Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Recap: Tyler Hays of BDDW at ACC's Summer Salon Series

On May 15, the American Craft Council kicked off Season II of its outstanding Summer Salon Series with a talk by Tyler Hays, the man behind the furniture company BDDW.

Tyler's story of how he built his business -- from scratch, through trial-and-error, without major money to make it easy -- was incredibly inspiring to me, especially since we are in the process of taking Greenjeans into its next phase.

Tyler arrived it seems straight from work in tee-shirt and jeans without a shred of pretension or a whiff of arrogance. He told his story as a winding tale, engagingly and organically, and very down to earth. The entire talk is available to listen to online through ACC's website, but I'll recap it here for you.

He started as a painter and morphed into a handyman and later a general contractor with workshop space located in "deep Greenpoint," (a neighborhood in north Brooklyn.) He and his friend and business partner Josh built a recording studio in the shop, where they also lived and worked and spent as much time as possible pursuing their most passionate goal: to "make cool shit." They built beautiful furniture, did interiors, and even restored a barn upstate.

But soon enough they realized one important lesson: that "creativity and profit are like oil and water." They found it impossible to make a living strictly doing art or craft because they could not make enough money to keep up with the cost of living and running their business.

So they started a full-scale construction company. But soon enough (in the late 90s) he realized that wasn't what he really wanted to do. So he quit the construction company and buckled down to figure out the business end of making cool shit.

Being in New York, he turned his attention to the possibilities of real estate. He rented an inexpensive space on Rivington (in the Lower East Side) with aspiration for a showroom, but left the space empty for two years, lacking the means to build it out.

And then he met his first "business investor:" an old house upstate which he bought, renovated, and took out loans against. He used the money to build out the Rivington space and opened his first showroom.

Not long afterwards in September 2001 he found another, more promising space on Crosby Street and shelled out several months worth of rent as a deposit. He also borrowed a large sum from a friend to finance the build-out. Fortunately or unfortunately, only time would tell, this was just a week before 9/11. He said he'd have thrown in the towel if he hadn't already invested so much money in the space, so he dug in his heels and carried on with the construction of his new showroom against all the odds and really wanting to quit.

With the new showroom complete, but the New York economy on the DL, he hired a talented guy to work for him who started getting the company name out there into magazines and other media. Customers weren't really buying, and so Tyler and his crew (now sans Josh) focused on making cool shit together.

Around this time they built one of the most inspiring pieces of furniture I've ever heard of: the Continuous Table. (I wish I had a picture, but I don't. Picture from American Craft Magazine's website, along with many more, right here.) Conceived as a team-building exercise more than anything else, the Continuous Table is like a quilt where everyone in the company, whether skilled at furniture making or not, could contribute a piece: bang in some tabletop, add a leg, etc. They built it from all kinds of materials and scraps, not worrying about it being perfect. The idea is that customers could buy the table by the yard. They could be making and selling the table, well, continuously! So cool.

They built a handmade flashlight. A turntable with wooden ball bearings. A handmade lightbulb. Not for sale, just for the love of exploring materials and how things work. And then they got into casting, and built a bronze foundry upstate. All the while, the furniture business was slowly growing.

And then suddenly, the business took off. He doesn't know exactly why, but as if overnight they had more orders coming in than they could handle.

Concerned about maintaining quality, he tapped into the old economics lesson of supply-and-demand and raised the prices to slow down the orders. But with the higher prices came even MORE orders. He had opened the Crosby Street space with the intention of making fine handmade furniture for average income people. But what was happening is that only expensive work was selling. And he could no longer afford to build the more moderately priced furniture.

Two questions dogged him as his business grew: 1) how could he maintain high standards of craftsmanship with orders flowing in and 50 people working in the shop; and 2) how could he pay his employees (and himself) a sufficient wage so they could afford to live in New York City?

The answer to the first question was automation. He needed to reconcile his obsession with making everything perfectly by hand and start relying more on machines to do rote work, focusing the handwork on the finishing details, "putting the craft where it matters." I liked his point that automation can be a good thing for craftsmen, because it keeps the hands from wearing out and can even produce tighter results. Besides, when cutting the same piece over and over it's no longer about craft, it's about automation anyway. So why not use machines when they can do a better job and keep your hands alive?

The answer to the second question was Philadelphia. He had been moving his workshop all over the place, outgrowing a new location before even getting all the machinery installed. And so finally he found a huge space (120,000 sq ft!) in Philly where he could have as much space as he wanted for dramatically less money that he'd pay in New York. Now he could afford to pay his employees a living wage, because the cost of living was less. And he could sufficiently pay himself too. And that is where he's at today.

Throughout his talk, Tyler emphasized that his showroom is the thing that drives much of the company's sales. At the end of his talk, someone asked how it is that he manages to sell so much. Tyler replied that he doesn't use a press agency for publicity, and only occasionally does trade shows like ICFF. But the biggest exposure comes through his showroom. That's where customers, interior designers, architects, and the like find his work. Right on street level, open all week.

As for how he manages his pricing, he told a story about how years ago his car broke down and he couldn't afford to pay his mechanic the $1200 at $80/hour to fix it. But he did realize that he should be making that kind of money too. And this is partly what drove his decision to raise his prices. It also explains why he no longer does custom work, because he just cannot charge enough to make it pay.

I liked Tyler's idea that his work is more about creating a language than making "an important object." I like the sense of creating work that all relates together without necessarily matching. I think we are evolving a similar idea at Greenjeans: creating a collection of works that all relate through this certain language, rather than looking similar in a superficial way.

I also liked Tyler's emphasis on using domestic wood -- why import exotic wood when maple, cherry, walnut, oak, etc. are so beautiful and durable?

Overall, I found Tyler's talk inspiring because his success is the result of sticking to his guns through many false starts and big risks, and because he has been able to maintain his integrity without blindly adhering to a set of staunch values that may not translate into good business sense. His work is guaranteed for life, and he takes pride in its essential craft, without being overpowered by the romance of the virtue of handmade and the corrupting potential of business success.

Kudos to the ACC for kicking of the Salon Series with such a great presenter, and for having the courage to invite someone in who challenges traditional ideas about craft. Again, you can hear the whole talk online right here.

Posted by Amy Shaw for Greenjeans.
Photos from BDDW sourced here.


Anonymous said...

Amy - Thank you so much for attending the talk and for recapping it so eloquently on your blog! I found him extremely inspiring and honest and hope that some of our audience (and online listeners) did too.

Look for more great talks in our upcoming Summer in the City Salon Series - next one is July 24th with Bruce Metcalf & Chanel Kennebrew.

- Monica Hampton, Director of Education, American Craft Council

Katie said...

You were talking about people moving away from using the word "craft" towards using the word "design" more when I was last in your shop. I've been thinking about the similarities and differences since you said that. Using your hands, your mind, your vision (literal and philosophical) and your art all combine to make great and unique arts, crafts and designs. I guess they each have a slight different emphasis but it sounds to me like this guy combines them all very nicely. And here's to people and art that bursts out of categories anyway.

Andrew Wagner said...

Hello all...thanks for writing about this Amy. I've been thinking about everything Tyler had to say to and it really was amazingly inspiring - in particular, the "Continuous Table" that you mention. Incredible! Just wanted to let you all know that there are picture of the "Continuous Table" up on our site (just have to click through the many images we posted and look at the captions and you should be able to find it), along with the whole pod-cast - which I highly recommend checking out:

Alright, that's it for now...

- Andrew Wagner

baba's second design said...

I had no idea that this was the story behind that fantastic company. Sometimes you make up your own narrative and it often does not include the touching details that connect us all as humans. Thanks so much for sharing your experience at the talk - it's quite inspiring as I've been thinking about the ingredients I use in making my products. Thank you!