An online platform where customers can choose furniture designs from a digital library, which are fabricated by a nearby maker.

OpenDesk furniture being fabricated in Mexico City. Photo © OpenDesk. Used with permission.

OpenDesk sells furniture for the office and home, but with a different model to most. Customers can choose from a variety of designs, from stools to storage, but these are not made by OpenDesk themselves. Rather, they suggest one or more makers near the customer who have the capability to manufacture the furniture. The customer chooses, the maker accepts the order, and the furniture is made on-demand and shipped in 1-2 weeks.

The OpenDesk platform connects maker, designer and customer, and also distributes payment between the maker, designer and themselves. In addition, designers can choose to share their work with an open licence, which allows individuals to download and make the furniture themselves on a noncommercial basis, with no additional costs.

The furniture is largely made out of flat sheets of plywood, and delivered flat-packed, to be assembled by the customer without additional hardware.

How is it redistributive?

OpenDesk demonstrates many aspects of redistributed manufacturing. But perhaps the most distinctive is their network of local makers. OpenDesk is one of the few projects that uses digital manufacturing tools not only on a local basis, but also at scale, thanks to their distributed network of accredited makers.

Building out such a network is critical if redistributed manufacturing is to have a serious impact on existing models.

What are the barriers to mainstream success?

The OpenDesk design language is heavily dependant on plywood. Designs are optimised for this material; makers are used to working with it, and the digital tools for cutting it are widely available. While plywood has many good qualities, it also has limitations, and a particular aesthetic, which is not always appropriate, and it’s shipped around the world using the same global supply chain that OpenDesk seek to disrupt. How can the platform be extended to allow other kinds of materials to be used, for example, foams, textiles, or plastics? How could it enable the use of more locally variable materials?

Related projects
  • Kniterate: OpenDesk rides on the back of widely distributed CNC milling machines, which are able to cut large sheets of plywood. If machines for forming or assembling other materials with similar economics and production were widely available, other kinds of products could be made on the OpenDesk model. Kniterate, a desktop digital knitting machine, could be one such tool for textiles.

How to exhibit

A finished OpenDesk product alongside other stages of manufacture, for example, unfinished cut plywood pieces and waste material.

Further Reading

OpenDesk website

We are not in the midst of a revolution, we are between revolutions
Justin McGuirk, Dezeen, February 2014