A new design philosophy at Tupelo Goods

Taking what he learned from years of designing practical, sought-after consumer goods, Steve Nichols is stretching his imagination by creating luxury outdoor furniture for Tupelo Goods, a relative newcomer to the product segment.

But Nichols hasn’t left his practical side behind, designing stylish yet easy-to-maintain seating and other outdoor furniture that will last for years under the beating sun on a patio in Paradise Valley, Arizona, or immersed in an infinity pool in Corona del Mar, California.

Nichols, head of product and design for the Austin-based company, previously had his own design firm and also designed for Delta faucets, Adams Golf (a TaylorMade brand) and Yeti, the maker of high-end coolers, drinkware and other goods.

Steve Nichols is head of design and product for Tupelo Goods

“I’m bringing my experience in hyper-functional solutions and merging it with a more artful and beautiful approach to create a unique style of design,” Nichols says. “And, honestly, that might be our secret recipe for our Tupelo products.”

It was at Yeti that Nichols met Sara Kenton and Chris Keller, Tupelo Goods’ co-founders. The three have complementary talents — Kenton e-commerce and marketing, Keller operations and engineering, and Nichols design. And the trio shares an ability to create an expanding line of buzzworthy, must-have products.

“(At Yeti,), we were able to sort of capture lightning in a bottle,” Nichols says. “… The brand was exploding at the time, but they didn’t have a lot of products. It was our job to create new products to fit into the large umbrella of the power of the brand. (At Tupelo Goods), we’re trying to do that again, in our own way.”

The company’s current, but soon-to-expand line includes lounge, deck, dining and pool chairs, plus a coordinating ottoman and table.

The outdoor furniture is available in neutrals (Highcloud White, Concrete Gray and Sandstone), as well as brighter colors (Seafoam Green and Vintage Orange). The Concrete Gray and Sandstone colorways, made of blended resins, have a subtle speckled look. The company will be expanding the palette, and for large orders, can do custom colors.

In a nod to whimsy — and the company’s initial roots as source for recreation and play products — Tupelo Goods also offers cornhole sets made of powder-coated sheet metal.

In the coming year, “you’ll see an assortment expansion and some maturity in our product line,” Nichols says. “We started with a chair and then added another and another in different styles, different aesthetics and different postures. (This year), you’ll see us add to the families, with more furniture, accessories and brand-new products. … But our commitment to premium quality and original design won’t change.”

The Deck chair, shown in Vintage Orange, retails for $895
The Deck chair, shown in Vintage Orange, retails for $895

Sculptural and durable

Tupelo Goods’ pieces have a simple, sculptural quality that allows them to fit seamlessly in a variety of exterior designs. Key for outdoor goods, the pieces are made of marine-grade polyethylene and thus resistant to wear, sun and chemicals. “We actually recommend power washing (our products) for a deep clean,” Nichols says. And the chairs can support up to 500 pounds. “It’s a very, very resilient material, which has kind of a memory to it. It will flex and bend for comfort and durability, but it will also come back to its original shape.”

But what really sets the furniture apart from the company’s competitors is the fact that it’s made using rotational molding, or roto molding, at a plant in the United States, Nichols says.

The Line chair and ottoman are shown in Sandstone, a blended resin finish for a speckled look.
The Line chair and ottoman are shown in Sandstone, a blended resin finish for a speckled look.

Nichols became a fan of the process when he worked at Yeti. Roto molding creates strong, weather-resistant, durable products by melting a powdered resin within an aluminum mold and then rotating the mold to coat its interior. “When the process is completed and the mold is cooled down … it’s then opened and then basically out pops your finished part,” Nichols says. “… So, for furniture, it’s all one big part. There’s no assembly, no hardware, no nuts and bolts. It’s not going to get wobbly over time; it’s not going get squeaky or rickety. It’s a big, solid-feeling piece” (though lighter weight because the interior is hollow).

Designing pieces to be manufactured through roto molding “is a ton of fun,” Nichols says. “Once you understand it well, it’s very liberating. If you make something out of wood or Polywood, you’re using a straight board so you’re limited to what you can build with that straight board. You can change the thickness or the length or the width, but you’ve still got a straight board. With roto molding, it’s more like sculping. You can make subtle contours and do all sorts of interesting things with the shape.”

Nichols’ creative process

Like the furniture he designs, Nichols is rooted in practicality. When it comes to creating a new piece, he begins like many designers, finding inspiration in everything from artwork to nature. But he works best, he says, when he then reigns in that inspiration.

“When an idea or inspiration actually turns into a vision for a product is when I quickly develop criteria and constraints to give the product an identity,” he says. “… Blue-sky brainstorming and concept exploration can be a lot of fun and there’s a time and a place for it, but it rarely moves the process forward.”

See Also

Tupelo Goods’ furniture, like these Bask chairs, are suitable for use in the water.

His process starts pen to paper, freehand sketching. He then turns to SolidWorks CAD software for 3D modeling and to KeyShot for photorealistic rendering. Every piece is then turned into a full-scale model “pieced together with cardboard and tape,” Nichols says.

“I start kind of rough and ready, and kind of scrappy, because it’s all about speed and learning quickly what we need to learn,” he adds. “But I can make (the cardboard model) strong enough that you can sit there and really test the test ergonomics.”

The final stage is 3D printing a prototype. “It takes awhile and it’s expensive so I will have done as much homework as possible and have as much confidence as I can that a piece is going to turn out well before we move to 3D printing,” he says.

While Nichols surveys competitors and other players in the luxury outdoor market, he’s less concerned about following current trends. “I think that premium quality, solid design principles, and creating products with durability and longevity in mind will always transcend seasonal trends. That’s more important to me than hopping on a trend.”

Designers are key customers

Tupelo Goods’ products are available direct-to-consumer through the company’s website and through select high-end specialty retailers, but interior designers are also important to the company. Tupelo Goods offers a trade program and created a lunch-and-learn program, visiting area interior design firms to introduce the line — and to discover what designers are seeking in outdoor products.

Tapping into the hospitality market, the company has shown its products at HD Expo + Conference in Las Vegas and BDNY in New York.

“We’ve got a very high level of talent here at Tupelo, with decades of experience in various industries, and we’ve historically produced a vast number of successful premium products. So, while we’re young as a company, we have the backgrounds to produce wildly successful brands. … We’re really just getting started here, and I’m very excited about the future.”

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