Joe Gebbia is an up-and-coming furniture designer who should not quit his day job. Not because he isn’t talented. His first collection of office seating and tables, Neighborhood, recently debuted at the prestigious International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, and it’s great – modular furniture that looks sharp enough to sit in a chic living room.
Instead, it’s because Gebbia’s day job just happens to be changing the worlds of travel and business. He is the 35-year-old co-founder and chief product officer at Airbnb. Since launching the home-sharing company in 2008 with two friends, he’s convinced over three million homeowners in 191 countries to open their doors to strangers, helped hundreds of millions of tourists more affordably travel the globe, built a business worth over $30-billion (U.S.) and spurred a new form of economy – the sharing economy.
That does not mean that Gebbia’s foray into furniture is the casual dalliance of a wealthy celebrity-turned-designer (no disrespect to Lenny Kravitz or Brad Pitt). In many ways it’s a return to his roots. Gebbia is a graduate of the top-tier Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied both graphic and industrial design (he’s donating the proceeds of Neighborhood’s sales to a scholarship fund at his alma mater, because the “lack of funding for arts or creative programs is hard to stomach,” he says).
He didn’t have the idea to start his company until he experienced something many creative professionals face: living in a buzzing city (in his case, San Francisco) and not making enough money (he was working as a designer for a publishing company) to deal with a rent hike from a landlord. While many young designers would simply pack up and move somewhere else, Gebbia got entrepreneurial, and with his roommate Brian Chesky rented some air mattresses on their living-room floor to make extra income.
In fact, despite being at the centre of one of the world’s most buzzed about technology companies, Gebbia considers design, not just tech, to be at the core of Airbnb. “Design has always been a driving force in my life: it’s the lens through which I experience the world,” he says. “Starting a company in San Francisco when we did usually meant it was destined to be a data-driven tech company. But that didn’t seem to fully encompass what we wanted with Airbnb. When we tried looking through a tech lens, it didn’t work. The humanity was missing. Where we differentiate from other startups is that when we left the computers behind, we grew.”
Gebbia’s experience building Airbnb was instrumental to the design of Neighborhood, which is manufactured by California-based Bernhardt Design (which in many ways is the opposite of a tech startup – it was founded in 1889 and has a proud history of meticulously hand-crafting furniture from wood). The collection was largely inspired by the needs of Gebbia’s own staff.
“As our company has grown, how we configure and design our offices has been a crucial part of how we foster connection and collaboration throughout our teams,” Gebbia says. “Because I had a front-row seat for this – watching what worked and didn’t work – Neighborhood addresses all the issues other furniture systems couldn’t,” he says.
The line is modular, and easy to move around, so it can easily achieve the flexibility and adaptability required in a dynamic, ever-changing, team-based environment. Plus, it incorporates lots of outlets for laptops. One of Gebbia’s favourite pieces is a chair which glides easily, in part because it has a push-pull handle in the back. “This was my first model/concept of the entire collection,” he says.
To truly get the collection right, Gebbia prototyped it in-house with Airbnb’s internal design studio, Samara. But he did so secretly. “The team was unaware I designed it. It was fascinating to witness first-hand how the team moved the pieces,” he says. “It was also a great way to get honest feedback!”
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, June 8, 2017.