Modular furniture sourced from the Web, made in the U.S.

Ikea's not the only company that knows modular design.

The latest invention from social-design site Quirky is a modular storage system that seems like a dead ringer for an Ikea, Container Store or Target product. Well, that last part is true: since July 1, Target has been selling Crate and its accessories in the company's brick-and-mortar stores.

Crate is Qurky's most ambitious project to date. It's a system of modded milk crates that can be paired with nine different accessories, some of which can dramatically alter the crates' function. But even more impressive, every single part was made here in the U.S. of A. — a dramatic move for Quirky, which has in the past relied on Chinese manufacturing. The decision was partially driven by timing, but it is also one that will lay the groundwork for more domestic production, the company hopes.

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Imagined Online, Made in The U.S.

All this started with an idea by a Georgia Tech grad. Jenny Drinkard submitted the idea to Quirky's open-source invention community back in February. Each week, the company picks two concepts from a pool of submissions to bring into production and sell at its e-store and retail partners.

With the support of 1,791 people who backed or helped shaped the idea, Crate caught the eye of the company's product evaluation team. The idea quickly went into Red Bull mode to ready itself for the back-to-school crowd. That meant having to bypass the months of freight time typical when dealing with manufacturers in China.

"In terms of freight and logistics, Crates paid for itself," Ben Kaufman, Quirky's CEO and founder, said in a phone interview. "The unit cost in the U.S. is probably cheaper than in China. What costs more is the setup: steel tools, packaging, labor. But as long as you're willing to make the upfront investment, the other stuff becomes palpable."

Other factors that pushed Quirky to move production stateside: Though cheaper than in the U.S., the cost of labor is rising in China. Not to mention, the average American worker is more productive — about 3.2 percent according to an analyst quoted by Bloomberg BusinessWeek — than his Chinese counterpart. The same analyst noted that the upsurge in domestic gas production now gives the U.S. an edge in plastic production. To hasten assembly, the Vermont manufacturer Quirky worked with Mack Molding, which designed and produced the original milk crates, and automated the production line as much as possible to decrease human assembly time.

Typically, Quirky products take between 120 to 180 days of evaluation, design, production and marketing. Crate was rushed out in 100 days — an impressive feat given the number of parts involved, from the plastic crate to the wooden legs that prop them up. It was sold first on fab.com, then Target, Office Max and Staples; Sears is next on the docket.

"I love Crates not just because it's the newest thing out, but because it's phenomenal," Kaufman added.

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Modular Design

Crate is inspired by the traditional milk crates commonly found serving as makeshift dorm room furniture, except Drinkard's version comes in a 14-inch rounded cube shape. It's made of a sturdy plastic, perforated with uniform holes across its surfaces. These cubes work standalone — as a laundry basket, end table, stool — or in conjunction with each other — as an entertainment system, stack of drawers, etc. Once you factor in the accessories that are sold alongside Crate, you have furniture suitable for the dorm room, living room, garage and more. The possibilities seem endless.

At $20 a pop, it's easy to pick up a pair of Crates with the intention of adding some storage and then realize how easy it is to build on that to provide much more utility. Add a shelf and you've increased the vertical space within these small cubbies. Insert a set of drawers, and your books, sunglasses and other miscellany are no longer on display. Swap out the wooden legs for rolling casters and these drawers are suddenly mobile. Cork and white board panel attachments bring a bit of dorm room style into your home as well. And if you want a bit of everything, that's doable, too. Simply purchase some links and you can connect more Crates together. The decorative cubes that fit Ikea's popular Expedit shelf line will also sit comfortably in an empty crate — now that's modular.

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Easy Enough to Appeal to the Ikea Crowd

Like Ikea furniture, this was made for the student, first-time renter and general layperson who doesn't want to shell out too much on furniture he might be selling on Craigslist in a year. It succeeds in being extraordinarily simple to construct, requiring no tools. But since inserting pegs into holes employs the use of brute force, a hammer or mallet doesn't hurt.

As expected with furniture that costs $20 (and accessories that range from $5 to $30), there are drawbacks. The drawers don't include sliders. They sit atop a shelf and the bottom of the crate. They'll store your things, but don't expect anything more sophisticated, like smooth rolling movement or a snag to prevent the drawer from falling out. The metal casters seem like a great idea, but there's no locking mechanism, so on slick floors these are perhaps too mobile. The cork and white board accessories are also prone to falling off the sides, even when they seem securely affixed with no noticeable gaps between Crate and board.

Still, these mentioned downsides don't render the accessories dysfunctional. They still get the job done. If improved, they're more like icing on top of the cake. The cake, however, is the focal point: a smart, stylish storage system that's too affordable and modular to say no to. Every home will find some use — not necessarily in the way Quirky or Drinkard imagined — for Crates. And that's the beauty of this system.

Via Crate on Quirky

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