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A Surf Trip, A Shipwreck, and Sustainable Design

Adventurers and entrepreneurs get along incredibly well. Both maintain the delusional belief that in the face of complete, uncontrollable chaos, everything will work out perfectly fine. When they’re one and the same, however, there is no middle ground—the outcome is either Richard Branson or failure.
Two years ago I was completing the planning stage of my sustainable furniture company, Aellon. At this point in our evolution, our brand and market approach were reasonably well tailored, but we needed design inspiration. So, we planned a trip to visit an Australian friend of mine who had made the move to Indonesia to work in furniture manufacturing. We were going to Indonesia on a sourcing and inspiration trip, but our buddy—who, like most Australians, takes vacations seriously—quickly turned it into a week-long tropical surf safari.
After 36 hours of increasingly smaller airplanes, we touched down on the remote island of Sumba. Formerly known as Sandalwood Island, this beautifully desolate isle was once blanketed in aromatic sandalwood trees. In the 1500's, traders saw the island as a treasure trove of natural resources and clear cut most of the forests. However, few other changes have taken place in Sumbanese culture since then.
Between conversations on Jean-Michel Frank’s influence on contemporary design and shots of bourbon, we were told a story of a shipwrecked boat. On a chain of a thousand islands, there are bound to be shipwrecks. For some reason, we didn’t think much about this until our Australian friend mentioned he had heard about a boat that was marooned in Java during the last monsoon. After waiting a week in Sumba for surf that never really came, we flew back to Java to find an impressively large, 61-foot fishing boat that was half buried in sand on the beach. It was so large, in fact, that the locals couldn’t afford to move it unless someone bought the boat.

The boat owners had originally planned on selling the boat as firewood, but we quickly realized that the boat was made of now-threatened species of wood that had been cut from Indonesia rainforests 45 years ago. This wasn’t part of our business plan, and at this point we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we knew we had to buy the boat. It had presented itself so serendipitously that we could not say no.
There was obviously a chance we may not have been able to use any of the wood. There was a chance that we would buy the boat then find out the people we paid weren’t the true owners. There was also a chance that our airplane could have also crashed on the way to Sumba, as the same flight had just the week before. However, in chance lies serendipity, and in serendipity lies opportunity, if we open ourselves to it. Further, something as simple as a table can be more than just a surface you eat on. It can tell a story of a far-away land and be made from a waste material that fed a village halfway across the world for 45 years.

This is exactly the shift in thinking that Aellon represents. As we started our business, my partners and I had noticed a trend of poorly designed, high-priced, "sustainable" home goods that seemed to span the past five years. As reclaimed furniture became more about a look and less about the intent of sustainability, designers seemed to pay less attention to the life span of each piece. The result was essentially a throw-away product.
We started Aellon with the mission of improving access to well-designed, sustainable home furnishings. Our goal is to create pieces that last generations at a much more accessible price point than most 'designer' furniture. We also wanted the brand to represent a global connectedness that brought stories of creative reuse and adventure into customers’ homes.
And while it remains to be seen whether or not we go the way of Branson, I’ll happily take the chance that everything will work out just fine.

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Images courtesy of Aellon

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