By Ben Schulman
Just over the Mississippi border from Tennessee, minutes away from FedEx’s cargo hub at Memphis International Airport, sits a disrupting force of innovation for the design and architecture industry. Material Bank combines logistical, technological and customer service savvy into an e-commerce platform that aggregates hundreds of thousands of material samples from disparate vendors under one roof. Think Amazon for material samples and one approaches the scale—and ambition—of Material Bank.
It started with a question: “If you had a magic wand, what would you fix?”
This is how Adam Sandow, the founder and CEO of Material Bank, would begin conversations with clients while growing his other business, Sandow Media. Sandow Media is one of the largest publishers in the architecture and design world, housing titles such as Metropolis, Luxe Interiors + Design and Interior Design. Sandow Media launched in 2003, and Sandow was deliberate in building his verticals and brands as integral and trusted partners, in addition to essential sources of information.
“My conversations would focus around, ‘Tell me your pain points, your problems, your opportunities,’” Sandow says. “It helped build bonds and relationships and it made the media platform a foundation to start solving problems.”
Many of the problems articulated to Sandow revolved around the inordinate waste and inefficiencies of material selection.
“I would sit down with the designers and manufactures, and everyone said that the massive waste of time and resources while selecting materials was staggering. I took a clean sheet of paper and said, ‘What if we could solve this’?”
For the next two years, Sandow was determined to answer that question. Leveraging the large user base and readership of Sandow Media properties, he and his team began to assemble focus groups to model out exactly what and how a centralized system of material samples could materialize. Nearly every focus group was supportive and excited by the idea; almost an equal number were dubious it could be done.
“I would talk to manufacturers,” Sandow says, “and they would say, ‘We’ve got 8,000 SKUs [stock keeping units] and can barely keep up - how on earth are you going to aggregate hundreds of thousands?”
It didn’t take a magic wand to answer as much as it did a handle on aggregation and logistics. The former demanded a technological solution—the building of a database and platform allowing users to access samples on one website. The latter prompted Material Bank to set up shop in Memphis, Tenn., within shouting distance from FedEx’s main shipping hub—“the only place in the world you can go to the cargo facility at 2 a.m. and have things shipped for next day delivery,” Sandow says.
The proximity to FedEx allowed Material Bank to offer overnight shipping on orders placed up until midnight, an unheard-of practice for a deadline-driven industry that often needs to make changes quickly to satisfy customer demands. After outgrowing its first warehouse, Material Bank moved in February 2021 into a 400,000 square foot building with 500,000 material SKUs ready to be shipped. The facility now has room for over 150 robots who work alongside nearly 200—and growing—employees in what Sandow calls, “the largest design resource library on planet Earth.”
Design firm Ware Malcomb was one of the first to beta test the platform. “All interior architecture, including fabrics for furniture, requires samples,” says Marlyn Zucosky, director of interior architecture & design at the firm. “That could mean 40-80 different materials. In concept, that means 40-80 different vendors. Managing all the sales rep information—that used to be a part-time job,” says Zucosky.
The one-source model has significantly cut down the time and labor of sourcing materials for Ware Malcomb. The sustainability of Material Bank’s system is an additional benefit to Ware Malcomb’s membership.
“I love the fact that it’s green,” Zucosky says. “Instead of eight different packages, we get one package from one vendor, with a usable return box.” Material Bank claims that it has reduced the number of packages coming into design firms by 70%.
The seamlessness of the platform was the main draw for Jerry Caldari, principal of Bromley Caldari Architects, a New York-based firm specializing on adaptive reuse and multifamily housing projects. “Our project managers have used it for ceramic and tiles and fabrics,” Caldari says. “I’ve looked it up for bricks and windows and glass. The ease of use and broad selection they offer make it easy for everyone.”
Sandow has his sights set on broadening the definition of "everyone". With over 65,000 users now active on the site, from architects and designers to real estate developers and corporate designers, the next iteration of Material Bank looks to be one that is more consumer-facing.
“The way consumers have to source and specify materials is backwards - it’s hard, it’s slow, it’s not sustainable. It’s like how things we’re done in the ‘80s,” Sandow says. “The way that millennials are going to want to buy carpet or tiles are very different. How do you help them and how do you help the brand that sells to those users connect?”
Ben Schulman's work has appeared in ARCHITECT, Belt, CityLab, Icon, Metropolis, New Geography and many others. He hosts a podcast - "Drowned in History" - about the hidden histories embedded in the landscape of Memphis, TN, where he lives.