As the pandemic stretches into the summer, my family has been exploring beaches and ponds in the Boston area. Spending hours perched in the sand has underscored the importance of a good chair, which is surprisingly hard to find.
But a new direct-to-consumer startup called Sunflow has redesigned the humble beach chair to make it more portable, durable, and, perhaps most importantly, comfortable. The chairs launched online and in a Hamptons pop-up in June and sold out almost immediately. That’s impressive given that the chairs cost $198 each.
Sunflow was founded by Leslie Hsu, a handbag designer, and her husband, Greg Besner, a serial entrepreneur. The New Jersey-based couple spends as much of their time at the beach as possible with their two daughters. Over the years, they’ve lamented how hard it is to find a beach chair that’s both fashionable and functional. “People think a lot about fashion when they go to the beach—picking a bathing suit and the right tote bag,” says Hsu, who has spent her career in the fashion world, designing for brands such as Calvin Klein, True Religion, and Jonathan Adler. “But we couldn’t find a beach chair that was beautiful and high quality.”
Three years ago, they decided to build a chair themselves. To help with the design process, they partnered Fuseproject, the industrial design firm founded by Yves Behar, which has designed products for companies such as Herman Miller, Prada, and Samsung. “We had never designed a beach chair before, which is why we were immediately intrigued,” says Behar. “And we thought there was a lot of room for innovation. Beach chairs tend to be cheaply made and uncomfortable, so we thought it was a category that could use some design love.”
When it’s fully opened, the Sunflow beach chair feels a lot like a lounge chair you might find at a hotel pool. It can recline back to three positions, has both a headrest and an armrest, and collapses into a small rectangle with backpack straps. It’s not the lightest chair on the market—it weighs 9.4 pounds—which is partly because the brand uses more durable parts, such as a coated aluminum frame that’s rust-resistant and large hubs that cover all the screws. The thick, synthetic fabric is designed to be water-resistant. “In our market research, we found that many people throw out their beach chairs after a season or two because they just fell apart,” says Hsu. “We wanted to design something that would last year after year.”
Behar’s team designed the chair to be easy to open and collapse, which involves a button and handle similar to that of wheeled luggage. “We were inspired by strollers,” says Behar. “Brands like Bugaboo designed high-quality strollers that vastly improved the experience for parents and kids, but that opened easily with a single fluid motion.”
Designing a higher quality and more expensive version of the portable beach chair was always a risk, because it wasn’t clear whether consumers would be willing to spend so much more on it. But Sunflow’s founder looked to brands such as Yeti, which sells high-end coolers, and S’well, which makes more elegant water bottles. They’ve focused on quality, but have also become lifestyle brands. And given how quickly the chairs sold out, they may be on to something.
I tested the chair over the weekend on a trip to a park with my family. It took a few minutes to get used to the opening system, but once I figured it out, it was easy to use. I was able to lounge on the grass for hours, sitting up while I had a drink with my husband, then leaning back when I wanted to soak in the sun. It was incredibly comfortable. And having a chair I can easily strap on my back around town opens up all kinds of possibilities. I might start working in the park during the week—and maybe even take a little nap if I’m experiencing Zoom fatigue.