Furniture with a purpose

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Furniture with a purpose
Catering to two markets
Finding the right mix
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Shaun Wilkerson refers to himself as a "flit." He owns a gallery and a custom furniture shop in New Orleans and a second gallery in Houston, and as a result he moves quickly from one location to another, the definition of flit.

"I flit around the country. I'm a migrating bird," Wilkerson said at his Houston gallery, Wilkerson Row. "I'm a migrating woodworker. I've gotten to the point now where I'm an artist; I do commissioned paintings. , I also own a couple galleries and a shop where all this is made. And I also have a couple of other businesses. But when people ask me what I do for a living I just simply tell them I make furniture. If they want to think that I am working in a garage somewhere putting together a little piece, then let them think that."

Wilkerson's repertoire of reclaimed furniture includes beds, tables, chairs, chests, lamps, book shelves; just about anything one would put in a house.

He got his start working for an architectural antique firm selling old doors and shutters in the 1980s. After detecting a growing market for antique mantels to fit grate heaters, most often sold under the brand name Heatalators, his first business was born.

"I just saw a market; people constantly coming in looking for mantels that would fit these new things," said Wilkerson. "What I did was take some of the old mantel designs, expanded them to fit the Heatalators and went into the mantel business."

It was a one-man show as Wilkerson operated Plantation Mantels with a radial arm saw, table saw and some hand tools. He had a national, wholesale clientele — with some retail sales mixed in — then furniture commissions started to happen.

"A lot of people would come in and ask me to build them tables and beds and I started branching off into making furniture," said Wilkerson. "I'm self-taught, trial and error, which can be expensive from time to time. It's been my method and it hasn't failed me yet; not too much anyway."

It's not easy being green
From his early furniture-making days, Wilkerson has been a believer in using reclaimed lumber. It has become the crux of his business and the only problem is maintaining a steady supply of heart pine, cypress and sinker (submerged) cypress.


SHAUN WILKERSON

Owner of:
Wilkerson Row
Gallery/showrooms: New Orleans and Houston
Shop location: New Orleans
Shop size: 3,000 sq. ft.
Employees: 4
Primary product: Reclaimed furniture
Katrina's effect on business: "Katrina was good for my business on many accounts. Everybody who lost their homes lost their furniture and then got insurance money to buy new furniture. It hasn't increased dramatically from pre-Katrina levels but at the same time it hasn't hurt it. I'm getting a lot of customers that are stating, 'I've wanted one of these beds for 10 years. I lost my bed in the storm so now I'm buying this bed from you.' "

"Almost invariably, my reclaimed lumber comes from demolition contractors. Years ago, when I first came into business, I would have to tear it down myself: find demolition sites, make the deal and get the wood. Now I buy so much of it, I have demolition contractors who call me, almost like lumber dealers.

"Someone will call and say they have 5,000 bf of heart pine. I'll inquire about how thick is it, what are the widths, things like that. And last but not least, how much do you want for it?"

Wilkerson also salvages "barge boards," which are basically twice-reclaimed wood. In the 19th century, wooden barges floated down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, carrying some cargo but mostly people. Once the barges reached their destination, wood was off-loaded and sold to builders who used it to skin houses.

"Instead of stud walls they would basically build a 4x4 frame using 4x4s on the vertical and the horizontal," Wilkerson explained. "Then they would skin that with the barge board on an upright basis. This would never pass any sort of inspection in a million years, but then again these houses are 120 years old, so they did just fine."

Barge boards are mostly white pine, fir and poplar; northern woods that were floated down the river. Wilkerson has recovered barge boards from houses built as far back as 1849, including two in Pointe a la Hache, La. They were demolished after Hurricane Katrina, when they fell off of their foundations.

Catering to two markets
Wilkerson's New Orleans' gallery is on Magazine St., and the shop is at a second location within the city. The Houston showroom is in a large strip mall a bit southwest of the central city, not far from the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium. Wilkerson has a gallery director in Houston and gets to both cities at least once every two weeks, which are about 325 miles apart as the crow flies.

"My biggest sellers in New Orleans and Houston are tables. And when I say tables I mean it runs the gamut. Sometimes I'll sell a lot of [tables made with] rustic barge board or heart pine; all different sizes with different bases. Sometimes trestle bases, tapered leg, cabriole leg; that's what I've seen. There is a demand for custom tables in both locations.

"People in Houston have a lot of money and they are willing to spend it. But they want something different. They want people to walk into their house and slam their hand down and say, 'Where did you get that?' This is why I have come up with a new contemporary line."

Wilkerson said he's often asked about Wilkerson Row's longevity, especially since so many other local shops have gone out of business.

"I answer that there are two reasons. First, I'm a woodworker and a lot of other failed shops weren't run by woodworkers. The second reason is that I am a businessman. Running two different locations — actually three locations [including the shop] — requires administrative skills."


Finding the right mix
About a year after Wilkerson opened his New Orleans store in December 1998, he hired his first employee.

"Ever since the early '90s I've maintained three or four employees, sometimes more. Right now I'm quite lucky, I'm quite blessed; I have a good [group] of employees that are giving me no grief at all. The grief that comes from the employees is from my not watching them close and giving them something to do, and then not following up. And then if it's not done right, it's not their fault; it's my fault."

He gives the greatest responsibility to his highest-paid employees.

"When I say a great deal of responsibility, I still do all the spec work. I draw everything out and spec out every piece to every piece of furniture. I don't just say, 'Build me a cabinet.' I'll spec out the sides, the facing, what it is to be made of, what router bits to use and so forth. Once I get into a repetitious situation with them, then I have to say less, I have to spec less. What I found is I have one or two high-paid employees and then one or two low-paid employees that are just workers. Employees are always the biggest obstacle."

Competition in the Magazine St. area of New Orleans was once quite intense. There were a number of folks making furniture; a number of them were making furniture similar to Wilkerson's.

"I stuck to my integrity because most of them were not woodworkers. They were either lawyers who went into the woodworking business or antique dealers who went into the woodworking business. One by one, they all went out of business and I think, personally, the main reason they went out of business was because they weren't woodworkers. A woodworker is going to do woodworking and he is going to continue it. So it was rather competitive and got under my skin for a little while but I stuck with it and now I don't consider many people to be my competitors. Whenever I hear that someone is going into the woodworking business I say, 'Great. I hope you make a million dollars. Call me when you do.' "

Down the road
Wilkerson recently began teaching a creative woodworking class at a middle school in Austin, Texas. The purpose of the class is to explore different ways to build things using reclaimed wood. The first homework assignment was to bring in a piece of wood.

"What we're going to do is take trash — because that's what I do for a living; I literally take stuff that would be in a landfill otherwise — and turn it into art. They're very excited about it and it's cool. It's something that I have wanted to do for quite some time and now I'm happy to be in it."

Wilkerson's primary vocation during the next few years will continue to be working with reclaimed materials.

"I'm hoping that designing and making furniture out of reclaimed wood, thus calling it 'green furniture,' is going to bring me a decent notoriety because frankly very few people are doing it — or they're not doing it to the level or degree that I am. I want to be known for designing furniture with a purpose. That's what I hope will happen."