Saturday, July 24, 2010
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.
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
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.
With certified check in hand I called Richard Mark's president to give him the news.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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.
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.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
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: http://amzn.to/94rXIv
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.
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.
In the isometric view the 3-dimensionality of the design is more apparent.
Hopefully you feel inspired enough to pick up a copy of this book, and see examples of furniture arts and crafts at their finest.
Monday, July 12, 2010
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.
Friday, July 9, 2010
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Sunday, July 4, 2010
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.
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).