For a man who makes his living from wood, it’s no coincidence his business vision comes from his roots. Raised in Wisconsin with a deep love of nature and a respect for American-made products, custom furniture maker and designer Reed LaPlant routinely carries those early lessons and experiences into his business.
Even the business itself, Reed LaPlant Studio, emerged like a new shoot from LaPlant’s early work as an architect – his first foray into a business that combined both design and build. But before it was ever a plan for business, LaPlant’s values of sustainability and artistic interests served a practical purpose.
“As a very poor college kid, I rarely had the money to purchase materials for any projects for the neglected, roach-infested house I rented,” he says. “I made a bookcase from scrap lumber and some old windows I found in an abandoned movie theater in town. The windows had been brought as trash by someone not wanting to go all the way to the town dump.”
He didn’t know then that someday he’d make his living making furniture that, while decidedly more upscale, uses the concepts of sustainability of his youth. LaPlant, 46, says Reed LaPlant Studio uses only U.S.-grown and made materials and minimizes consumption and waste.
“This is not a marketing effort. It’s simply what we’ve been doing since the inception of our business,” LaPlant says. “I think my rural, blue collar, Wisconsin roots have always informed my choices. We also always used what was either found, dismantled, or cultivated on our property. My cousin and I built an A-frame fort cobbled from stashed plywood scraps, firewood, and used nails.”
LaPlant was a manufacturing “locavore” before such a term existed.
“I do feel very strongly about it, and this is my small, quiet way of trying to do something about it,” he says.
Both sides of design and build
Reed LaPlant Studio in Northeast Portland makes custom furniture in a unique way. Much like an architect’s process of designing a custom house for a client, LaPlant emphasizes his consultations with the client to develop furniture that expresses their tastes and best fills their space.
“Having been in architecture for so long, I really like to design for the space, and with a clear picture of the client’s aesthetic sense and lifestyle.”
LaPlant has seamlessly merged both his talents and interest in design and building throughout his diverse career.
“I made my first piece of furniture when I was about 15, under the guidance of the same industrial arts instructor that told me, ‘Kid, you need to be an architect.’ So I’ve probably always strongly associated the two.”
While starting out as an architect, LaPlant built his first pieces of furniture. Now, with a growing business largely focused on manufacturing, he still takes on the occasional architectural job, he says. The two remain intertwined just as they were when he started out.
“And, as many know, architects generally make very little money,” he says. “So I made my first piece of ‘sellable’ furniture out of construction site cast-off’s I accumulated during my design/build years.”
The evolution of a craftsman
Reed LaPlant Studio first opened in Atlanta as a spin-off from LaPlant’s first company, Blue Shoe, which he co-owned with a partner. Blue Shoe combined LaPlant’s design skills with furniture making. The furniture emerged as the strongest plank of the diverse business, he says. Eventually, he set out on his own and opened the studio.
As the Great Recession smothered the country’s economy, LaPlant had already set in motion a move to Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children. It turned out to be fortuitous timing.
“We relocated to Portland right when the economy tanked, so I had to rebuild my local identity anyway,” he says. “I can’t say I necessarily felt it, because I would have experienced it anyway. When you relocate across the country like that it is to be expected. It wasn’t too bad.”
The business grew through its normal fits and starts, with commissions widely fluctuating.
“I’d have four orders one month and 22 the next,” he says.
The ups and downs of commission-based work remains a mystery, he says, though overall the business continues to grow. Seasonal factors come into play, people don’t spend much around tax time, and dining room tables sell better in the fall. But by and large he is content to ride the ebb and flow.
His best month came just as the grip of the recession eased, bringing in “a record-crushing 52 orders” that February.
“It’s like people had been holding on to their money for so long, they just finally let go and it came on like a tidal wave,” he says.
Until recently, LaPlant operated the business himself and would hire craftsman as needed. But as the company grew, he decided to focus his energies where he is best suited: making furniture. He hired an operations manager and a marketing manager so he can be making products “about 90 percent of the time”.
A piece can be made in as few as 15 hours, but most require between 25 and 45 hours.
“I have spent as many as 200 or more hours on a single piece, but that’s pretty rare,” he says.
“Each of these designs arrived in one of those rare moments when calm collides with notion, and pencil and paper happen to be in hand”.
LaPlant noted his first step with a customer is to “invite myself over,” just as he has long done with architectural clients to get to know their tastes, the spaces they want to fill, and how his work can be compliment their lifestyle and style.
“I try to glean a sense of the potential client’s likes and dislikes, and of their personality,” he says.
With business increasingly coming via the website from non-local customers, LaPlant continues this personal touch through electronic connections.
“That’s a bit of a bummer for me, but the rest of the process is the same.”
Because of his growing portfolio, customers will often pick a piece directly from the website, which will still be made by hand and personalized as needed. The process typically takes between eight and 12 weeks. He is surprised that many customers prefer to choose a piece that’s already been made rather than have something personally designed, but believes it affirms the quality of the work.
“Although I love designing new pieces,” he says, “I have come to a point where I appreciate and find great pleasure in work of diminished brain strain and stress levels — work that comes with making pieces with which I am deeply familiar.”
And the greatest satisfaction? When the furniture fills the home of a satisfied customer.
“A client in New York sent an e-mail in which she quoted her husband’s immediate response to their new table,” he says. “He took the lord’s name in vain and dropped the f-bomb in the midst of dubbing the table ‘art.’ My joy and laughter hovered for a long time with that one. I still laugh and smile when I think about it.”
The rise of craft and maker movement
LaPlant is well aware that his long, hard business evolution has brought him into the middle of a dramatic business change. With the rise of the DIY (do-it-yourself) projects and increased demand for artisan craftsmanship, both competition and attention have grown dramatically in just the past couple of years.
The Maker Movement, as it is called, has attracted any number of new budding entrepreneurial craftsmen.
“With so many people able to freely share ideas and spread inspiration across the web, makers are forming communities of their own, and more people around the world are becoming influenced to be makers,” wrote Brit Moran, founder of Brit+Co.
“I firmly believe there is this incredible creative energy that comes with this ‘maker movement,’ he says, “and there are a lot of makers interested in collaboration. And it’s great.”
The online craft selling company Etsy now has more than one million artisan sellers that generate nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue. The potential market for the maker movement and the expansive level of competition are evident.
For LaPlant, it’s emblematic of the pros and cons of any business.
“People are much more broadly aware, if not of the direct economic impact, of the presence and viability of purchasing or commissioning locally. And that’s great,” he says, “However, from the perspective of a father of two and an owner of a business in a notoriously difficult field, the new-coming competition is a little unnerving…that’s the struggle of every business.”
In the end, LaPlant knows he will stay true to his roots, his unique blend of both design and build, and a lifelong commitment to sustainability and to continued artistic work that affords him both a business and an expression of his talent. If LaPlant is anything, it’s rooted.
“I am a devout believer in the notion that everyone deserves, in every way, a crack at earning a living doing what they love,” he says. “I do it, and I wish this experience upon everyone who wants it.”