By Glen Martin | Apr 06, 2021
San Francisco, California
Natural futons, bedding, and furniture
It was the 1970s, a time when free-spirited youth dominated American culture. And Boston resident Suzanne Diamond was a part of it. By her own description, she was a hippie and an art student, far more concerned about beauty, inner peace, and ecological harmony than manufacturing products and turning a profit.
"I was concerned about environmental and health issues generally, and especially interested in macrobiotic diets," says Diamond. "I was determined to live as naturally as possible."
During her studies, Diamond met a Japanese natural food authority and macrobiotic advocate named Mishio Kushi. She became friends with his wife, who taught her how to make cotton futons -- the thin portable mattresses the Japanese use in lieu of Western-style beds. Later, when Diamond had a child, she looked for a crib mattress made from natural materials. She couldn't find one, so she fabricated a baby-size futon on her own. That single craft project ultimately defined her life's work.
"I eventually moved to Los Angeles, and I had to make a living," Diamond recalls. "I knew how to make futons, so I put up a sign in a health food store that read, 'If you want a natural bed, call Suzy.' People started calling me up, I'd go to their houses, have some tea, get the orders, then deliver the beds the following week. People who went to health food stores wanted to live naturally, and that included sleeping on natural materials. And I wanted to help them."
The orders never slowed, and Diamond, true to her countercultural roots, went with the flow. In 1976, she founded The Futon Shop. Today, 45 years later, she's still making futons -- and a wide range of other natural furniture -- at her San Francisco factory. She has 10 retail stores in California and sells wholesale to outlets across the country and Canada.
"Despite our name, our line consists of a lot more than futons," says Diamond. "We also sell mattress, toppers, pillows, frames, and furniture. About 30 percent of our sales are sofas. The common element they all share is the natural, non-toxic materials we employ. That's what initially draws our customers to us and keeps them coming back."
Unlike many American manufacturers, The Futon Shop hasn't been adversely affected by COVID-19. Business, in fact, has boomed throughout the pandemic, a phenomenon Diamond attributes to two factors.
"First, our e-commerce just exploded," she says. "We've always believed it was important to keep our website performance optimal, and that has really helped us during the pandemic. Before COVID, e-commerce accounted for about 40 percent of our sales. Now it's 70 percent. Our retail stores are essentially functioning like call centers, with all inquiries routed to our sales staff, who know our products extremely well. Also, online video retailing is responsible for a lot of sales. I don't see the workforce ever going back to what it was. A lot of people are going to continue working from home. Maybe they look around and see an uncomfortable and unattractive couch or bed, and they're not happy about it. That's where we come in."
The Futon Shop also has been certified as an essential business, meaning its factory can keep humming. through the pandemic. Diamond realized that COVID was going to become a major public health issue in February of last year, so she designed a face mask made from material she had on a hand: an organic copper-infused cotton fabric she uses to exclude dust mites and bedbugs from her futons and sofas.
"It's been evaluated by Nelson Lab, the leading global testing laboratory for PPE, and it's been found to be 88 percent effective in excluding the coronavirus," Diamond says, "and unlike the commercial blue masks you commonly see, it's 100 percent biodegradable. We sold 500,000 in 2020 alone."
While production in Diamond's factory generally has been steady during the COVID crisis, there were some blips in the initial months of the pandemic. Some workers tested positive, and Diamond promptly shut down the affected facilities.
"We'd do a complete cleaning, make sure positive workers were self-isolating for 14 days, and just basically followed established science and procedures," says Diamond. "But once we figured things out -- which included wearing our own face masks at all times -- we haven't had any problems."
San Francisco is one of the planet's priciest real estate markets, which makes Diamond something of an outlier; the city's manufacturing base has been shrinking for decades. And she acknowledges that inertia is perhaps the main reason she hasn't moved to another, less costly venue.
"It's expensive here, but I have gigantic machinery in my factory, and moving everything would be overwhelming," she says. "Besides, I love San Francisco. I lived in Los Angeles when I first came to California, and I really didn't like it. But when I visited San Francisco and saw how beautiful it was -- the city, the Golden Gate, the green hills of Marin County on the other side of the bridge -- I just fell in love with it all. And my staff is like my family. They're an incredibly diverse and creative group of people, and many of them have been with the company for years. So when all is said and done, this is my home. I can't see living and working anywhere else."
Challenges: "We've had some serious supply chain issues during the pandemic," says Diamond. "I import materials from all over the world -- things like natural latex, coconut husks, cashmere, horsehair, hemp cordage. It all has to come in by ship, and the price of fright has tripled over the past year. Plus, what used to take six weeks to receive now takes 90 days. Shipping is basically a nightmare. Everybody's scrambling for ships, and there simply aren't enough of them to keep up with demand."
Opportunities: "To a large degree we make our own opportunities," Diamond says. "I always try to have something new up my sleeve. I'm a vertical retailer. I make my products and I sell them at the other end. That gives me some leeway, so I don't have to raise prices on my customers to maintain a reasonable profit. Not only does that ensure customer loyalty -- I think everyone should be able to afford safe, natural products. I'm also working with the hospitality business to develop a line of antimicrobial furniture, mattresses, and toppers from cotton impregnated with copper ions via a process developed in Israel. We think there's tremendous potential for us there."
Needs" "I can always use new types of materials and new sources," says Diamond. "For example, right now I'm looking into a company in Mexico that's making latex from cactus. And I'm investigating another company developing Tencel [a textile known for its softness] from wood pulp. If it's natural, sustainable, non-toxic, new and different, I'm interested in it."