UNC alums' furniture startup to take on IKEA from new Hillsborough space

SEPTEMBER 25, 2017 4:38 PM


After putting up with the tight confines of its Queens, New York, manufacturing space for two years, furniture maker Cardinal Workshop is moving its headquarters to Hillsborough.

A familiarity with Orange County helped. 

“(Being based in New York) is tough,” co-founder Dennis Blanco said. “Rent is horrendous and space is tight. It’s not a good long-term solution for us.”

Blanco, who founded the company with fellow UNC alumnus Bryce Williamson, said the company considered moving to Durham, Burlington and Mebane before deciding on a 6,000-square-foot facility off of Interstate 85 in Hillsborough. The move will give Cardinal triple the space it had in New York. 

“We wanted a balance of access to the local market but also affordable manufacturing space,” he said. “We found a space in Hillsborough that checks all the boxes. ... A lot of it also has to do with the vibe of Hillsborough and because it feels like we are coming back home to Orange County.”

Founded in 2015 while Blanco and Williamson worked in New York, Cardinal makes mid-century modern furniture aimed at young, tech-savvy consumers who move around a lot. The furniture, which uses lumber from a Pennsylvania mill, is designed to be assembled and disassembled easily, while sturdy enough to handle being moved from one apartment (or house) to another. 

The young company’s products will cost more than one of its competitors’ wares. 

“When you buy cheap, you buy twice,” said Blanco, who previously worked for the internet-focused men’s fashion retailer Bonobos. It’s a phrase the founders and handful of workers at Cardinal Workshop repeat about its competition. 

“When you buy IKEA you are probably going to have to buy IKEA again in a couple years,” he said. “You could spend $200 more and have something that lasts and moves with you when you move.”

Cardinal Workshop’s furniture is definitely pricier than IKEA – a coffee table made by Cardinal goes for $750 – but the company says it’s in the process of lowering prices as its manufacturing process becomes more efficient and it stops paying New York rents. 

But even as it moves to Hillborough, its much larger competitor is also looking to tap into the Triangle market. IKEA plans to open a 359,000-square-foot store in Cary.

As part of its relocation, Cardinal received an Orange County Small Business Grant worth around $9,000 to assist with the move. 

“This is not some giant furniture company that is moving here,” said Steve Brantley, Orange County’s economic development director. The young company says it’s just now getting out of beta testing its small lineup of furniture offerings. 

But it’s a company that fits the craft focus of the town, he added.

Cardinal has a few manufacturing workers in New York, but the company plans to hire three to five workers in Hillsborough over the next year. It is also searching for a new local lumber supplier. 

“Furniture is a traditional North Carolina industry, but it has a lot of overseas competitive challenges that have moved it out of North Carolina,” Brantley said. “Here we have an example with a new craft business (trying to build furniture here). … They are introducing something local of quality, and people (here) value that.”