Monday, August 16, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 12) - Ramping Up Again

Having experienced the severity of the economic recession of the early 1990s I had surprisingly mixed feelings about the surge of new work coming in from places like Brueton. Although one part of me was thankful to be busy once more, there was another part of me that dreaded the thought of ramping back up to warp speed again.

When we were at our busiest in the 1980s I was constantly working long hours, including evenings and weekends. This made it difficult to do simple things, such as spend time with my young family. Although it was tough to decelerate the business as orders dried up, it was also a welcome relief in some ways because I was simply burned out.

During these down times I began to sketch out all kinds of ideas of furniture concepts I wanted to have made. This became a surprisingly enjoyable exercise and it had an almost meditative quality for me. Deep down I loved the creativity of it all - conceiving ideas; sketching them out; then figuring out how to go about making them into reality. The latter part was easy because the science of making was something I had down to a fine art already - after years of taking other people's ideas and transforming them into finished product.

The first prototype I ended up taking from sketchbook to bench was a Biedermeier style desk - very similar to the Rainforest Desk shown below.
An old bundle of Myrtle Burl veneer that had been stored away for years was used to make the inset of the top, while offcuts of Macassar Ebony were utilized to make the apron, legs and plinths. Not long after the desk was completed I was fortunate to have it sold - to an author who was looking for an inspiration place where he could write his books.

The success and sale of this first piece - especially one that was wholly of my own creation - actually inspired me to consider scaling my shop down even smaller, to focus exclusively on making and selling my own designs. This fantasy, however, was short-lived because the economic reality of the situation had its own facts and figures.

For one thing I was now the father of 3 young children, and as much as it might be righteous and honourable to pursue the path of the starving artist - also starving one's family in the process was not a viable option.

In addition, despite how cool I thought my furniture pieces were, the marketplace as a whole was not sharing my enthusiasm. Aside from the initial desk sale, three consecutive years of displaying at IIDEX did virtually nothing to stimulate any interest in my designs although, to be fair, the recession going on at the time wasn't conducive for sales either.

Around 1992 or 1993 there was also a Call for Entry for furniture designs to be submitted for an upcoming book entitled "Conservation by Design". This was a collaborative effort by W.A.R.P. (Woodworkers' Alliance for Rainforest Protection) and the furniture design program at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) to select tangible examples of sustainable furniture designs. I was thrilled beyond belief at this opportunity to be published, and felt certain that my Rainforest Desk would be one of the pieces selected.

Sadly, of the 76 furniture makers accepted for publication, I wasn't one of them.

About a year later there was another Call for Entry - and another rejection - once again from RISD. This time it was my "Tower of Power" that bit the proverbial dust.

It was shortly after we started ramping up with Brueton that I had a lengthy discussion with J. Wade Beam on what my business focus should be. Wade advised me to abandon my efforts to develop my own pieces and focus, instead, on being an OEM supplier to companies like Brueton. At the time this seemed like sage advice, for a couple of reasons.

First, given the rejections I was getting it seemed obvious that my furniture pieces weren't resonating with the more knowledgeable design academics of the world. Second, thanks to the recession there was now a seismic shift under way in the way in which companies had their pieces made. Making things in-house was now falling out of vogue as more and more designers began to outsource rather than invest in their own production. (Of course, taken to its extreme this ultimately led to the almost complete offshoring of production that we now see today).

As the 1990s wore on our base of OEM clients expanded to include not only Brueton but also Vladimir Kagan, Rick Shaver, Monroe Sherman (Sherman Designs), and Lee Weitzman. To keep up with the growing influx of work we were soon compelled to expand the size of our staff.

Although I was never keen on having large numbers of people working for me, in many ways I had little choice if I was going to keep my customers happy.

But it was only after I hired a "Jesus woodworker" that I decided to go CNC.

No comments:

Post a Comment