As part of a new series on the blog, I want to highlight companies that are doing something unique in their space and featuring the founders to get insights into how they grew their business, what it’s like running a company while parenting, and more. I’m always excited to learn about new businesses that offer beautiful, thoughtful products, and hope you appreciate it too.
I’m grateful that my first Brand Highlight feature is with David Mawhinney, founder of the sustainable children’s furniture line, Franklin + Emily. Based in Brooklyn, NY, the line offers up incredibly beautiful pint size furniture that will actually look good in your home, made using all natural materials, ultimately creating pieces that can be passed down from generation to generation. I chatted with David about how to dive into sustainability with young kids, why it’s worth investing in quality, the pros and cons of starting a small business, and much more.
What inspired you to start Franklin + Emily? What were you doing professionally prior to launching the brand?
My kids were the ultimate inspiration for Franklin+Emily. When my daughter Frances was a toddler, she would come into our bedroom and perch on our printer, which in her mind worked perfectly well as a seat. One broken printer later, I decided to build her a chair. When guests would come over they’d ask where I bought it and I would tell them that I’d made it. As parents, we’d always found it very challenging to find children’s furniture that ticked the various boxes that we wanted: well-made, well-designed, sustainable — and with the strong interest from friends and family I realized that it was time to build furniture for more than just our home.
I’d spent the last 15 years working in some of best kitchens in the world, so moving into the world of children’s furniture design was a big shift. Prior to starting Franklin+Emily I was the Culinary Director at Haven’s Kitchen in New York and as a chef, I put a lot of emphasis on being sustainable in the kitchen so it was a very natural progression to bring that ethos with me to Franklin+Emily.
You talk about sustainability and environmentally-conscious materials in your products. What are easy tips you can give to parents wanting to remove things like synthetics & plastics from their child’s space?
My advice is to be thoughtful and intentional about what you buy. This can take a little added effort because many of the smaller brands that focus on environmentally friendly toys and furniture can be more challenging to find, as they don’t always have large marketing budgets. Seek out smaller, local toy stores, do a little research on materials. There are a lot of options out there and they are becoming easier to find as we all become more aware of our impact. The ‘less is more’ principle applies here too; kids are very happy to play with simple toys and use their imagination, so invest in thoughtful toys that get the imagination rolling and can be used through multiple developmental stages.
Another tip is to set expectations when it comes to gifts — for birthday parties we have a no gift policy but if someone really wants to bring something, a book is great.
What are the benefits to being a small business owner as a parent? What are the challenges?
For my business specifically some of the benefits are that I have my design team, product testing team and photo shoot models sleeping in the next room. (I don’t think we’ve taught them what overtime means yet.) They use the pieces constantly which has really helped us learn how children interact with furniture in their own environments. The kids chair was designed because Frances needed a better seat than a broken printer, and the kid’s leather lounger chair was inspired by Desmond’s need for a comfortable spot to read that he could move throughout the home on his own.
The challenges are those of a typical start up or small business — you work late or on the weekends and constantly have the company on your mind. It’s been important for me to set some boundaries so that I’m not on my phone or computer working all the time. There really isn’t an off switch when you start a business, so it’s important that I remind myself to unplug from work and focus on the kids when I’m with them.
Launching a brand is both exciting and challenging. What were the first steps you took to make your business a reality? How did you build out a support system to help you navigate the launch stage?
Starting Franklin+Emily wasn’t just the launch of a new product, it was a full on career change for me, so it was incredibly important that I had the support of my family and friends. They were my sounding board, and if I wasn’t able to convince them that my idea was worth pursuing, it was going to be very difficult to convince others.
I built upon my support system by really departmentalizing all of the areas that I had questions in and then going through my friends and extended circles and just asking if they had 30 minutes to sit us with me over a coffee and let me bounce ideas off them. It’s hard to pinpoint the first steps — I just kept moving forward, iterating and it all came together.
What would you say to someone that’s nervous about spending a bit more on items for their kids?
I would start by saying it’s important to be thoughtful about your purchases and to understand what you are looking to get out of a purchase. You (and the environment) will pay the price for fast furniture and toys — it will break and you’ll buy it again, and it will end up in a landfill. Really think about what you are looking to get out of your purchases and buy with those intentions in mind.
Our furniture is designed and built to last generations. We’ve put a lot of care into selecting materials and finishes that are durable and safe for children and the environment, and they can be used for years before passing them down to siblings or friends. Our fabrics are durable and machine washable, our finishes are kid and environmentally safe, and our frames are fully assembled to ensure the highest standard of strength and durability.
In the back of my mind was always the idea that my kids would be able to pass the furniture I built down to their kids. I still have a stool that was a gift when I was born that has travelled to every apartment I’ve lived in, to University and back, and now my kids use it to step up and brush their teeth (that is until we built our own Step Stool, now they’re not allowed to touch mine.)