Editor: Here in Part 5, Accidental Designer gets a taste of the Big Time with a little help from Hollywood; pisses off several hundred propmasters; and finds himself faced with a serious production challenge.
Tradeshows are expensive to get into, but they can be an important part of growing your furniture business. You never know who's going to walk into your booth and change your life.
I'd started selling my tall, padded folding chairs at movie industry trade shows, and there would be a line leading to my booth. The chairs were apparently perfect for Hollywood sets. The orders were still individually small, five chairs here, ten chairs there, some orders as small as one. But I didn't care how small they were and I'd still deliver the units myself. In fact, I'd stopped driving the Ford Ranger pickup and bought a used 15-passenger van from a Korean church; I'd ripped out all of the seats to turn it into a cargo van.
Anyways, one of the people that came into my booth was a makeup artist with a small order. I delivered the three chairs myself to the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood.
Well, turns out that person was one of three makeup artists for The Drew Carey Show. This was the '90s, and the peak of that show's success. And I found myself hauling those chairs onto that set.
I'm setting one of them up, and who should walk past but Drew Carey himself.
"Hey," he says, pointing at the chair, "whatcha got there?"
I told him that I designed, built and sold these chairs, and started pointing out the various features. Drew seemed interested. "You mind if I—" he gestured, then sat down in the chair himself to try it out. He wriggled around a bit to get comfortable.
"These are so cool!" he exclaimed. He jumped up out of the chair. "Give me one of these for everybody on the set!" He then hustled off to do something else.
I looked around, trying to figure out how many people were on this set. I'm naively thinking it's a couple dozen, and I'm standing there counting people with my fingers when one of Drew's headset-wearing assistants hustles over to me with a clipboard. She places an order with me for 120 chairs.
That was my first big order, and it just kept on from there. People in Hollywood talk to each other, they have co-workers, friends, significant others that work on sets of other shows. Guest stars came onto Drew's show, sat in the chair, then carried news of it back to their own set. Word of the chair began to spread from set to set and big orders starting coming in.
Now at this point I'd quit repairing boats, because after 12 years of it I'd grown tired of climbing in and out of bilges. But even with my full attention and the guys I now had working for me, there was no way I could meet the current orders. So I had to go next-level.
I incorporated and became professional. I borrowed money from a leasing company to buy used production equipment and started figuring out how to mass-produce these things.
And I did—for the next several years! In addition to selling the chairs, John Coffee had turned me on to a great business: Rentals. Hip Hop videos were big business at the time, and they had enormous rental budgets and could afford to pay $200 per chair rental. We made thousands of dollars renting out 50 chairs for a weekend, and because I'd designed these things to be heavy-duty, they could withstand the abuse of heavy use each weekend and still remain fit for rental to the next crew.
Between John's sound equipment and my chairs, we didn't need to go out and beat the bushes anymore, we had production companies coming to us.
Everybody loved these chairs, except for one group of people that absolutely hated them: The Propmasters. These are the union guys that actually had to load and unload the trucks, move the chairs from location to location, set them up and break them down. The chairs were too goddamn heavy, they said. We're talking 35 pounds per chair, versus seven or eight pounds for the cheapie folding director's chairs they were used to hauling before I'd hit the market.
Another class of people that wasn't crazy about the chairs were the production company accountants. As the '90s wore on the budgets started to get smaller, and they didn't want to spend $200 per chair rental when the standard director's chair rented for just $30; but the talent always insisted on my chairs, so they had to spend the money.
So I had both propmasters and bean-counters calling me up and complaining. Couldn't I design a chair that was just as comfortable, but lighter? Could I design a chair that was cheaper to rent?
Not making them out of oak, I couldn't, and I wasn't willing to skimp on quality.
So I ignored them—until I foolishly signed up to have a booth at the annual Propmasters' Union picnic. Imagine 400 drunk union guys milling around, then they figure out that you're the guy who makes these heavy-ass chairs they have to haul around, and they start lining up at your booth. Not to buy, but to curse you out! Maybe some of you designers have dealt with unhappy customers. Have you ever dealt with 100 in a row that had a couple of beers in them and looked like they could tear you in half? Not pleasant!
They were full of suggestions: Make them lighter. Use this wood, use that wood. Make them out of carbon fiber. (As you can see, these guys didn't deal with the budgets.) Make them with wheels on them. Make them stack and with wheels on them so that they're easier to move. And on and on.
This harrowing experience aside, the final nail in the coffin was that my orders started drying up. It got to the point where I knew I was going to have to do something about it, or I'd shortly be losing money. So I went back to the drawing board to experiment with lighter woods.
I tried pine, I tried alder, cedar, poplar. I tried fiberglass and I even tried the carbon fiber. I spent hundreds of hours going through dozens of iterations for each part, to see how I could make the chair just as strong using any of these lighter materials. But I simply couldn't get good results. The lighter versions would break, the synthetics were too expensive, and if I beefed up the components too much to make them strong, they wound up being just as heavy as the oak, thus defeating the whole purpose. I was stumped.
One day I was griping about the problem to a woodworker buddy when he suggested bamboo. It was used primarily as flooring at the time, and no one I knew had any experience with it; but it was rumored to be stronger than oak, yet lighter. I reasoned that if I could glue up some laminated bamboo and machine it into the chair components I needed, I could get the strength and the light weight.
Working with bamboo has a learning curve all its own, but I set about mastering it with the same determination that had led me to solve complicated problems in the shipyards. (And the same determination that had me lucky enough to marry that beautiful fine-brush painter I'd met at the craft fairs—she shot me down plenty of times, but I eventually got her number, then we started dating, and now we were married.) So I kept at it, and at it, and at it.
It took months. But finally, one day, I had finished a successful version of the bamboo chair. I was so obsessed with finishing it that I had had total tunnel vision during the process. God bless my wife for all the meals she cooked during that process, all the times she neglected to bring up that I'd forgotten to take out the trash. The day had finally arrived, and I still remember tightening that last bolt and pulling the chair off of the workbench.
I set it down, picked it back up. It was light.
I sat in it. It was comfortable.
I folded and unfolded it. It worked flawlessly.
Now I just had to figure out how to mass-produce it. This last version had taken me hundreds of hours to complete and I needed to get it down to mere hours, or at least days.
So, I spent more time trying to figure out a faster way to produce it. But after many more months, I couldn't get the production time down to less than one month per chair. And during all of this development time, the orders for the oak chair had been steadily drying up, my profits had disappeared and now I was dipping into my savings.
In desperation, I put this bamboo "one-month chair," as I now thought of it, on the market to see if I could get any bites. Maybe I'd get lucky again. But in order to recoup the costs it needed to retail for $2,000 per chair. So as you can imagine, I got not a single order. I didn't sell a single one.
I remember being down in the basement tinkering with yet another iteration and failing to achieve the reduced production time, and having the distinct feeling that this chair had beaten me. I knew that I was going to have to go back to the craft fairs with something more consumer-level just to make a little money. I was depressed and I called upstairs to my wife, asking if there were any of her awesome sandwiches left in the 'fridge.
If I haven't already mentioned it, my wife is a remarkable woman. In addition being a mean cook she's a painter, not a designer. And ironically, after all this tinkering I'd done, it was what my wife yelled back down the stairs that changed everything.
All specific names, companies, clients, designers, and details will be kept anonymous to protect the innocent. You needn't write the story out; a Core77 Editor will interview you to produce a write-up (and to be sure you ain't pulling the wool over our eyes to win that sweet gift certificate!).