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Joel Bell, a native of Pasadena, CA, and Onna Ehrlich, who grew up in Nigeria, met at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Joel graduated first and launched Joel Bell Industrial Design (JBID), an industrial design firm, working out of the apartment where he and Onna lived. When Ehrlich graduated, she went into business for herself, too—from the same apartment.

She made her first handbag on their living room floor. “I couldn’t sew, but I sort of put it together and then found someone to stitch it for me,” she says. Family members bought the bags, giving Ehrlich the confidence to scale up the operation. Onna Ehrlich LLC, a fashion accessory company offering a “collection designed for the busy woman who appreciates quality,” launched in 2003.

Meanwhile, Bell was doing industrial design for clients such as Callaway Golf and Disney. His services included research, design, development, and vetting manufacturers. As a concerned boyfriend, he provided the same services in support of Onna Ehrlich LLC.

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First impressions are important, particularly in the fashion industry. Black Nelson Coconut Lounge chairs against white walls make a big impact in the Onna Ehrlich LLC lobby.

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Pops of color throughout the space (here, the Eames Molded Fiberglass chairs in various colors, a red Spun chair, and yellow Caper chairs) were a good—and inexpensive—way to get the look Bell and  Ehrlich wanted.

Even with Bell’s experience, the couple’s learning curve was pretty steep. “No one coaches you on how to start your own business,” Bell says. “You can get the ABCs, but  to get all the way to Z you have to run the pace and do it yourself, so we learned a lot about production and different manufacturing techniques, as we worked together, hands on.”

While they liked sharing a workspace, working and living in the same space as their growing businesses became problematic. “We’d wake up in the middle of the night,” says Ehrlich, “and end up on the computer, working. At some point we thought, ‘This is not healthy.’”

They left the apartment, but their businesses stayed. That worked for a while, but the handbag operation kept requiring more space, even after JBID moved out. The days between when a shipment would come in and orders would ship, “You literally had to shuffle in between people and boxes just to get to the kitchen for some coffee,” says Bell.

They began hunting for a space that could accommodate both JBID and Onna Ehrlich, which meant manufacturing space as well as offices, conference rooms, and a reception area. And—as long as they were dreaming—a bow truss ceiling would be perfect.

The first time they saw the building that they would eventually purchase, “It was like stepping back in time—like the 1960s,” says Bell. The carpeting was peach, there were lots of cubicles, and the space was full of junk. Still, it had the bow truss ceiling they dreamt of, and the huge doors were ideal for shipping and receiving. Bell and Ehrlich recognized the potential immediately. “It was like the skies opened up and this building was just here waiting for us,” Bell says.

They bought the building, which was in up-and-coming Inglewood, cleaned it out, and painted the interior.

The two didn’t give a lot of thought to the furnishings at first. In the rush to set up the space, they just grabbed whatever they had. But one day, while on hermanmiller.com, Bell began daydreaming about how great Herman Miller would look in their new space. Although she’s always been a fan of Herman Miller, Ehrlich refused to indulge in the daydream. Bell lobbied hard, reminding her that, in fashion, image matters.

Bell set up an appointment and convinced Ehrlich to just sit in on the meeting. “(The Herman Miller Small and Medium Business workplace consultant) came with his catalogue, showing us all these things,” Ehrlich says, “And I’m thinking, ‘This is torture.’ I’m looking at all these beautiful things that I can’t have. We’re a self-funded company and capital is important to us.”

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For employees who make her products, Ehrlich chose Setu chairs, which are both comfortable and supportive. People who are comfortable at work tend to be happier and more productive.

Something shifted, however, when their consultant, Jesse Medina, said, “You know, I could sell you a bunch of furniture, but what is it that you really need?”

“That made me realize that this was someone who wasn’t interested in selling me everything in the book, only what I needed,” Ehrlich says. And when Medina explained about the financing program that Herman Miller created just for small and medium businesses, she allowed for the possibility of buying a few key pieces.

It was not a decision they made lightly. “Being a self-funded small business owner, we measure twice and cut once to make sure we’re making the right decision for the company as a whole,” Bell says.

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Long days are typical of the entrepreneurial life (“We spend more time here than at home,” Ehrlich says). Different seating options allow people to change where and how they sit throughout the day, helping them stay focused and fresh.

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Whether the end products are handbags or exercise equipment, good design involves collaboration. Spaces that support collaboration are scattered throughout the space shared by Onna Ehrlich LLC and JBID.

They worked with Medina to pick only what they thought was necessary for the space and its 14-person design and production team. They also took advantage of the financing program. And when the furniture arrived, so did Medina, who showed everyone in the office how to adjust the chairs so they would provide maximum comfort and support to each employee.

Ehrlich sees employee comfort as critical, not only because there’s a correlation between comfort and productivity but also because employees are like extended family. “We spend more time here than we do at home, so we wanted a space to be not only inviting but also comfortable for those who work here.”

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Married with businesses: Onna Ehrlich, owner of Onna Ehrlich LLC, and Joel Bell, principal of JBID, operate two separate companies out of the same location.

The furnishings also send the message to visitors and clients that both companies understand and value design. “We want them to feel comfortable that we can deliver a certain type of aesthetic to them,” Ehrlich says.

“Our second company is an industrial design firm, and we are selling design to our clients and we want them to walk in and feel confident that we actually do have a design aesthetic and we are capable of giving them what we promise,” Ehrlich says.

“We had things up and running,” Bell adds, “but adding the furniture was kind of like putting a period on the end of the sentence.”

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