Saturday, July 24, 2010

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.


  1. Wow! What a powerful story, John. And with some parallels for my own struggles today to keep financial head above waters whilst attending online university.

    Interesting insights into the furniture world. Makes me think a bit, cos my Lori and I have often talked about taking a seriously high end wood-working course as prelude to beginning our own fine furniture business. We both love wood, tools, and design. I can see it's not enough. Some hard business sense is also required.


  2. I've noticed those parallels as well, Russell, especially with regard to trying to sustain one's role as a diligent father throughout.

    As for you and Lori thinking of doing fine furniture work together, hopefully this blog will provide some helpful insight. Part of the reason for explaining my own history with this vocation is to show that what worked in the 1980s or 1990s is not necessarily relevant or applicable today.

    Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!