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7 furniture makers on the business challenges of their craft

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Owners and designers talk about the difficulties of making furniture today

Inside the Brush Factory studio in Cincinnati.
Brush Factory

Earlier this month, furniture company Greycork, a direct-to-consumer startup seeking to revolutionize the industry, announced that it was winding down operations, citing the challenges of making high-quality, affordable, and accessible furniture.

In his letter to customers, one of Greycork’s co-founders, John Humphrey, said the company just couldn’t figure out how to make pieces that offered "revolutionary quality at a revolutionary price."

Humphrey and his colleagues learned a tough lesson that all craftspeople and designers who decide to make and sell their own furniture eventually learn: The business can be brutal.

While the U.S. furniture market is worth $96.4 billion dollars annually, breaking even in a world filled with low-cost competitors, small margins, and changing trends (and a shifting retail marketplace) becomes quite difficult when you’re not a Big Box store, or a certain Swedish behemoth.

What’s the reality of running a small furniture business in 2017? As a coda to Curbed’s Furniture Week, we asked seven designers and owners to discuss the realities and challenges of startup and small-scale furniture manufacturing.

Despite coming from different sectors of the industry—from a two-person startup focused on handcrafted furniture to a business-to-business firms focused on the commercial market—all the companies share similar stories of market pressures and the difficulty in reaching customers.

table and chairs from Hem
Table and chairs from Hem

Low-cost challenge: going handmade in an Ikea world

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern, a L.A.-based firm that sells customizable sofas online: “China has changed the furniture industry forever. They came in and started shipping product that was below value, then they started training us Americans to believe that you can buy a five-piece sofa collection for $1,299. The materials cost more than that. Now you have bigger companies trying to build product and follow suit, all to meet that price point.”

Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco, American firm that manufactures sustainable seating: “In today’s world, there are very few real manufacturers left. When I first went to Milan [Ed. note: Salone del Mobile is the high-profile annual design fair, once led in dominance by Italian companies], all the companies were manufacturers. Now, they’re all marketing companies. They work with furniture designers, find out what’s appropriate for the market, and then have it designed and sent to a low-cost off-shore manufacturing company.

They produce in large volumes, and when you have large volumes, you have low cost. For a little person to compete against that 800-pound gorilla, which Emeco is not, it’s pretty daunting.”

Paul Vaugoyeau, Hem, Swedish online modern furniture retailer: “Amazon subsidizes shipping. They already won that race. They pay for shipping, which companies like ours just can’t do. When you buy on many sites and then see the shipping cost added for a piece of furniture, it can be a real bummer. If you want to ship from a warehouse in Pennsylvania to Miami or San Francisco, it can end up being 15 percent of the cost of the product.”

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern: “A Gen Xer, they grew up in a house that spent a lot more on a sofa. And that’s the time when if you wanted a fresher look, you would reupholster. Then we had the era of fashion-forward sofas. Pottery Barn was great at creating fashionable sofas at a reasonable price. When you got tired of it, you just got a new sofa.”

Derek Chen, Council Design, a business-to-business American furniture design firm: “We don’t feel like we compete on price. We know we’re expensive. The challenge for us is to reach the right customer. We compete for eyes more than we compete dollar for dollar. We’re selling $1,000 chairs, so if somebody is in the market for a $1,000 chair, they’ll pay $1,005. Ikea is good for the 70-80 percent of the population, and all they need is for people to like it and be able to afford it. We need to be a business where people love us.”

Hillary Petrie, Egg Collective, New York-based furniture design company: “People have come to understand that Ikea represents disposable, and we’re all very conscious today of how much waste is created in the world. It’s our version of sustainability. We’re going to create products that are going to last. Think about the slow food movement; People are interested in the provenance of [their food]. People want to invest in things that last. Think about your grandparents. They have a lot of antiques in their home, and they spent time curating. They held onto things and took care of them, they were investments.”

Inside the Brush Factory studio in Cincinnati, a century-old building that, not coincidentally, once manufactured brushes
Brush Factory

Marketing and branding: standing out in an “ocean of information”

Hayes Shanesy, Brush Factory, a Cincinnati-based furniture maker: “The number one thing we try to push is that our furniture is solid hardwood that you may or may not be able to get in other places. It’s locally harvested from Indiana, just one state over. It’s more an heirloom piece, different from something you’d pick up at a different retailer. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder, but the stuff we make is made to last, no doubt. It’s not made the way old-timers did it a hundred years ago, but it’s damn close. Being a local product goes a long way. People are pretty interested about that at the moment.”

Derek Chen, Council Design: “That’s all our brand is, it’s an idea, a story. That’s absolutely it. We tell our story, and try to make it as concise as possible.”

Paul Vaugoyeau, Hem: “Since we mostly sell online, we need to create a richer online experience. The creative direction of the brand is very important. It’s expensive: we need stylists, photographers, etc. And it’s four-five times more important since we don’t have stores to display our products.”

Hillary Petrie, Egg Collective: “Reaching our clients is always tough, especially when you’re not new. You have to keep people coming back. Sharing our visual story on Instagram is something we use a lot. That’s been a really great tool for us. People want constant stimulation, and our audience is image conscious, so it’s the right outlet to reach people who share the same values and aesthetics.”

Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco: “We’re the small guys battling against an ocean of information, and it’s a daunting task. And all the big box companies like the Targets, Ikeas, and Crate and Barrels, they send people out to Milan and other furniture fairs to look at what’s hot. Even if the little guys have something that’s great and unique, whatever head start they have is diminished pretty quickly. It’s a tough marketplace to operate in.”

Daniel Thomas, FIELD, a Chicago industrial design firm: “Developing a new collection, and all the resources and effort that go with it, attract the press and attention, and get eyes on us. When we go through a slower period , or projects take more time to get to market, people take their attention away from you, and that’s a challenge.”

Paul Vaugoyeau, Hem: “Having partners of co-branding, not necessarily influencers, is smart thinking. It takes more time, but it builds the brand, and brings interesting content to the end consumer, and the people who actually follow Hem.”

Worker inside the BenchMade Modern factory in Los Angeles
BenchMade Modern

Direct-to-Consumer Revolution: Can a new sales model help upstarts grow?

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern: “In general, selling over the internet has become easier and people have become more comfortable with it. But you need to have good-quality product to offer free returns and 100-day guarantees. If you don’t have quality in line with your pricing, you’re going to struggle. That said, this industry could use some freshness. It’s a very stagnant.

If West Elm came to us and said, ‘we want to work with you,’ we couldn’t, because the margin would be too small to let us survive. I’m pretty anti-giant retailer these days. I don’t think you need that kind of footprint to get in front of people.”

Derek Chen, Council Design: “What’s the saying, don’t out-drive your headlights? Furniture companies should start out really knowing their capabilities. It’s a game of survival as much as it is anything else. I came from technology, and in the tech world it was work as fast as you could because it was a race.

Furniture isn’t a race. Take your time. Learn to do it before you’re over-exposed. It isn’t a business that’s going to grow overnight, which is the bad news. But it’s also the good news. There aren’t always competitors knocking at your door. If you have a unique offering, you can take your time and make sure you get it right. Don’t worry about being the first one out of the gate. Be worried about being the one that survives in five years.”

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern: “This is why you see so many brands out there using new ways to reach consumers, like pop-up shops. Some are starting up their own stores; we have out own store in San Francisco. Playing the direct-to-consumer angle has a lot to do with cutting out the retailer.”

Welder at the Emeco factory
Miter saw at the Brush Factory studio
Brush Factory

Scaling up: The unexpected challenges of building on success

Daniel Thomas, FIELD: “We’re niche, so trying to expand our market and reach a broader audience, and not cheapen the product, all while keeping the quality high, is one of our biggest challenges.”

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern: “The factory guys all say it’s easy to manufacture furniture, it’s hard to have customers. Tons of factories come and go; it’s the guy who has orders who’s the winner. Scaling to get customers is a challenge. Big factories don’t want to work with you if you don’t have enough volume, and the price point can be too high with small factories. It’s a real balancing act.”

Derek Chen, Council Design: “Scale is a killer. it’s really hard to achieve the scale you need to succeed. If you’re Herman Miller or Ikea, you can probably make something for a tenth of what it costs me, I imagine. It’s more expensive to make 50 chair bases than 1,000 chair bases.”

Hillary Petrie, Egg Collective: “Design Within Reach took an interest in our work. They offered us a deal where they would manufacture and we would design. It’s a very European model. We learned that you have to have multiple products to make enough royalties to make it full time. We realized the advantages, for many reasons, to design and sell our own work. The bread and butter of what we do is making and selling ourselves.”

Hayes Shanesy, Brush Factory: “Before we launched Brush Factory, we were doing a lot of custom work with retail and restaurant customers and homeowners, so we had a pretty good idea of what the market was, and what people were interested in. We could see what was going on in the office, restaurants, and the retail world, and that was a great primer.”

The Handmade tattoo of Josh Fisher, a craftsman at Emeco

Final thoughts: The outlook for small furniture companies

Edgar Blazona, BenchMade Modern: “Twenty years ago, if we started up, we would have failed instantly. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do this. Look, people have been buying sofas on the internet for years. But now, small brands are better able to compete against big competitors. We can buy Google ads against Crate & Barrel, West Elm, and others, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

It’s exciting—small brands are finally able to get noticed—and it’s one of the reasons you’re seeing this band shift take place. Millennials are pushing away from these old brands that I’ve grown up with. Why buy a Gillette razor and buy a Dollar Shave Club razor?”

Hillary Petrie, Egg Collective: “We need to educate the consumer to understand what is original design, and what’s counterfeit. So many talented designers are being ripped off. We once saw a magazine article where a homeowner pointed to two fake tables based on our designs and said they were Egg Collective pieces. He had no idea they were fake.

What percentage of the population is really invested in knowing these kind of things? I don’t know how you can make this more ubiquitous to consumers. Look at the fashion industry. You used to be able to buy a counterfeit Louis Vuitton purse, but now there’s been a big push to spot fakes and show people what is real.”

Derek Chen, Council Design: “I love furniture design. I’ve done this for 10 years, and I consider that success. I drive a 15-year-old Ford Ranger. I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider me successful. But I have the privilege of being able to make beautiful things, things that I love, and that enough people love and buy to afford to keep the lights on.”