Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 9) - I'm Just the Installer

By 1992 things were brutally slow at work, and I was scrambling to find anything to keep going.

Although few projects were happening at the time it turns out there was a wealthy real estate magnate building a large custom home in Toronto, and the project required a number of custom cabinets and built ins. But the glitch was that all this work had already been bid on, and won, by a kitchen cabinet company that had sold itself to the client as a high end custom shop. (This is indicative of all recessions, as kitchen companies, millwork and store fixture shops all start encroaching into other markets in an effort to find work).

While this kitchen company was able to handle most of the straight forward cabinetry, they quickly found themselves in over their heads on some of the more complex pieces. At this point I was contacted by the interior designer to help find a discrete resolution to the problem.

I was offered the opportunity to make some of the more complicated cabinetry, under the condition that it was sold under the kitchen company's name. They were to get full credit for the work. My name was not to appear on any of the paperwork, and if I was ever asked by the client who I was my response was to be: "I'm just the installer".

Although the scenario didn't thrill me I was also well aware that ego doesn't pay the bills. Therefore, I agreed to the terms.

The pieces were made, delivered and installed roughly 2 days before the 1992 IIDEX show. Over several days the home owner saw me on multiple occasions working around his home, but at no point did he and I ever speak.

With the job now complete and the IIDEX show under way, I was soon busy with other things. For starters I had Monroe Sherman (owner of the Carriage House showroom in Miami) in town for the show. In addition, my old friend Bill Stolz from the Canadian Consulate in Atlanta was also attending IIDEX.

The three of us got together for dinner one night, before heading to a nightclub for drinks. We ended up at the hottest club in town, located in an upscale neighbourhood called Yorkville. Although the place was about 3/4 full, it was filling fast by the time we arrived.

No sooner were we enjoying our first beverage than Bill recognizes a couple people in the room. He motions them to come over, and soon we're standing as a group of 5 guys talking about whatever it is that guys talk about. About 10 minutes later more people enter the club, and amongst them is the (then) famous actor Peter Weller - of Robocop fame - with one of his friends. It turns out that Weller's friend happens to know one of Bill's friends, so before long there's 7 of us standing in a group conversation - and I'm standing beside Weller, even though neither Weller nor I know each other due to our four degrees of separation.

By this point the whole club is abuzz with the fact that Peter Weller is in the room. Bear in mind that the movie "RoboCop", and it's sequel "RoboCop 2", had both been huge hits in recent years. And since Weller was the star of both films, he was a widely recognized personality at the time.

But what happened next was hilarious.

With the club jammed full and our group of seven now the focus of attention, who else should walk in but the real estate magnate in whose home I had been installing furniture earlier in the week. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the startled look on his face as he looked over and saw my familiar face mingling with the rich and famous.

At first I could tell that he couldn't place where he knew me from. A short while later I saw the bulb of recognition go off over his head, as he clued in to who I was. Of course, now he was puzzled as to what his cabinet installer was doing hanging out with Peter Weller.

As we left the club I smiled and nodded to the client as we headed out the door.

There was no need to say anything.

After all, I was just the installer.

The Journey Continues (Pt.8) - Rapid Deceleration

The end of our working relationship with Richard Mark in 1989 impacted our shop immediately, although for a while the decline in work volume was partly offset by new orders coming in from Dakota Jackson and Ron Seff in New York, and a showroom called Carriage House in Miami.

We also had a scattering of custom work from interior designers in the Toronto area, which I tried to augument through participation in the IIDEX shows of 1989, 1990 and 1991. But for a variety of reasons it didn't really matter what I tried to do to bring in more work - our order book kept shrinking during this time.

There were a variety of reasons for this - many of which were out of my hands. First, there was the Savings & Loans crisis in the United States which was having a crippling effect on financial markets. There was also the Gulf War from 1990-1991 which caused oil prices to spike up, and overall consumer spending to pull back. On a technical level the economy was in a severe recession between mid 1990 to mid 1991, and in this environment discretionary spending of any kind - including custom furniture - was a low priority.

Compounding this were some additional shocks. By 1991 both Karl Springer and Ron Seff had passed away. In the case of Springer his iconic furniture business collapsed almost immediately. When Karl's former partner Ron Seff passed away, Ron's company was transferred to new ownership - and our business relationship effectively ended there.

Dakota Jackson seemed to have a considerable backlog to carry him through the slow times, but as his order book shrank he decided to keep more of his work in-house, rather than subcontract overflow to our shop as he had been doing. In addition, at this stage of his career Dakota had grown weary of doing one-off custom work. It was too restrictive for growth, and given his aspiration to become a large scale 20th Century industrialist, Dakota's design focus shifted to things like the Vik-ter Chair and Library seating which could be made and sold in multiples.

I was now scrambling to find other sources of work, and the Toronto IIDEX show became the focus of my efforts. In order to participate in shows such as IIDEX, it was necessary to show examples of what you were capable of doing. Given the OEM (private label) relationship we had with collections such as Dakota Jackson, it was not possible for us to show examples of Dakota's furniture under our own banner at a design show. It would be perceived as a knock-off.

On multiple levels this was OK with me, especially because for the first time this gave me the opportunity to design and build something entirely of my own creation.

My first piece was a custom desk inspired by a Biedermeier table I had seen some years earlier. The initial prototype was crafted out of a combination of Lacewood and Myrtle Burl, and there was an inlaid band set into the perimeter of the top. There were also three pencil drawers with concealed mitred corners discretely inset into the side of the floating top.

This desk was unveiled at the 1990 IIDEX show, and although the response from the design community was lukewarm (probably due to the slow economic climate) I did manage to find a buyer who absolutely fell in love with the piece. An author was looking for an inspirational desk from which he could write books, and in his mind what I had made was absolutely perfect.

I still remember clearly the immense satisfaction I felt at knowing how something I had first envisioned, then made, could resonate so positively with another human being.

A second incarnation of this desk (shown below) followed a year or so later, made of Macassar Ebony and Carpathian Elm Burl. Dubbed the Rainforest Desk, it ended up being auctioned off as part of a fund raising effort to support a group called W.A.R.P. (Woodworkers' Alliance for Rainforest Protection). That story will be told in a later post.

Also for the 1990 IIDEX show I designed and built an entertainment center called the "Tower of Power". This piece consisted of a tall cabinet made of flat cut cherry, and the cabinet interior was configured to house audio components behind a sandblasted glass door. For ventilation of components there was an Electrosonic whisper fan built in to the back of the cabinet. The television pedestal and door medallion were made of Curly English Sycamore inlaid into herringbone patterns. The plinth base and rotating platform for television were finished in high gloss ebonized anigre.

Although this cabinet did win a special award thanks to a revolutionary waterbased finish we developed, once again the response from the design community was tepid at best.

By 1992 things as a business were nearing rock bottom. Although the recession was technically over we were slower than we had ever been. Where we once employed a staff of 20, we were now hanging on with barely 5.

I was also now the father to three small children, and I was beginning to seriously question my abilities as a provider.

At this stage I was willing to take on just about anything.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt.7) - Our Biggest Customer Goes Supernova

The year 1987 was pretty much the high water mark for the economic boom attributed to Reaganomics. At the time I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to things like the stock market, but what I do know is that we were exceptionally busy at work. Even the stock market crash of 1987 seemed to have little impact - at least at first.

In addition to my furniture work there was also a great deal happening in my personal life at the time. In 1983 I met a wonderful gal named Teresa, and we ended up getting married the following year. In 1985 we bought our first house togther, and in 1987 our first child was born - a son by the name of Bradley.

As a mirror to that timeline my parents split up and divorced, which meant that in 1987 I ended up buying out my mother's half of the business as part of her settlement with my father. Later that year, as a complete surprise to me, my father suddenly announced that he was semi-retiring to Florida. The news caught me totally off guard.

Suddenly, at the age of 28, and with a wife and baby at home I found myself thrust into the role of sole proprietor of a busy custom woodworking shop that was now employing a staff of 20. I worked my butt off day and night to stay on top of things, and it was overwhelming to say the least.

On a personal level it became exceptionally difficult to work the long hours that are the norm for small business owners, because by the time my son turned the age of one he had become accustomed to the routine of me coming home at night to play and spend time with him. On nights when I had to go back to finish a project to meet a deadline he would cry as I headed out the door. It broke my heart when this happened.

During this time Richard Mark was our biggest customer. This showroom was owned by a fellow who loved to live large, and I was never comfortable with this guy's ability to spend lavishly on a lifestyle that was far bigger than his business could sustain. If you can afford the lifestyle - that's one thing. But if you're burning through money faster than it's coming in: that's a disaster waiting to happen.

As long as orders and deposits kept flowing in faster than he could spend it, I figured he could stay above water. But once the tide turned, I knew it would be time to get off the proverbial beach - because the tsunami of economic reality was going to crash hard.

After the stock market crash of October 1987 it didn't take long for the warning signs to begin to flash. Initially it became evident that new money was being used to pay older bills - a classic example of "robbing Peter to pay Paul". Things gradually worsened as evidence of check kiting began to appear.

To understand what check kiting is, one has to realize that in the 1980s electronic banking was pretty much non-existent for small business. When you wrote a check that was drawn on an account in one bank, and deposited in an account at another bank, the process of clearing and transferring the funds was mostly a paper process that sometimes took days to work through the system. This window of time was known as a "float", and it created the opportunity to write checks and make payments in situations where there were insufficient funds in the account.

In light of the eroding financial situation at Richard Mark, I stepped up my efforts to transition into more work from companies such as Brueton, Dakota Jackson, Karl Springer and Ron Seff. At Brueton I was always turned away stone cold at the door. The folks at Springer seemed immersed in their own internal chaos, and I also made little headway there. But fortunately some doors were opened at Ron Seff and Dakota Jackson. These latter two seemed to have a backlog of work that would give them some forward momentum in the face of a rapidly slowing market, and I was happy to segue into these new opportunities to make tables, wall units, built-ins and other assorted furniture.

By 1989 the situation at Richard Mark had reached detonation point. Although we were now shipping on a truckload basis, the payment situation had deteriorated to the point where old balances weren't getting paid until new shipments were ready to deliver. Checks from Richard Mark were now bouncing on a continuous basis, with new checks replacing old checks at a rate that made it near impossible to figure out what our true account balance was at any given time.

This dynamic also created a situation of perpetual financial entrapment, because the only way to leverage payment for owed monies was to literally roll over debt with new deliveries. In this scenario I figured there was only one way of escape, but it would involve a 2-step process.

The first step was to create a "phantom truck". For one month we went through the motions of pretending to work on a new batch of orders. Phone calls were made and faxes were exchanged to maintain the illusion of business as usual. Meanwhile, we established an account at Barclay's Bank in New York - at the same branch that Richard Mark had their account.

The deal was that when the next truck was ready to ship Richard Mark would make a direct deposit into our account at Barclay's. By this point Richard Mark was struggling to pay balances on old orders that had already been delivered and THEY had been paid for. Given the small float window of an intra-bank transaction I knew there would only be a brief opportunity of time to clear our funds from the account before that check also bounced.

On the scheduled day of delivery I caught an early flight to New York and cabbed myself to a street corner opposite the bank. And there I waited. Shortly after the bank opened at 9:00 a.m. - and right on cue - I watched from a distance as Richard Mark's accountant walked down the street and into the bank to deposit the check as agreed. I knew the check was worthless, and so did the accountant, but Barclay's wouldn't figure it out until the paperwork made the round of the desks.

After watching the accountant leave the bank I made my way inside, and drew a certified check to empty our account. Due to the nature of the paper system at the time the funds were there - at least as far as the bank was concerned. Therefore they didn't balk at giving me the money.

With certified check in hand I called Richard Mark's president to give him the news.

To make a long story short: our relationship with our biggest customer was now terminated.

As difficult as this was to do, the outcome was inevitable because Richard Mark was now unravelling to the point of no return. Under these circumstances I felt it was better to decelerate our company now than go full bore into financial oblivion as an unsecured creditor.

Teresa was also now pregnant with our second child.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 6)

Looking back on the 1980s and how busy we became making furniture, there's a part of me that would like to believe that the reason we were busy was because we were so good at our work.

While there may be some truth to that, the reality is that the decade was simply a time of excess. Reaganomics created an economic boom of epic proportions, and the economy was literally awash in cash. And with excess cash, people bought stuff - lots of stuff, including furniture.

In hindsight, it was impossible not to be busy.

But that era was also a time of imbalance, and deep down I just knew that sooner or later things were going to correct themselves.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of how out of balance things were at the time was the rampant use of cocaine - the stuff seemed to be everywhere. As Robin Williams once said: "cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money." And in the 1980s there was probably more snow in New York than the North Pole.

The movie Scarface (1983) and the television show Miami Vice (1984-1989) truly reflected the mindset of the times.

One example of how insane that era had become was the number of tables we had to refinish because of people using razors to inadvertently cut lines in the finish. This, however, was almost exclusively a New York phenomena.

The piece de resistance came in early 1987 when we had a custom commission for a massive 25' long wall unit, complete with built-in bar and entertainment system. The material was quarter cut oak, and the finish was a custom silver metallic automotive paint polished to a high sheen. The client was a young, high rolling Wall Street trader living on Long Island.

Two days before the scheduled delivery we had just completed the finishing touches on this unit, and were preparing to disassemble it for wrapping and loading onto our truck. Later that evening, while watching the news, I almost barfed my supper. Right before my eyes, on national TV, I watched in disbelief as the client for this unit was led away in handcuffs - caught up in a sting that alleged stocks being traded for cocaine.

(It took a bit of searching, but I found a link to the story here):

I couldn't believe this was happening. If this guy was being thrown in jail, how were we getting paid? I was in no position to inventory a massive silver metallic wall unit, and it was likely going to take one heck of a discount to get someone else to take it off our hands.

As it turns out the guy was innocent and soon cleared of charges, and we ended up delivering his unit a few weeks later.

More importantly, we got paid.

(Phew) !

Digging Through the Archives

Writing this blog has turned into a bigger exercise than I first imagined.

But, there have been some positive accomplishments along the way.

For one thing, I have finally found the motivation to mine through all my old junk piles and nearly forgotten storage boxes to dig out every daytimer I have every owned - going back to 1982. In the photo below you can see them lined up and organized, for the first time ever, all in the same place at the same time.

For most of the past week I have been busy going back through almost 3 decades of notes, appointments, and names of people and companies we have done business with over the years.
Memories have been jogged, and certain questions with historical reference have been surprisingly answered.

In a situation such as this I am thrilled to have been somewhat of a packrat, because these daytimers have become veritable diaries that have recorded my day-to-day movements and business activities for almost all of my years as a full time studio furniture maker.

In particular I have studied the years 1987 through 1992 to better understand why it took almost 5 years for the stock market crash to fully impact my business.

The unfolding events were rather fascinating, and those stories will be tackled next.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

500 Cabinets

I have just received word from Ray Hemachandra of Lark Books that 3 of my furniture pieces are now officially published in a new book entitled: "500 Cabinets: A Showcase of Design & Craftsmanship".

This is such an incredible honour to be showcased alongside so many exceptionally talented furniture designers and makers.

Juried by John Grew Sheridan, "500 cabinets" showcases the art and craft of fine furniture making with examples of contemporary works from 300 different makers.

Although the actual release date is August 3, 2010 copies of this book can be pre-ordered at online retailers such as Amazon. In the United States the link is here:

To my understanding the Andiroba Cabinet was one of the pieces selected. In the photos below you can see this design sculpted out of Mottled Tangare, and fitted as a standing humidor.

For those wishing to respect the Cuban embargo, please close your eyes to the Cohibas.

Also featured is the Gentleman's Valet, which was crafted out of a rare sampling of Curly Birds Eye Maple, and inlaid with Makore and Ebony. Using a technique similar to the Andiroba, the outer case is made as 2 seamless half shells that hinge/pivot open to reveal the interior.

The inside of the valet contains 7 drawers plus a pair of doors for storage at the bottom.

The upper drawer has individual compartments to receive wrist watches and even loose change. Slots for fountain pens are located in the center tray.

The third cabinet accepted for publication is our newest creation called Digitaria/Blue Star.
This multi-angular design was inspired by the Wally 118 superyacht, highlighted by the subtle contrast between the polished stainless steel base and the satin black lacquer cabinetry.

In the isometric view the 3-dimensionality of the design is more apparent.

The interior of Digitaria/Blue star is crafted from natural maple plywood. The 4 drawers are dovetailed solid maple, and pop open using Blumotion slides and Blum's pneumatic touch latch system.

This detail view of the upper corner shows how the angles of the multiple surfaces intersect.

The top is bevel back painted glass, set into a recess.

Hopefully you feel inspired enough to pick up a copy of this book, and see examples of furniture arts and crafts at their finest.

If you feel motivated to write a review at Amazon , by all means please do so.

Positive reviews help with rankings which, in turn, influence sales.

On that note please keep in mind that 5-star reviews are very beneficial, but even 4-star rankings are detrimental.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 5) - The Roaring 80s

With the introduction of Reaganomics in the early 1980s the economy took off like a rocket. New York and Miami in particular went into overdrive, with all sorts of opportunities for doing custom furniture and cabinet work.

A chance meeting in Manhattan resulted in an opportunity to build custom wall units and other furniture - mostly for audio/video applications. For a few years our biggest customer was a showroom called Richard Mark, which was located in the New York Design Center at 200 Lexington Avenue.

Richard Mark was actually 2 companies in one location. The first company was called Audio/Video Concepts and it focussed on high end audio/video. In those days the thing to have was a Kloss Novabeam front projection T.V. and an integrated sound system that was either rack mounted or fitted into a template as individual components.

The other company provided custom furniture to accomodate the various electronics - mostly in the form of wall units and built-in cabinetry. The most popular coffee tables of the day were designed to enclose floor mounted projector units.

The photo above shows a built in wall unit that is ready to receive a Kloss projection screen. In the case of this installation the projector is ceiling mounted. There are grills in the top corners to receive tweeter speakers, while the midrange and subwoofers are located in the bottom. The electronics are fitted into a custom template.

As an indication of how old this photo is please note the large reel-to-reel tape deck at the top of the stack. The finish is high gloss Tay Wood, while the interior finish around the television was typically satin black - to reduce glare.

The built-in above was made a few years later and shows a subsequent generation of electronics. The front projection screens were eventually phased out in favour of rear projection televisions, although templated fittings for stereo components remained in vogue. The finish is cream colored lacquer.

This built-in was made for a private residence in Trump Tower. The louvered panels on either side were actually vented doors to conceal HVAC ductwork. The finish is high gloss birds eye maple.

This bar was custom made for a private residence in Philadelphia. The columns are white lacquer fitted with neon tube lights. The main body, top and trim is high gloss red Tay Wood.

This is a custom built-in for a private residence in Toronto. The wood is white washed quartered oak, with speaker grills fitted into the lower doors. Each unit has remote controlled motorized center doors to conceal the television (on the right) and stereo components (on the left).
This black lacquer wall unit was designed by Ariel Muller Designs, and was built-in to a private residence in Toronto. The design is actually quite clever because while it accomodates the large rear projection television that was the norm in the late 1980s, it was also possible to modify the unit later to receive the flat screens popular today.
This custom wall unit is actually a wardrobe unit for a master bedroom. The upper center doors are motorized, and slide side to side via remote control to reveal a television behind. The finish is high gloss Wimbledon White lacquer.

These are the bed and night stands the complement the wardrobe wall unit. The bed platform and headboard are upholstered.

In the photo above we made the desk and built-in cabinetry, which was finished in white washed quartered oak. Designed by Po Ku of Quess.

By the late 1980s we were working with some of the most recognized names in the New York design scene, including Dakota Jackson and Ron Seff. Although we did produce a number of free standing furniture pieces for Dakota, we were typically called upon to create some of his more complex pieces - especially wall units.

The wall unit above is Dakota Jackson. It was made primarily of quarter figured anigre in a high gloss finish. The plinth and accents are Cordovan Mahogany, with the tower being finished in teal lacquer. The rear projection television is custom fitted behind a template, while the pullout trays for audio components can be seen as ghosted images behind the sandblasted glass door.
This is another custom creation for Dakota Jackson; installed in a private residence in Tennessee. The main cabinetry is quartered figured anigre high gloss, while accents are antiqued silver leaf.

This is a detail photo of the vitrine area. The back is concaved with an alternating diamond pattern of quarter figured anigre and charcoal dyed birds eye maple. The glass shelves are cantilevered into the opening through slots that extend to the back of the cabinet. Custom lighting was fitted through special tubes, and I have to credit Mark Logan (Dakota Jackson's right hand man at the time) for constantly staying ahead of the curve by engineering new technologies in advance of fabrication.

In the afternoon of October 19, 1987 I received a telephone call from Joan Meltzer at the Richard Mark showroom.

"Did you hear the news?" she asked.

"What news?"

"The stock market - it crashed. It's down over 500 points."

At the time the news didn't phase me all that much. I wasn't playing the market, so a 22% drop in its value didn't affect me one way or another - or so I thought.

While the feverish momentum of business continued for another couple of years, this was a turning point that would lead to an epic decline. Where we were now working overtime with a staff size of over 20 people, by late 1992 we'd be hanging on with fewer than 5.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 4) - My "Ah-ha" Moment

By the summer of 1983 showrooms in Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia and New York were representing our work. Sales, however, were tight thanks largely to a severe recession that was still in the process of unwinding.

In June 1983 (or possibly 1984) I was in Chicago attending a large contract furniture show called NEOCON - which was an event hosted annually at the Merchandise Mart. This was a mind-boggling experience for a kid from rural Canada, because you have to realize at that time there was no Internet available for the average person to see what was new and happening in the world of design. Whatever you saw could only be found either on television, or in a brochure, newspaper or magazine. Alternatively you could visit showrooms or attend trade shows to see things first hand.

It was during my first NEOCON that I decided to roam the Merchandise Mart to see what else was out there. The Mart (as it's known in Chicago) is a large bunker of a building located on the city's North Side - at the branches of the Chicago River.

Boasting 4 million square feet of floor space this building is so imposing that it even has its own zip code. In the 1980s this space was dedicated primarily to the furniture trade, and some of the finest examples of work on the planet could be found there.

While walking from floor to floor I stumbled upon a high end showroom called Karl Mann, and when I looked through the doors my jaw literally hit the floor. What caught my eye was a presentation of exquisite furniture pieces - on display in an open concept, minimalist space.

At first glance the pieces looked more like sculpture than furniture.

Venturing inside I carefully examined each piece with abject awe.

I was particularly drawn to a lacquered bar cabinet on display.

Measuring 71" high x 30" wide x 22" deep this unusual masterpiece had discrete drawers and hidden compartments, which cleverly concealed its real function.

What I noticed most, however, was that these pieces were of a quality level I had never seen before. The high gloss finish was a perfectly polished automotive paint, and the seamless execution of the mitred corners was absolutely flawless.

While our work was good, I realized that this was taking things to a whole new level.

"This is it" I remember saying to myself.

"This is it."

I soon learned that the person responsible for designing and making these pieces was a New York artist by the name of Dakota Jackson. Dakota was then a rising talent in the Art Furniture movement that emerged in the 1970s, and he soon rose to the top of the scene.

As luck would have it the economic doldrums of the time would soon be dissipated by an economic phenomena known as Reaganomics. The New York market in particular turned white hot, and we were soon presented with abundant opportunities to do custom furniture commissions there.

Within a few years we would also find ourselves collaborating with Dakota Jackson on some of his more complex custom pieces.

The Journey Begins (Pt. 3)

By 1978 my father was busier than ever. His reputation for doing quality work had grown considerably, and his order book was now filled with a variety of custom bars, wall units, and assorted built-in bookcases. He now employed 7 full time and 3 part time employees.

In spite of this he had two serious concerns regarding the business.

First, he was serving a market that was heavily dependent on a large General Motors auto factory located in nearby Oshawa. A strike there some years earlier had illustrated how easily the local market could shut down at a moment's notice.

In addition, he had recently experienced a health scare that made him seriously question whether the business would survive if anything ever happened to him.

These concerns prompted him to develop a line of standardized wall units that could be sold wholesale to Toronto area retailers. I was still attending university as I began to help him develop these products. The resulting collection was heavily Scandinavian in design, thanks largely to an aesthetic that was very much in vogue at the time.

In 1982 the best seller from this collection won a Trillium Award at the Toronto Furniture Show. The photo shown below shows my father (on the left) being presented with this award.

Later that same year a visitor from the U.S. happened to see some of our work, and was impressed enough to recommend us to a friend in Chicago.

This led to our first export sale: to a showroom in the Chicago Merchandise Mart called Charles L. Orr Inc. We soon found our wall units displayed alongside exquisite lines such as Karges, and Cado Royal Systems.

Although I was happy to see us transitioning ever further away from refinishing pianos, I have to admit I felt less than challenged by the inherent simplicity of modular wall unit design.

At this point it was 1983 and I was barely 2 years out of school. I was ambitious, and restless, but couldn't put my finger on what I was looking for.

Little did I know that within a year I would find the inspiration I sought - in Chicago, no less.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Journey Begins (Pt. 2)

For several years Johan worked a fulltime job, while making furniture on a part time basis in his basement workshop. By 1967 it was time to go out on his own, and it was then he founded Wiggers Custom Furniture Ltd.

Johan worked out of the back of a rented barn for the first year, before finding a property where he could build a proper shop in 1968. A picture of the original shop is shown below, and in addition to the building please note the old Ford Econoline van parked on the side.

I remember that van well because 7 years later this was the vehicle I learned to drive - complete with 3-on-the-tree standard transmission.

Unbeknownst to me at the time my license coupled with a strong back meant that I became the designated pick up and delivery guy. This was unfortunate combination for me because there happened to be a market for refinishing upright pianos at the time, and pianos were not a joy to lug in and out of that vehicle.

Oddly enough the original piano dolly from back then is still in use in our shop.

As the business grew my father found himself needing more help, and it was then he hired is first full time employee - a brilliant wood finisher by the name of Art Welton. Art was originally from England, where he learned his trade in the guilds. He was also skilled at tuning pianos, which probably goes a long way to explaining why we got so busy with pianos.

Art quickly earned the nickname "Picasso" for his ability to match stains and toners with exceptional clarity. The photo below shows him finishing components for grandfather clocks.

The next photo was likely taken in the 1970s (based on the hair and groovy sideburns) and shows my father in the background together with his second employee - a machinist by the name of Heinz Federmann.

For the remainder of the 1970s and into the early 1980s the business grew slowly and progressively, with a variety of fine woodworking machines being added along the way including a hydaulic veneer press, veneer guillotine and stitcher, as well as a sliding table saw, edgebander, stroke sander and widebelt sander.

In 1981 I graduated university and decided to "take a year off" by working for my father, before deciding on whether to go back for law school.

I've been here ever since.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Journey Begins (Pt. 1a) - Such Serendipity !!!

Serendipities and weird coincidences seem to happen in my life..

Today it has happened again.

About 1/2 hour ago I received an email from my father, telling me about a website that someone sent him a link to. On this site is a photo of my grandfather's furniture factory in Groenlo. What odd timing that is, considering my post from yesterday.

And, so, on the note of telling the story of my family's history in the furniture making business, I now have some new information to add.

A link to the web page can be found here:

Although the photo caption is written in Dutch, I have translated it here.

(What's especially cool is that the names of most of the people in the photo is included).

For me, this is priceless!

The caption reads as follows (with corrections as provided from my father):

Furniture factory Thesseling-Wiggers. This photo was made in 1947 or 1948. Standing from left to right: 1. Kobus van Rijn, 2. Hr. v.d. Berg, 3. Jan Bennink, 4. Henny Wantia, 5. Herman Wallerbosch, 6. Willem Knuver, 7. Lowie Andringa, 8. Jan Koenders, 9. Hr. Lenssen, 10. Jan v.. Las, 11. Benny te Molder, 12. Hr. ???, 13. Hr. ???. Sitting from left to right: 1. Mrs. Akkerman, 2. Hr. ???, 3. Mrs. Thesseling, 4. Mr. Thesseling, 5. Jan Wiggers, 6. Mrs. Wiggers, 7. Hr. Akkerman (salesman), 8. Hr. Startman. Youngster in the foreground: Franken. Missing from the photo is the bookkeeper: Bennie Harber.

From the collection of: A. Hemeltjen

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Journey Begins (Pt. 1)

To understand the history of furniture making in the Wiggers' family it is important to understand the broader historical context of our ancestry.

Our family's roots can be traced back to the small village of Groenlo, Holland which is located in the eastern part of the Netherlands - close to the German border.

Groen translates as green, and Lo means forest, so Groenlo actually means "green forest".

Centuries ago this village was a fortressed settlement known as Grolle, or Grol. The family name Wiggers is indigenous to the area, and it loosely translates as "one who battles".

Perhaps the most recognized product coming out of Groenlo is the world famous Grolsch beer - which is renouned for its traditional swing-top bottle. The Grolsch brewery was founded in 1615, and was located alongside my grandfather Jan's original workshop.

The photo to the right shows my grandfather's workshop, which has since been designated a protected historical site. He made both furniture and wooden shoes out of this location.

During the Second World War my grandfather was also involved with the Dutch Underground, and amongst other things his shop was used as a secret way station to help smuggle shot down allied pilots and navigators back to England.

Wooden shoe making was originally done by hand. However, in the 1920s with the introduction of electricity to the area, my grandfather played an innovative role in helping invent the first machine to automate the wooden shoe making process. The original machine is shown in the photo to the right.

After the war there was a tremendous period of growth and rebuilding, which fueled demand for furniture. My grandfather then went into partnership to form a furniture company known as Thesseling-Wiggers-Groenlo. By the 1950s he closed this facility to move his family overseas to better opportunities in North America.

The photo shown here is of my father Johan at the age of 19, bearing little more than a suitcase and $40. Being the eldest son, and already trained as a cabinet-maker, he was the first to emigrate to Canada.

His first job was in the crating department of a company making equipment for radar and other microwave communications. In his spare time he made furniture in his basement workshop.

The photo shown here was taken in 1961, and it shows me at the age of 2, as I begin my informal apprenticeship with my father.

This photo shows me with my mother Ann, and my soon-to-be-born brother Richard. (As I notice all the sharp tools around me in the photo I can understand why Fisher-Price came out with their line of toy tools some years later).

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Cracked Jar

Thirty years ago I was young, and inexperienced; to the point of being naive.

But I was also full of energy, and confident that I had (or would have) everything figured out.

(Ah, the arrogance of youth.)

Today I am in a different place.
I am older, and more experienced, yes.
But I lack the energy and exuberance of my youth;
My eyesight has diminished to where I now need glasses;
My battle-scarred hands, once powerful, now lack the dexterity and stamina to keep up with excessive physical demands.
And confidence? Where I was once borderline arrogant and "knew" I had it all figured out, I now question everything I know - or think I know.

Having said all this I admit to have been honestly questioning the validity of starting this blog.

After all, in today's fast moving/high tech/globalized world I am beginning to feel like some kind of antiquated fossil for persevering with a line of work that, on some days, appears destined for the scrapheaps of history.

While ruminating on these thoughts I stumbled upon Paulo Coelho's blog today, and found some inspiration in a story he reposted.

It is called "The Cracked Jar", and I have reposted it below:

An Indian legend tells of a man who carried water to his village every day, in two large jars tied to the ends of a wooden pole, which he balanced on his back.

One of the jars was older than the other, and had some small cracks; every time the man covered the distance to his house, half of the water was lost.

For two years, the man made the same journey. The younger jar was always very proud of its performance, safe in the knowledge that it was up to the mission it had been made for, while the other jar was mortified with shame at only fulfilling half of its allotted task, even though it knew that those cracks were the result of many years hard work.

It was so ashamed that one day, while the man got ready to fetch water from the well, it decided to speak to him: "I want to apologize, but because of the many years of service, you are only able to deliver half of my load, and quench half of the thirst which awaits you at your home."

The man smiled, and said: "When we return, observe carefully the path."
And so it did. And the jar noticed that, on its side, many flowers and plants grew.

"See how nature is more lovely on your side?" commented the man.
"I always knew you were cracked, and decided to make use of this fact. I planted flowers and vegetables, and you have always watered them. I have picked many roses to decorate my house with, I have fed my children with lettuce, cabbage and onions. If you were not as you are, how could I have done that?"

All of us, at some point, grow old and start to acquire other qualities. We can always make the most of each one of these new qualities and obtain a good result.