There are many products in the marketplace. But design and design ideas have no limits.
So when a design based company such as Agati comes along, designers tend to be interested. We met Joe Agati, founder and president, when we were enjoying ourselves a bit too much at a NeoCon World’s Trade Fair a couple of years ago. The following year we decided to visit his offices and showroom in Chicago and have a chat. My interest was heightened right away when I saw that his every-day car was a mint-condition Nash Metropolitan. Even in the somewhat quirky ’60s when this car was produced, it was distinctive and viewed with a mixture of respect and aporetic curiosity
Further inquiry did not disappoint. Mr. Agati took his undergraduate degree in ceramic engineering, but went on to get his MFA (master of fine arts) in sculpture. After completing his MFA, he worked with the architect and design community doing one-of-a-kind pieces. But, by
1980 when he moved to Chicago, Mr. Agati was more interested in functional furniture designs that could be manufactured.
Today, Agati has built a reputation for quality design and durability in the institutional market. Now, the company has retooled its strategy and is determined to develop additional markets for its products. After many years as a great but largely undiscovered resource, Agati is ready to step out from behind the veil. And Joe Agati, along with Joe Frueh, VP of Sales, are determined to make the design community take notice.
* originally printed in Office Insight, October 9, 2006
OI: How did you establish yourself in the institutional market?
JA: Our first large scale institutional project was Evanston Public Library in Evanston, Illinois. It was a national architecture competition for building design, and the winner of the award had a very Frank Lloyd Wright feeling to it. When the designer and architect saw our Charles Collection, they felt we were a perfect fit. The success of that project encouraged us to participate in trade shows that targeted specific markets. This, quite naturally, led us to projects we may not have otherwise found. At the same time, we were doing work for several hospital systems, who were also asking for furniture that would hold up under the strain of everyday use. It was becoming apparent that we could provide a product that wasn’t readily available and that could transcend specific market niches. It served to reinforce our belief in the durability, longevity and clean designs that we have built our reputation on.
OI: What distinguishes you from other contract furniture manufacturers?
JA: Well, it’s so simple, but it really captures who we are. At Agati, we do things a little differently. I see us as a three-part company: we do standard product, we have the ability to tailor that product, and lastly, we have strong engineering capabilities to do completely custom products. The end result of being able to tailor our product is that over the years we have amassed a vast offering of standard product designs. They range from traditional to contemporary, but we always maintain a timeless quality to the designs we offer.
OI: How do you tailor a product to fit a designer’s need?
JA: We’re probably unique in our ability, not only to adapt chairs but also, if the quantity is large enough, to work with the architect or designer to create a new chair for a project. The same goes for tables and carrels. In many projects we’ve found we’ve been able to stay within the framework of an existing design, avoiding retooling costs, by tweaking design details. For example, we’ve adapted Gothic and Baja chairs, both extremely different in appearance and created for other purposes. But by putting in a hymnal rack and ganging them together, they’ve been used in religious sanctuaries. And we’re currently redesigning our Ella Chair for a major University chapel.
JF: At Catholic University, in Washington DC, the designer used our Antrim Collection as a basic framework for his desired product. This sort of adaptability allows designers to put their own aesthetic mark on a project, enabling us to provide even more value and support to the design community.
OI: Are most of your clients looking for good design or just durability?
JF: Unfortunately, too often, design and durability seem to be mutually exclusive. In other words, too many believe that, if a product is designed well, it won’t hold up; if it’s designed for durability, it’ll look clunky and overbuilt. At Agati, we’ve tried to merge the two qualities. In the end, we bring design, durability, and long-term value to a project.
OI: How do you address today’s environmental issues?
JA: Well, it’s in our long-term value. Traditional or contemporary, the timelessness of our designs and our construction methods are key to the products’ longevity. You’re not throwing out furniture every year. You’re investing in years of design and functionality. Recently I had lunch with a designer who went into the lobby of a hospital where, 14 years ago, she specified our Glenbrook lounge chairs. She was astounded by how good they looked after all this time. Her comment was that they’d spent a little bit more for the chair at the time, but look at how much the hospital saved in the life cycle of the furniture. And it’s a product that we still build today.
OI: What have been some of the keys to your success?
JA: A big part of our success is attributed to our service program. We strive to make our projects complete, correct and on time, therefore leading to less headaches on the designer’s part when following up on the punch list. And we’re rewarded with happy, repeat clients.
JF: For a company our size, our customer service issues are very minor because of our attention to detail. Tracking the job through delivery and installation has allowed us to complete projects worth over a half million dollars without punch lists. At the same time, we are human, and we’ve had our share of errors. But we correct those mistakes quickly and painlessly, and our clients have been pleased with our ability to apply a solution. Those clients have stayed with us, continuing to work with us. The point is, errors happen but we still end up with satisfied clients because of our willingness to address and rectify them. In fact, our best calling card has always been our client referral list.
OI: How are you raising awareness in the design community?
JA: In the past, we’ve been a victim of our own success. We developed new product, would get orders and ship them out before photographing them. As a result, our marketing efforts were weak. Over the years, we’ve developed many pieces, yet the market, including a lot of our best, repeat customers, still doesn’t know about. They’re surprised to see what we can do.
JF: The point is that we have to continue our efforts to educate and work with designers, especially young designers to make them aware of our capabilities, and of Agati’s availability as a resource. In particular, we want designers to feel free to use our experience and engineering
to help them realize their product visions.
JA: So, today, we’ve begun a new marketing campaign. We’ve aggressively revamped our catalog and updated our website, as well as launched an advertising campaign. Our goal this coming year is to make the marketplace aware of all the products we have in our line.
OI: What are your goals for the next few years and beyond?
JA: I’d like to focus more on becoming a product-driven company, as opposed to just a project-driven organization. We want more of our standard products to be a presence in the marketplace.
JF: Even with the literature we’ve put together to date, there’s still quite a bit of product that’s either un-photographed or unavailable in any type of presentation format. Throughout the next year, we plan to photograph and publish more literature. Our website is a great resource, and we continue to update it almost daily. We also intend to develop market-specific literature.
JA: I’d like to put more emphasis on our seating in the next couple of years, as well. It’s where we began. We do it exceptionally well. For me, chairs have a certain mystical attraction. As a product designer, seating has always been my first love.