Michelle Hespe meets the innovative owners of Koskela – one of five inspiring retail stores that became 2015 Global Honorees in the prestigious IHA Global Innovation Awards (gia) in Chicago.
There’s a great quote by American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker John Rohn that captures the essence of what Australian retail duo Sasha Titchkosky and Russel Koskela set out to do. “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary,” he once said.
The determined pair knew they were taking a risk when they set their hearts and minds on a 2000 sq m warehouse that hadn’t been used in over three years for their fledgling retail business. It was also in a part of Sydney that was a far cry from being a retail hub, but they believed in their dream of creating a business and a space that was not only out of the ordinary, but something new and inspiring for Sydneysiders and all who visited. They also had their minds set upon helping the world around them.
“The original idea was formed 15 years ago in 2000, when we first started Koskela, which was then a company primarily catering to the corporate market, producing furniture for innovative Australian offices,” explains Titchkosky. “However, we both always wanted to do something great with the retail side of the business.”
Fast forward a few years, and in 2004, Koskela relocated to a 450 sq m New York style loft space that was set up like a living space, and the focus shifted to being both commercial, and to a lesser extent, retail. Then in 2011, the warehouse was discovered, and the Koskela that people know and love was born: an enormous space with a café, workshop space and gallery, selling Koskela furniture and a curated selection of Australian and ethically made homewares.
Jump ahead again four years to 2015, and Koskela has just been named as one of the five top retailers in the world at the Global Innovation Awards (gia) in Chicago, which are hosted by the International Housewares Association (IHA) and the International Home + Housewares Show.
“It’s one of the most exciting times in the history of our business,” says Titchkosky. “The first 10 years we focused on the commercial side of things while having a family, and over the last five years, we’ve turned our attention back to our original dream of creating a unique retail concept.”
The pair did their research before making the jump, always keeping an eye on competitor businesses. They understood that for any retail space to succeed in today’s tough and saturated market, a business needs to give people multiple reasons to visit, and that it has to provide visitors with a real experience. “We always wanted to do something with food, as food and design seem like a natural match, so we created the café on our site,” says Titchkosky. “We also set aside a gallery space and now have new artists exhibiting every 4-6 weeks. We are also now running workshops, as we often discussed that people have no space to create a mess at home, so they can come and get into things here.” The workshops encompass everything from macramé to embroidery, screen-printing, and even classes where guests can make a piece of furniture.
There are so many outstanding points of difference when it comes to Koskela – such as the sheer size of the place for one – but one of the things that resonates with many who have become loyal fans is the business focus on good design affecting social change. “We want Koskela products to last – whether they are for the workplace or home, for educational or recreational environments. We design products that are destined to become classics.”
Koskela is extremely conscious of the impact people and products have on the planet, and so looks carefully at what goes into the many pieces that they stock. The couple is also continually evaluating the way in which they do business, to ensure that they are taking care of customers and those behind the creation of their wares. “We make sure that our products are made in a way that does not impact the health and wellbeing of the workers making them,” says Titchkosky. “And we are deeply committed to social enterprise – using our design skills to empower Australian Aboriginal artists and artisans through collaborations.”
Their efforts don’t stop there. Koskela has over 85 percent of its furniture range independently certified as being environmentally innovative, and the smaller products are either made locally, by smaller artisan makers, or are made internationally with an ethical or social enterprise manufacturing focus. And as if that’s not impressive enough, Koskela aims to invest 10 percent of all their profits back into social enterprise products that they have developed in collaboration with highly disadvantaged Australian indigenous communities. “The product ranges that were created as part of these collaborations have benefitted over 100 women and have been exhibited in Japan and Australia,” says Titchkosky with pride. “They are the first products of their kind which combine contemporary design with traditional craft forms practiced over thousands of years.”
The gia judges in Chicago were impressed by Koskela’s many initiatives, and by the feeling of creativity, warmth and community that the company has created on and offline. They loved the store’s displays and “effective use of an impressive premises, innovative practices including a brand-fitting in-store café” and their strong social responsibility programs.
“It was great to be able to have some time one-on-one with one of the judges,” says Titchkosky of her gia experience. “There are always things you can do better, and I found the judges’ critiques of our store really helpful.”
Now, with a gia award taking pride of place in their warehouse, and with more innovative business plans being concocted by the day, Koskela is headed for great things, and the happy couple behind it could not be more pleased with their direction. “We both love the fact that we are creating something meaningful,” says Titchkosky. “We want to bring Australian design to the world. It is so rewarding to see something that starts out as an idea actually turn into a real product. We took a risk and this is where it has led us.”
For more information about the gia (IHA Global Innovation Awards) program, the co-sponsors, or participating in 2015-2016, contact Piritta Törrö at email@example.com. Additional information on the IHA’s gia Awards program is also available online at www.housewares.org/gia.
For more information about the International Home + Housewares Show and to pre-register for the 2016 Show, taking place in Chicago on March 5-8, 2016, please visit www.housewares.org.