Sofar founders Nele Vlaeminck and Esther Noëth
After a long and successful career in the media, Nele Vlaeminck returned to her first passion that dates back to her childhood: interior design. The idea that a piece of furniture should be produced and consumed in a conscious way led to the concept of Sofar: a design sofa made according to the principles of the circular economy. “I had to find my way in a very traditional sector. Fortunately, there are many people who also realize that things can and must be done differently. I like to surround myself with them.”
She comes from a real entrepreneurial family, says Nele Vlaeminck (44) at the start of the conversation. “My father and my grandfather had a family business in Kortrijk that specialized in interior design and reupholstering seats. As a child I often hung out in the studio, so I grew up, as it were, among the furniture. I saw a lot of passion for the craft and love for furniture. That has stayed with me from my childhood. Not that I had the idea of making a circular sofa myself at that time, but I think that the first seed was planted then.”
Passion followed after burnout
After studying communication management and public relations, Vlaeminck started working in the media, of which 15 years at Medialaan (now DPG media). As a product manager, she sold sponsor packages to companies so that they could be present around TV formats such as The Voice van Vlaanderen, Belgium’s Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance. “I had a sales position and the focus was on achieving targets and closing deals,” she says of that period in her career. “I came into contact with many large companies and really enjoyed my job. But in recent years, that seed from my childhood began to sprout. I felt the itch to do something with my passion for interior design”, says Vlaeminck.
Out of interest, she followed an interior design course through adult education and a 3D drawing course in evening school. “It was tough,” she recalls. “My children Martha and Lou were very small at the time and we were also just renovating our house. I decided to work 4/5 but actually it came down to doing a full-time job on 4 working days.” That impossible combination led to a burnout, which meant that Vlaeminck was home for three months. “I didn’t understand: I, who was otherwise so driven, couldn’t get out of my seat. My psychotherapist and my husband made me realize that I was doing too much and that I had to make choices. I was therefore forced to think about what I was going to do next, because something had to change.” She chose to follow her passion and started with tailor-made interior advice – which she still does today with Nele Vlaeminck Interior Design.
“In the meantime I have been able to do a lot of great projects at home and abroad. A project that I will not soon forget is the styling of the house from the TV show ‘Die Huis’ in South Africa, where I moved for 3 months with my family. But actually I try to work to measure in every project I do, I think it’s important to bring peace to an interior,” says Vlaeminck, who is also the permanent house stylist for the Flemish versions of ‘Het Huis’ by program maker Eric Goens. is.
Not always a new seat
In her interior projects, Nele Vlaeminck noticed that a renovation or a move almost always involved a new seat. When people move, they often don’t take their furniture with them because it doesn’t match the style of the new home or because it’s too small, too big or simply worn out. In this way, a lot of furniture is thrown away, of which only a small part is recycled or reused.
“Reupholstering is an option for a worn piece of furniture such as an armchair. But in the traditional furniture industry, seats are made with a lot of glue and staples – I had seen this with my own eyes as a child – all of which you have to loosen in order to reupholster. This takes a lot of time, making it an expensive affair. Then most people say: just give me something new. I think everyone recognizes themselves in some way, but it’s actually not right that we make seats so ‘exchangeable’“, says Vlaeminck. During the first corona lockdown – “I had a lot of time then” – she started to design a sofa that is not only beautiful and comfortable, but that can also grow with the user, for example when moving or family expansion.
After the car industry, the furniture industry is one of the most polluting sectors. I didn’t want to see my own furniture end up on that gigantic waste mountain
During her research, Vlaeminck became acquainted with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization dedicated to the development of and awareness of the circular economy, where she was confronted with the gigantic mountain of waste caused by the furniture sector. “After the car industry, the furniture industry is one of the most polluting sectors, producing more than 10 million tonnes of waste per year in Europe alone. I didn’t want to see my own furniture end up on that gigantic waste mountain. This is how the idea for a sofa was born based on circular design principles instead of the ‘take, make, use, wasteapproach to the linear economy. I also heard from various thrift stores that sofas are not easily sold, mainly for hygienic reasons. Surely there had to be another way?”
During her search, Vlaeminck came into contact with Esther Noëth at the end of 2020, a recently graduated product developer who had been fully engaged in designing for the circular economy since her student days. “Because of her experience with ecodesign, materials and circular business models, I immediately got on well with her, both personally and professionally. We soon found ourselves on the same wavelength and complement each other well as a real tandem.”
The result of that driven dream team is Sofar, a modular designer sofa that you can easily determine the arrangement yourself and that you can also adapt to your own lifestyle. “It is a new Belgian sofa collection that fits within the circular economy and where comfort and service are central. Thanks to smart connection techniques without ‘final’ glues and staples, the sofa is easy to disassemble, repair and adapt to the different needs of the customer.”
“We are also going one step further with our digital service platform, which keeps us in direct contact with the customer. With one simple click you can order new covers or extra modules and receive repair and maintenance tips. Because each cushion has a separate zipper, you can clean all covers at home. And suppose you want to enlarge your seat, for example because you are moving and have more space, then you can simply order an extra module. In this way, we want people to be able to enjoy their seats for longer. In other words, the sofa adapts to what the customer needs at that moment.”
Thanks to the take-back service, the Sofar team picks up the sofa when you want to reduce it or no longer need it. For example, the materials can be reused in a new sofa and no new raw materials need to be used. By developing a sustainable sofa for the next generations, the interior brand is helping to reduce that huge mountain of waste. “For every sofa that comes back, we will work with a local tailor-made company to loosen all connections, recover the materials, clean and repair the covers. In this way, the circular and the social economy go hand in hand”, says Vlaeminck.
No goat wool socks
In the furniture industry, traditionally a traditional and linear sector, there is still the prejudice that sustainability is boring. Vlaeminck wants to get rid of that. “We have to get rid of that goat wool sock idea. Sustainable is far from boring and ugly. By thinking and acting differently, many new possibilities arise. Most furniture today is not (yet) made to be taken back and reused. I think that every furniture manufacturer should be obliged to think seriously about this already in the design phase. I hope that I can create more awareness in the furniture sector with Sofar. Things can be done differently and better: this circular design sofa is the best proof of that.”
Sustainable is far from boring and ugly. By thinking and acting differently, many new possibilities arise
The prototype of the sofa has been completed and production will start in early 2023 in collaboration with family business Mecam from Dilsen-Stokkem. “With their experience as a furniture manufacturer, they can easily scale up if necessary – because of course we hope it will be a success. From March you can order via the website. I am currently the only one who has a Sofar seat at home. And I can say: it’s a fantastic chair,” laughs Vlaeminck.
“We focus on direct-to-consumer sales via the website. We will also be working with interior architects, office furnishers and the project market. For us it is a conscious choice not to bring yet another standard design piece of furniture onto the market. The level is high and we want to keep it that way”, says Vlaeminck, who already dreams of a concept store where people can experience and test the sofa themselves, and then easily order everything at home.
Finding a way in the traditional sector
The entrepreneur is aware that she has not chosen the easiest path. “For most people, comfort and design still come first, followed by price. Only after that comes sustainability. Especially in the beginning I received a lot of questions and concerned responses because producing and marketing a seat in this way is not yet done and will therefore not be easy.”
However, Vlaeminck persisted: she was convinced that she could contribute to a better world by rethinking furniture in an innovative way and producing it differently. “I had to find my way in a very traditional sector. Fortunately, there are many people who also realize that things can and must be done differently. I like to surround myself with them. That is a tip I have for other starting entrepreneurs: build a strong network, because you cannot and should not do it alone.”
With the launch in February 2023, exciting times are ahead for Vlaeminck and her team. “I especially try to enjoy where I am now, because I have come a long way and I am very satisfied with what I have already achieved. So far, so good”, laughs the entrepreneur, who adds that her dad is also very proud. “Recently I had to present at an event. Dad came along to help put the sofa together. He is very involved in the development of Sofar and I could see his eyes shining with pride. That gives me perhaps the greatest satisfaction of all, and a lot of desire to continue to ensure sustainable impact in the furniture sector.”