Joe Cooper on a mission for a better cushion
Staff Staff -- Casual Living, September 10, 2010
JOE COOPER began working to improve outdoor cushions about the same time comfort was gaining as a key selling point. As the recession set in, the replacement cushion category was among the few showing sales growth.
He started learning about cushion comfort five years ago when he bought a 25-year-old cushion manufacturing company. "The company was always a small business, but I felt it had good bones and I wanted to grow it," Cooper said. "Very early on, I felt that the only way I could grow the company was to make a better product. The questions then became, what is a better product and who would want it?"
The south Florida-based company's previous owners spent a couple of months teaching Cooper about the cushion production process, materials used and introducing him to customers and suppliers. "The employees were very helpful as most of them were long-term and very knowledgeable about the construction of various styles of cushions," he said. "Everything I learned was on the job and in the field."
He became friends with Casual Cushion Corporation's Mike and Jason Siesel, who were helpful as Cooper learned about the category. "It initially would seem like we were competitors, but our companies had a history of collaboration and we quickly gained mutual respect for each other," Cooper said. "I think they were curious to see what I would do with this company, as it is obvious that I am very passionate about everything that I do. For me, it was eye opening to learn how complicated and challenging cushion manufacturing is, even for much larger companies. From there, I spent a lot of time with the suppliers to learn the competitive differentiators in the fabrics, fills and even threads available."
After spending a year learning how to make a cushion, Cooper spent his second year in the business looking at every outdoor cushion he could find. He says he lost track of the number of pieces of furniture he sat on. "I examined the design, the construction and the filling materials," he said. "It was amazing the variety of designs and quality that I found just by looking closer. In many cases it was clear that the cushion was a cheap afterthought, a necessary evil just to sell the furniture. In other cases the cushions were really quite nice. All the while, I wondered ‘How could I make a better cushion?'"
The next question he asked himself was what did he want in an outdoor cushion? "The answer was quite clear," he said. " I want it all! I want it to look good. I want it to be very comfortable. I want it to dry quickly after it rains and I want it to last a long time. However, that didn't seem to exist in any of the cushions I found. No one I talked to really had the answer."
He was impressed with the quality of Brown Jordan's and Gervasoni's cushions. "However, while they were nicely constructed with high-quality materials, I wasn't convinced that they would dry quickly when exposed to the South Florida rains that we get," Cooper said.
To help answer his questions, he followed the advice of his foam supplier, Dick Miller, president of Reliatex. "He suggested I do it by trial and error," Cooper said. "He told me that he used to put materials on the roof of his building to see how they stood up to UV exposure."
Cooper converted his dock into a laboratory and begin testing. He bought outdoor furniture in deep seating and dining configurations and manufactured a variety of cushions to go on the groups.
"After each rain, I would go out and open the various cushions and document the results," he said. "It was very eye opening and somewhat frustrating. However, after about a year-and-a-half of testing, documenting, re-manufacturing and testing again, I finally got it! I created a cushion that went from completely soaked to dry in about three hours. Of course, this was only the beginning, but I had a great start. Now I had to make sure they stood up to the elements over time."
His experiments led to Over and Under's High Performance Outdoor Cushion Suite. "The High Performance LITE will satisfy most outdoor cushion applications by drying very quickly and preventing mold," Cooper said. "The High Performance Outdoor Cushion is designed to dry quickly in tropical environments which receive a lot of rain. The High Performance LITE PLUSH dries quickly and stays looking new longer than most outdoor cushions because we add a Memory Foam crown.
Cooper's innovative cushions have received attention of some significant players in the casual industry, including Skyline Design, Restoration Hardware, Tropitone and Glen Raven, manufacturers of Sunbrella fabrics. "As it turns out, the Sunbrella furniture fabrics have been improved for 2010, providing 25% more water repellency than ever before," Cooper said. "The difference has really been noticeable in my laboratory. The cushions really do stay dryer. However, I have found that it creates a bit of a problem once a cushion has become soaked due to heavy rains. It seems like that which keeps the water out also doesn't let it escape once it gets in, leading to a significant increase in mold problems for cushions without proper drainage."
Not one to be daunted by that discovery, Cooper continues to work toward resolving design issues. "I always try to listen to what people are saying, particularly listening for problems," he said. "Every problem has a solution. Some are just more challenging than others."