Destiny: do we seek our own, or does it find us? In Robin Wade’s case, we believe it’s the latter. This University of Mississippi business major began his entrepreneurial streak as an undergraduate designing and printing t-shirts. After a decade passed he started a venture supplying Macintosh based computer graphics solutions to the imprinted sportswear industry throughout the U.S., training artists across the country to his company’s computer package to improve their illustration and color separation capabilities. Now he owns Robin Wade Furniture and creates one-of-a-kind, nature-focused, sustainably minded, handcrafted hardwood furniture. But how did this computer guru, U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain and Certified BBQ Judge finally come to realize that his calling was crosscutting instead of coding” You’ll just have to read on to find out.
What led you to start your own furniture design business and how long have you been in operation?
Good question. Honestly, designing and building furniture had never entered my mind until I was in the middle of a home remodel project of my childhood home that my dad (who spent his life in architecture) designed and built in 1963. The remodel project seemed to have ignited a creative spark.
I found myself dragging rocks out of the creek to use as a bathroom countertop, kitchen backsplash, hearth, etc. Using local hardwoods (primarily walnut and cherry) for flooring, modern/Asian walnut vertical slats in the bedroom, etc. Using mountain climbing equipment and lines to shuttle down our hillside all the sand, blocks, bricks, roofing, timbers (and reclaimed tennis court light poles for posts), etc., to build a creekside pizza oven and structure (still not quite completed yet). Finding a one man Mississippi quarry operation to cut and shape massive stone pieces for modern outdoor furniture pieces. And laying in my favorite stream in the creek (just below the a-frame) until I had a particular detail worked out.
Thinking back on the process of deciding to become a furniture maker, I think that finding one particular tree in 2006 might have been the pivotal moment. I obtained a 225-year-old tree (that had to come down) that had been providing shade to the parishioners of the St Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Athens, AL. I purchased it, flitch cut it into natural edge slabs, and stacked it to dry. (I have just begun building my first piece of furniture from this log-will be entering it in a local juried arts competition this spring). Something about the idea of finding and creating a second life for this very special tree that had served so honorably – just got me
Well, by the time the remodel project was completed in 2007, 100% committed to my new passion, furniture design and construction. But, my studio was located under the carport and in the side yard.
Your focus is very organic. How did this passion develop and what kinds of pieces and services do you offer?
This direction certainly wasn’t a conscious one. It’s just my personal taste. I think it’s a way to give reverence to nature, to draw attention to nature’s beauty. In almost all instances I prefer nature’s beauty over man’s. I usually lean toward less human impact on our planet. I feel like I’m almost a “reverse artist”. I work diligently minimizing the human impact (mine!) on what’s left of this wonderful tree.
If you notice, most of the legs of my furniture pieces are very simple. I’m working here at not pulling the eye away from the top. The rambling, natural curves of the top are typically the showcase of the organic wonder of the tree. And, if nature has provided a crack in the top (that might have occurred in the drying process), I like to help draw the eye to this vast natural space with very simple joinery.
PLiNTH & CHiNTZ has never profiled a furniture designer with his own business before. Please give our readers a little insight into the multi-step process you go through from conceptualization and design to creation and installation.
Here’s a quote from my website that explains some of it:
Years before the piece is ready to enter the client’s home or gallery, the process begins, naturally, with the tree. Sustainably harvested, these hardwoods are flitch sawn into natural edge lumber, debarked by hand with a draw knife, and stacked to dry – usually for years before the final cure in the kiln. From here, we use both hand and power tools to complete each one of a kind piece. Every part of this process is accomplished at my studio with the exception of the kiln. A friend 30 miles north in Tennessee professionally takes care of this step.
As far as design goes, most of my pieces are designed in 3-D using SketchUp software (free download from Google for PC or Mac). This way there is rarely an unexpected surprise in the completed piece.
What has been your toughest challenge as an entrepreneur? Is being your own boss all that you expected – harder, more rewarding, etc.?
Gosh, kinda hard to sum all this up, Except for a job at Sears in high school, I’ve never worked for anyone. Using my creative juice designing and building furniture is wonderful. I wouldn’t trade anything for it. But an interesting thing about being creative and running my own business, is that there are sooo many additional areas that creativity can seep out if you allow it to. Doing the photography, designing and building the website, regularly posting to the blog, and even the marketing process seems happy to accept any and all creativity I can release.
Because I am so fortunate in that I am doing what I love and am passionate about, there are no negatives. If I didn’t love it, the hours it takes to be successful would be tough. But, I really don’t call it work, most of the time.
What is a typical day like for you?
Most mornings after a cup of coffee and walking the dogs, and feeding my two mallards, I’ll try to get an hour or two of computer work in before I get to the studio. This usually involves posting to my “log blog”, getting caught up on email, working on pics of any new tables in iPhoto and Photoshop. And lately, trying to complete the migration to the new website.
By 8:00am I’m at the studio. It’s only a two-man shop, so working closely with Andrea on each piece is the norm. We might start out the day by working out details of the next piece table. As we go through the day, I try to get a picture of “the process” for the next morning’s blog post. There’s also still a good bit of shop layout do be completed. We have a big dust collector and ducting, just haven’t had time to put it together. Also, have some equipment that needs tweaking. If the weather’s nice we like to get outside to the sawmill. We’ve gotten behind on our sawmill work, and have lots of big (over 48” diameter) logs that need to be flitch sawn. This, like much of this process, is slow.
In the studio, we use draw knives right beside the massive 42” bandsaw. We have hand chisels, along with power chisels. We use angle grinders with carbide heads, as much as we use our shingle froe. Although there are only two of us in the studio, we have two 6,000lb fork lifts (one inside, one out). Much of the equipment/tools is either very small, or very, very large. 20” jointer, 36” widebelt sander leading the pack. Seems like everything in the studio is heavy. Just part of the deal.
By 4:00 pm a few friends stop by for our daily ping-pong game.
By 5:30 I’m usually home for a cool down in the creek (summer) or calm down in the jacuzzi (winter).
Then most nights, after dinner, while Linda’s watching TV, I’m back on the MacBook – maybe to lay out the next design idea in SketchUp or to mask out a background of from the last photos hoot in Photoshop.
What was biggest work-related mistake (in your current business) that you have ever made and how did you deal with it?
Not really too many of these. Tablesaw accident. Walnut sliver almost took my ear lobe off. Investing in Lucent. I know there must be more. I’m guessing I’m blocking out the good ones?
What’s the best advice that you could give someone who is thinking about pursuing a career in furniture design?
Gosh, it’s really simple. If you are fortunate enough to know what it is that you love and are passionate about doing (in a career), do it. Everything else will work itself out. I don’t think it’s possible not to be successful doing what you love. At the same time, you might also find that your definition of success might change.
Now for the lighter side…
What time of day are you most productive and why?
I will never be the most efficient or make furniture the fastest. My most productive will never be able to compete with my neighbor’s (most productive) – more or less masters of efficiency in China. If I can change the question from “most productive” to “most creative”. I’m most creative when I’m not thinking. So, early in the mornings is consistently my most creative/productive time. Next it might be after I’m exhausted, or while laying in the rapids in the creek behind the house.
What’s the last book you read and would you recommend it?
Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Two thumbs up.
What is your favorite comfort food and why?
Pho Tai, the Vietnamese comfort food that I can’t get enough of through the winter. Amazing. Starts with a wonderful beef broth with noodles. Has paper thin (raw) slices of filet mignon on the side, to be cooked in the broth. It’s exquisite, exotic, and it allows me to release a bit of my “creative” chef as I pick and choose which and how much of the condiments (cilantro, basil, sprouts, jalapeno, lime, hoisin, fish sauce, etc, etc) to add.
What the one thing that you wish you knew more about?
Before we wrap it up, Robin asked P&C to mention two of his favorite causes: 1% For The Planet and the Sustainable Furnishings Council. Go check them out. Also, Robin is actively looking to connect and build networks via his blog, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, so if you admire his work and/or want to collaborate, take a moment connect with him, follow his progress, and develop a social networking friendship. It’s a new networking age…