonprofit is created to coordinate job placement for all graduates from every discipline related to the residential home furnishings trade,” said Bruning. “Press, transportation, economics, legislation, manufacturing, marketing, management, human resources, sustainability, and of course design are just a few of the areas our industry relies upon to stay competitive in the global market.”

Impact and Results

Since the first design studio in 2010, an estimated 400 students have been through one or more of the Groovystuff programs.

Stephen Garrison, an assistant professor of interior architecture and design at Marywood University whose students participate in the Groovystuff Design Challenge, appreciates the reality based lessons that the design challenge and University Hall provide his students: “So much of college curriculum design education is theoretical and never truly gets tested. This challenge opens the students to have their designs tested by the manufacturer, by retailers, and by the general public.”

In 2013 Chris Bruning and Groovystuff were awarded with an ICON HONOR for “Industry Contribution and Influence.” The awards are produced and staged by AmericasMart Atlanta each year to recognize achievements across the home furnishings industry. AmericasMart CEO and President Jeffrey L. Portman captured the essence of the award on the night Groovystuff was honored: “ICON HONORS recognizes and celebrates those whose imagination transcends reality to transform their companies, their communities and the home and gift industry we love.”

Participating Colleges and Universities

Appalachian State University
The Art Institute of Las Vegas
Auburn University
Columbia College – Chicago
Florida State University
King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology
Lakrabang (Bangkok, Thailand)
Marywood University
North Carolina State University
Purdue University
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
The University of Georgia
University of Idaho
The University of Minnesota
The University of North Carolina – Greensboro
The University of Oregon

The Future for Groovystuff

The design challenge, University Hall and internship components each grew from opportunities to make a bigger impact on students and the design profession. Collectively the three components provide an opportunity to learn about most of the process of conceiving, creating and marketing furniture and home furnishings.

However, the products produced by Groovystuff and many companies like it would not exist without the involvement of other countries and markets. So Chris Bruning intends to develop a fourth component to the Groovystuff program: a travel abroad experience to the Southeast Asian markets that provide the raw materials, design inspiration, and manufacturing labor to produce the company’s product line. Once The Groovystuff by Design: Connecting Education with Industry Study Abroad Program is complete, students will have the opportunity to experience the entire supply chain.

Abimbola Asojo of the University of Minnesota would like to see the Groovystuff model spread: “Perhaps more schools can participate to increase the level of competition and target more market sectors like commercial, industrial, and hospitality for the design problem,” she said. Chris Bruning agrees: “Our programs were created to improve the competitiveness of consumer products in the United States by supplying industry with the most current education, research, market statistics, technology, product design and innovation — and most importantly — a healthy flow of talented design program graduates. The model we use is completely transferable. It has a solid foundation and other industries can use the same approach to compete more effectively in global markets.”

Bob Fisher is the publisher of DesignIntelligence and managing director of the Design Futures Council.