Smart Furniture site gives buyers a visual of room

Smart Furniture site gives buyers a visual of room

April 4th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

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See the company's new offering at www.smartfurniture.com/smartspace.html

Buying furniture has always required a bit of consumer imagination to visualize how that table or chair you like will fit in your home or office.

A Chattanooga furniture retailer is hoping to take that mystery out of buying with a new web site that company President T.J. Gentle thinks could revolutionize the way people shop for sofas, tables, desks and beds.

Smart Furniture, a 12-year-old, Web-based furniture company, debuted its SmartSpace website on Wednesday, allowing shoppers to download images and experiment with different furniture pieces and colors in any room.

"This is like an augmented reality that allows you to take a picture of any space, put products in that space and then customize those products to match the colors and designs to exactly the way you want," Gentle said. "With SmartSpace, you can do that seamlessly across any browser or mobile device without the need of any super application."

A few clicks of the mouse allows the shopper to buy any of the thousands of different furniture items, colors and designs Smart Furniture sells from more than 60 major furniture makers. The new web site also allows the user to easily link sample designs to Facebook, Pinterest or other social media sites to share with others for their opinion before making any buying decision.

"The social and collaborative elements open up a whole new aspect of creativity," said Karen Culp, vice president of marketing and creativity for Smart Furniture.

The new website, which Gentle said has taken three and a half years to develop and perfect, is a more interactive and visual web portal than the company's "Design on Demand" that SmartFurniture.com debuted with its launch in 2001.

The new website is the latest, and perhaps biggest innovation, yet for the Chattanooga company that began as an idea by then-Stanford Law School student Stephen Culp in the mid 1990s. After a visit to Yahoo!, Culp saw the challenges of creating workable spaces and the advantages of offering an easier way to design and change furniture layouts based upon individual preferences.

Culp, a Naval Reserve officer, attorney, athlete and former Peace Corps volunteer, started Smart Furniture as a way for people to adapt and customize their workspaces to their changing needs and tastes. By combining Internet applications and mass-customization production, Smart Furniture allows buyers to select different furniture combinations on their computer and buy products often before they are even produced.

The company initially featured its own Smart Shelves, which could be combined and designed on the Internet for a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. In 2008, the company extended its Design on Demand platform to include products from leading furniture brands such as Herman Miller, Knoll, Steelcase, Hon, BDI, Ekornes Stressless and Kartell.

Smart Furniture, which employs 33 workers and operates its only retail store on the North Shore, initially worked with Google to develop ways to download furniture images and colors and visualize such items in particular rooms. Gentle says over time, the company realized it needed to develop its own programs and software.

"It required thousands and thousands of man-hours, and we had hoped to have this ready a few months earlier," he said. "But what we have developed, I believe, could truly change the way people shop for furniture."

The application of downloading products in different spaces and different combinations could also be used in fashion, floorcovering and a host of other retail applications, Gentle said. But for now, Smart Furniture is sticking to its own business, which grew sales last year by 61 percent and is on pace to boost revenues by another 40 percent this year.

Gentle declined to reveal sales figures. But he said the company has secured $10 million in outside investment capital through successive rounds of venture capital fundraisers. The company is now among the top 500 Internet retailers in the world, Gentle said.

"This is like nothing that has been done before and, if we can get this right, this has a tremendous potential to grow our business even more," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340