John Stein, founder of Kirei, is in the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon 2019, speaking with me about his company. He reflects on the history and meaning behind his company that helped unite green design and beauty in the design industry. He also talks about how far acoustic design has come and what role his company has played in educating designers.
Listen to our conversation here.
*This podcast was produced in partnership with KireiUSA.
Christoph Trappe: Hello, everyone. It’s Christoph Trappe, chief content officer with interiors+sources. And I’m excited to say today’s podcast is produced in collaboration with Kirei.
I’m here at the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon. Of course, our 15th year. And I’m joined by John Stein. He’s the founder of Kirei.
John, thank you so much for joining us.
John Stein: Thanks. It’s my distinct pleasure to be here, part of the Materials Pavilion with you guys. Steven and myself, we’re talking about how many years we’ve been doing things like this together, and it’s great. And I’m happy to be a part of this.
Christoph: Of course, the interior design community, it’s a big community, right? So, we work together, we grow together. And so, talk about your purpose, your mission, the history of the company. (Pictured: John Stein, Christoph Trappe and Steven Sloan)
John: Sure, thanks. So, Kirei started 16 years ago with one piece of our first material, Kirei board, which is a sustainable product made of straw. And it really helped bring beauty to the idea of green interior design.
At the time, green design wasn’t beautiful design. Too many designers were turning away from it because their clients wanted beautiful. They want green, but they want beautiful.
So, we were lucky enough to bring one of the first kind of good-looking green materials to market, along with several others that came along at the same time.
And that really helped fulfill part of my personal purpose, which is to do less harm. You know, we’re not going to maybe save the world through cabinetry. But we’re going to take material out of the way stream, inspire others to do other behaviors, you know, go solar, reduce waste.
All of a sudden, we saw that this was a hit with the design community. They said, ‘Oh, we can design green and it’s not sacrifice. It can be beautiful.’
Or if they were just designers who wanted beautiful material, ‘Hey, look at this. This is beautiful. Oh, that was green? That didn’t hurt. That was fun.’ People loved it. And they kind of came back for more.
We expanded our portfolio of materials to things like bamboo, coconut shell mosaic tiles, reclaimed wood, hemp boards, wheat boards, a real variety of materials for designers to use.
So, that was a great start, a great introduction to me to the design industry. And I’ve come to love it. Design is fun.
Christoph: And you’re still at it 16 years later. The company name, how did that come about?
John: Sure. Company name is Kirei. Kirei is the Japanese word for “beautiful.” It also means “clean.” So, as I was kind of casting about for names for our new company, the original material came from Japan.
It was invented in Japan by a gentleman who really wanted to take the hundred years of chemistry his company had worked on and turn it towards an environmental bet. And they had developed adhesives that were zero-VOC, really much less harmful than the formaldehyde of the past.
So, I asked my friend, the Japanese man, “What’s the word for beautiful?” And he said, “Kirei.” And he told me about these multiple meanings. And I really thought that resonated with what I wanted to do: bring beauty to designers who also wanted green materials.
Christoph: Great. And of course, we’re here at Materials Pavilion. And if you are listening to iTunes, Spotify, any of those, we’ll have pictures on interiorsandsources.com, of course, for you to take a look at.
What’s new here? What are the products you’re showing in the Materials Pavilion?
John: Sure. Thank you for the last seven years, we’ve been brining EcoPanel to market. So, about seven or eight years ago, designers started asking me, ’Do you have anything that can help with acoustics? I opened up my space. I’m doing a sleek conference room. I opened up my education space. Now I’ve got this crazy echo problem. What do I do? Can you help?’
And kind of the same thing was going on at that time with acoustics. Acoustics also meant not the most beautiful. There were a few good-looking acoustic products out there. But mostly it was brown, fabric-wrapped panels. And no offense to the fabric-wrapped panel world. Some of them can be beautiful. But people were looking for something more.
And I happened upon EchoPanel, which was in production in Australia and the Asian market. And I said, ‘Can I bring that to the United States?’ And they were happy to help.
And same thing. First five designers I showed the material, they were like, ‘Oh my God. We can design acoustically with color, with shapes, with patterns, with prints. We can make beautiful sculptures. Or we can just have plain white walls that will really help with acoustics.’
So, that’s what we’ve been bringing to market for about seven years now. And it started slow. Well, it started fast and slow.
Too many designers didn’t understand acoustics at all. They’d say, ‘Help me. What do we do? I can hear a toilet flushing next door.’ I’m like, ’No, that’s a different problem. But we can help you solve the echo problems in your spaces.’
And so, over the last seven years, we’ve been bringing new colors, new shapes, new styles, as well as acoustic education to these designers.
And now, when you walk into a design office, they know what NRC is. They know the basic principles of where to put acoustic panels.
And so, it’s been really fun to be able to design with them. And then to iterate the product. We have these new tiles, new shapes, new ways of cutting the material so that you’re only limited by your imagination what you can create as an acoustic design element.
But really is the same thing—just a design element.
We like to take the word “green” out of design. We like to take the word “acoustic” almost out of design. And design something amazing.
And then now, we can add back in the green, we can add back in the acoustics. And it becomes a really fun design experience.
Christoph: So, you’re giving acoustics a look.
John: Certainly, certainly. I mean, it used to be something they hid. Now you put it out in plain sight, and that’s been a great development for designers. They go, ‘Oh, OK. I don’t have to work hard to hide it. I can do something really fun with it as well.’
Christoph: Fantastic. Thanks for the update, John. I was joined by John Stein. He’s the founder of Kirei and we’re here at the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon. Thanks everyone for listening.