When talking with Jared Blake and Ed Be, one word continuously made its way into my mind: approachable. Not once did I feel an air of pretension nor did I receive the “who are you and why are you here” look many of us have surely gotten when straying into worlds that are consistently gate kept like art, fashion, and design. Through their brainchild, Lichen NYC, they’re removing that pretension, earning the trust and respect of an entire generation of furniture lovers.
The dynamic duo met in 2018 when a routine Craigslist exchange ended up being something much more. Somewhere in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, they met to swap Jared’s Eames’ Shell Chair for some of Ed’s cash. Jared wasn’t a stranger to selling items he owned to have some cash to play with - none of us are. But instead of going their separate ways from there, the pair grabbed some coffee and connected over shared interests like art, fashion, and design. Jared asked Ed what he was going to do with the chair. Ed’s reply? “Sell it.”
It was then and there that the seeds of Lichen were sewn. The pair decided that they would curate and collect furniture together starting out of Ed’s storage unit, but the greater goal was to build a community around something that few people like them fully understood. They didn’t want to erect more artificial barriers to entering this industry, they wanted to tear them down.
In their experience, “We didn't feel included in any home design, home goods conversations that were happening…You walk into a furniture store and they looked at you like…‘What are you doing here?’ That's just what it is.” The idea of what furniture retail should be and who should be included hadn’t evolved so they reimagined it themselves. Through their hustle, savvy, and curiosity, they went from selling pre-loved furniture out of a 50 square foot space to making and sourcing their own designs from all over the world; shining a spotlight on underrepresented designers like Norman Teague and Nifemi Marcus-Bello every chance they get.
Aptly, Lichen takes its name from a life form created by the symbiotic partnership of a fungus and an alga. For the team, it represents the symbiotic relationship between individuals while speaking to the second life secondhand furniture pieces take on in a new home environment. With their endeavor, they’ve built something that transcends transaction, becoming a hub for the curious individuals that make their way there. It has become bigger than a store. Lichen is an institution.
Some folks are there to buy, some are there to learn, and others might just pull up to kick it, have a coffee and listen to favorites like Curren$y and RXK Nephew flowing from the soundsystem. It feels like the heyday of sneaker and streetwear culture when we made friends standing in line, traded prized possessions for new ones, and discovered new outlets for our creativity. With Lichen, Ed and Jared built a thriving hub. And then they shut it down.
But not for good.
In the coming months they’ll be opening their new space in Ridgewood, Queens. There, they’ll focus as much on educating and helping others bring their ideas to life as they do on crafting and selling Lichen’s own goods like their consoles and beloved bamboo room dividers. The inspiring journey that started with two cups of coffee and an Eames’ Shell has no end in sight. In the words of Jared Blake, “One chair could change your life.”
What was the goal when you first opened the Lichen shop?
JB: We didn't feel included in any home design and home goods conversations that were happening. You walk into a furniture store and they look at you like, “What are you doing here?” And we wanted to create a space that didn't have that at all, where you could ask questions and not feel like you needed to have a degree to ask questions about this thing.
EB: Education was one of the reasons we needed to step back from retail and operate out of those workshops. Our plans are to hold-
JB: Conversations and talks around design that need to be had. Those will give context into what it is we're selling and why. They're investments the same way sneakers and art can be. You can make purchases now and sell at a later time for a profit. You can retire with it! People have million dollar shoe collections at 16 years old just from smart buying. You can do that in furniture as well. People have already been doing it, just not us. This is not a new thing, this is just new for us. So we need to inform our community on design and who you should be collecting but also the, “Why does X, Y, Z cost that much?” Education is an essential function of our business because you can walk in and see a chair and say, “Why is this chair $200?!” And once we educate, you’re like, “Why was that chair only $200?!”
You walk into a furniture store and they look at you like, “What are you doing here?” And we wanted to create a space that didn't have that at all, where you could ask questions and not feel like you needed to have a degree to ask questions about this thing.
When you describe your space it sounds like y'all recreated that feeling of community that used to exist within the sneakers and streetwear. Was that something intentional when y'all began to build this?
EB: It was pretty intentional. One of the first reasons we started talking further when we first met was he took a photo of me because I had a similar outfit to one he wore recently.
JB: And then I asked him, yo, what are you going to do with this? What's the plan? He was like, I'm going to sell it. And I'm like, “Yo, let's both sell this. I've got a storage unit, we could go half on the expense and both sell out of that,” which I think definitely is a part of streetwear culture as well. That's a lot of people's first experience with entrepreneurship. We had the foresight to apply that to furniture.
What is your latest cop that has y’all excited?
EB: These two chairs from Rei Kawakubo [founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market]. She did a whole collection of furniture when she first started her clothing line that a lot of people don't even know about. All were produced in Italy, they're all fire and they're all really super hard to come by. They’re part of our rental program and there for us to learn and study from. I don't think we'll actually ever sell them. They came from a collector in the Middle East that I had been hounding for a full year and a half. They didn't want to sell at first, but when they were finally ready, they reached out and we got both.
They say the reward for good work is more work. How has the business grown since you started it?
EB: We’ve built a family. It began as a brotherhood between Jared and I, but we've now taken on three or four other people on our team. They were just customers at one point, people that stopped by to kick it. And now we make money with each other and it's a beautiful thing to empower each other in that way.
JB: It definitely adds gravity to whatever it is we're working on because people's livelihoods are now in our hands. It’s not just me and Ed riding around trying to get it. It definitely adds gravity to the process. Every move that we make has to consider as many people as possible. And you get what you put out, right? If you want everything, you have to give everything. Sacrifice and success go hand in hand. You sacrifice moments with loved ones for grinding, and retail is a grind. We source our furniture physically. We stay on the road. That's time we could have spent on the sofa just watching a movie. We rarely do anything just for ourselves, which is funny because it could be perceived as selfish that we work as much as we do, but it's the opposite. Self-employment is the opposite of what it is. Being self-employed means you work for everyone.
We rarely do anything just for ourselves, which is funny because it could be perceived as selfish that we work as much as we do, but it's the opposite. Self-employment is the opposite of what it is. Being self-employed means you work for everyone.
Lichen was founded on the spirit of collaboration. How important is that to your practice?
EB: Everything. Honestly, everything we do is collaborative. Everything we do is connected one way or another. I think that's something we didn't think about at all. When we opened our first location, we felt and saw the community forming. Everyone who came in was connected one way or another, either our former coworkers or just walking to the corner store and walking by us and poking their head in and seeing what we were about. But because that's just the intersection that we are in, everyone happens to be extremely creative. Anyone who walks in the door is like, “Hey, I'm such and such with Boot Boys.” Or, “Hey, I do this with Nike." And, “Hey, actually I'm a writer.” So those things are what connected us to a broader community just because people would share whatever it is they came in and saw with us. Our collaborations are all pretty natural. Most of the time it's someone who walked in. Even most of our staff are people who just walked in. We've never been like, "We're hiring." We've never been like, “We want to collab with someone”. We've never actually outreached pretty much at all. It's always been, “Yo, can I holler at you guys for a second? I do XYZ.” And we go from there.
Who are some of your favorite collaborators?
EB: Let's Do Better-
JB: Yeah. The Let’s Do Better collab [benefiting Black history education reform] was great. It was great to work with those guys and the ethos. It was the most full circle collaboration. It came from the right people. It got to the right people. The intentions were clear. The design was clear. Our first choice was the choice we went with, which was great. There wasn't so much back and forth like, “Oh, can we tweak this?” It was extremely seamless. You hope that they’re all like that.
In a furniture store, I’m always left wondering, “Where are the black designers?” Who are some for us to get familiar with?
JB: Norman Teague. He's a designer and professor out of Chicago. We had the pleasure of meeting him at the Brooklyn Museum a few months ago. He's one of the OGs. It was a pleasure meeting him. Nifemi Marcus-Bello is a designer in Nigeria, and we're going to stock one of his stools real soon and currently stock a lamp of his. Black designers in general are all investments because it's just so few and far between, you just don't know when you'll see these designs again of these individuals. And you may never again.
Talk to me about your ‘Homeroom’ study series. Is that something y'all looking at expanding and keeping growing?
EB: It was a way of us seeing how our furniture lives past the store. Everybody has a different interpretation for a piece that we sell to them. It might have been perfect in our store this way, but as soon as you bring it home, you know exactly where it's going, you know exactly what it's going to be used for. The ‘Homeroom’ series is a place where we can see beyond where it lives in the store, how it lives with a consumer.
Music is a big part of your brand experience. What’s playing in the shop?
EB: We love house music. We love hip-hop. We're both really both into this guy Cities Aviv, who's from Memphis. RXK Nephew from Buffalo. He toes that line of house and hip-hop well. Of course Griselda.
JB: I'm feeling Curren$y's latest tape, Continuance. He's always been a spirit animal for me because of his consistency. It's been 20 years of mix tapes. It's been a long, planned out musical career. Barely anyone in that class is still rapping. I'm just really inspired by his work ethic and savvy. He's been around for this long in rap. How could you possibly do that? With no album really! I think we would love to try to resemble that duration of consistent products. We don't want to be too hype and then fade away like, “Yo, whatever happened to Lichen? Remember when Lichen was dope?” And that's partly why we closed the store too. We don’t want to just sell. We want to consider what our style is and just refine that. Style is something that's really hard to acquire. To develop a style and a signature takes years, years, and then once you get it, you don't have to do anything.
We don’t want to just sell. We want to consider what our style is and just refine that. Style is something that's really hard to acquire. To develop a style and a signature takes years, years, and then once you get it, you don't have to do anything.
How do you continue to educate yourself on your craft?
EB: A lot of books. We're currently building up our own library that touches on points that we probably wouldn't normally design from. There's a lot of woodworking technique books that we have that we don't do, but we want to learn from them. Same thing with vintage. We won't ever really stop searching for vintage furniture. We like to acquire it so we can feel how it sits so when we create something of our own, it’s more informed and better as a result.
JB: Plus with books, I feel like there's a law of attraction. I'll spend a lot of time on eBay sourcing books of furniture designers that might not make sense for us to carry from a price point. Right? So instead of this $7,000 sofa, we'll get the book of that person. And then you can sort of tap into the ethos and what thought process they had. Then you might even read who they're inspired by and go deeper into the rabbit hole.
What is your favorite era in design?
EB: Now, because there's a Renaissance period going on. Not just in furniture, everything as a whole. Lots of independent clothing designers. Lots of independent furniture designers. I’ve been excited to see what's coming out because it's just a lot of reaction to politics, reaction to materials that you have access to and we're starting to see a lot of different kinds of design because of those realities.
JB: Postmodernism, which is crazy because I've always hated postmodernism. That late seventies, eighties Italian design. I naturally gravitate toward neutral materials. Logical, safe, practical design choices. Consistent, linear, actually - boring. [Laughs] Postmodern is the opposite of that. It's ugly. It's aggressive. It's loud. It's fun. It's noisy. It's disrespectful. And I think I'm starting to be like, “Yeah, I could use some more of that.”
How can someone that might not be able to afford expensive pieces get into the game?
JB: One chair. One chair could change your life. Both Eames chairs have changed my life. The first one made me move out, because it was the first nice piece of furniture I had and my roommate's cat started scratching it. And I was just like, “I gotta go. I literally can't have nice things.” I had to think differently. I had to get out and create a space where I could have nice things. If not for that, I don't know if I would've cared as much. But that thing made me think, “I got to change my whole environment to match this.” Also, that $7,000 sofa, that expensive piece is a hundred dollars somewhere on Craigslist, you just have to know what you’re looking for. Everything's attainable once you're aware that it is. And that's a fact, everything. We pride ourselves on being affordable. And if you think our prices are good, imagine what we got it for.