Fireman finds his footing

33_fireman_01Like the contemporary self-styled family of chairs under development, Brian Fireman Design is still on the drawing board. The fledging one-man shop, declared a business five years ago, has actually been evolving for about 10 years.

There was a combination of factors, but Fireman can pinpoint a single incident - skimming pages of a Sam Maloof book - that sold him on one day starting his own woodworking business.

Brian Fireman

Owner of: Brian Fireman Design

Location: Tryon, N.C.

About: Specializes in handcrafted contemporary furniture.

Shop size: 800 sq. ft.

Memberships: The Furniture Society; American Craft Council; Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Quotable: “I’m really not interested in making a dozen of anything, where the designing is all done and all I do is make duplicates. Though it’s not always possible, I like to be at a place where I can be generating new designs — stretching my creativity, doing one-of-a-kind.”

At the time he was getting his master's degree in architecture at Virginia Tech and was fascinated with the writings and creations of builders and woodworkers. His mind was fertile ground for endless projects, but he had no funds to support them. From graduate school, he took a job with an architectural firm and, for two years, he slogged through the rigors of an entry-level position. He hated being pigeonholed, sitting in front of a computer screen all day doing program drawing. He remembered the drafting course he had taken in high school "had a really good feel to it." Back then drawing ideas hit the spot and he had filed it under future career possibilities. But this job was far from what he imagined. He had no opportunity to express his creative thinking and spontaneous ideas.

One day, when the monotony had completely worn him down, he blew the dust off the two-year-old dream and converted his basement into a workshop. He bought a used Felder combination machine, a router, an Oneida dust collector, a Laguna band saw and a few hand tools. Everything, including a workbench he built, was squeezed into a 400-sq.-ft. space. Staying out of the way of his tools was a problem, but harnessing the equipment was an even bigger challenge. Though he had some basic instruction in the fully-equipped shop at Virginia Tech, he was oblivious to the finer points of operation.

"Woodworking is a monster and learning to control my tools so I could use them to create my design was probably the most important part of taming the beast," he says.

Some breaks

Getting his footing and establishing the business came naturally. "When I started out, I was really lucky to gain recognition through some well-known magazines after I displayed at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. I was part of a juried group sponsored by The Furniture Society. I also got on the short list of a few designers and architects and orders started to come in. That was when I felt confident I could do this for a living."

33_fireman_02A client in New Mexico discovered Fireman through his Web site and ordered a dining table and four chairs - a commission worth about $20,000. Another break came when "Handmade in America" invited Fireman to design three tables for its Ramble House Project. The non-profit organization promotes craft and culture for community and economic development in Western North Carolina. It collaborated with Biltmore Farms, a real estate development firm and offshoot of the noted estate, to design and construct an environmentally friendly home that integrates the ideas of builders and artists like Fireman. The showplace residence is a permanent display that exemplifies the beauty and excellence resulting when builders and artists meld their talents.

Recently he has gained representation in the Modern Masters collection of Designlush, a New York City showroom located in the New York Design Center, and the Balance Order Nature showroom in Miami.

34_fireman_03From the beginning, commissioned one-of-a-kind pieces have been his mainstay, but he's also turned out a variety of contemporary tables. With his wife's help, he named them Heron, Elk, Trillium and Sanctuary. The designs were inspired by the wood he chose - usually walnut, maple, cherry - or by an idea that popped out from hundreds of images stockpiled from his extensive travels and life experiences. He took cues from nature, having developed a keen relationship through studying geology and spending a lot of time hiking, camping and roughing it in the wilderness.

Fireman exhibited at four shows and his enterprise began to grow longer legs. For the first two years, however, he worked part-time for an architectural firm to sustain his new venture.

Taking a turn

There was a seismic shift when Fireman and his wife welcomed their first child. The basement workshop and noise-related issues proved unacceptable, so he rented a 1,500-sq.-ft. space. But the overhead was too much, so about two years ago he moved family and business to Tryon, a few miles south of Asheville, N.C. He found a house with a stand-alone 800-sq.-ft. garage that he turned into a shop.

34_fireman_04"Being close to home has advantages. I can accommodate the needs of my family - help my wife and play with my two little girls."

He's settled now, but misses flying away to exotic places like he did about 20 years ago. For five summers, Fireman lived out of his truck and gave kayak tours on the Gauley and New rivers in West Virginia and traveled in the offseason. The first trip was a one-way ticket to India. The journey was totally in keeping with his nature - chancy, flexible, inquisitive. By the time he put away his suitcase, he had crisscrossed the continents, concentrating on South America, Asia and Alaska.

In those five years, Fireman not only satisfied his wanderlust and desire for adventure, but he also learned some lessons, one of which he keeps in mind every day. "A friend reminded me of three important words to keep repeating when riding the river rapids - alert, aware, alive. I used to say it to myself whenever I was in my kayak and now I use it in the shop. On the river, especially when paddling some steep creeks, a moment's lapse in awareness could really mean your life. In the shop, it could likely be a serious accident, but I use the mantra frequently to remind myself to stay present and safe."

35_fireman_05Now he is worlds away from far-flung places and river-riding excitement, but finds his present line of work almost as intriguing. Six days a week he ventures into a whole new realm when he rolls up the garage door, puts on a CD from an eclectic collection - blues, reggae, rock, bluegrass - and centers on expressing himself through his furniture designs. But to fend off that nailed-in-one-place feeling, he schedules at least two shows a year that give him a chance to get away for a new perspective and, at the same time, promote Brian Fireman Design.

Fireman will be exhibiting this spring at the Architectural Digest Home Show in New York City and this fall and summer at the two Southern Highland Craft Guild Shows.

"I like talking face-to-face with prospective clients. Listening to them and discussing my furniture at the shows is the best way to make that connection and seal a relationship ... and, hopefully, a sale."

A way of life

Design, that abstract giant of a term, is a part of his company name and a part of Fireman's being. His thoughts revolve around visual interpretations and he is happiest when he has a new idea on the drawing board. "I'm really not interested in making a dozen of anything, where the designing is all done and all I do is make duplicates. Though it's not always possible, I like to be at a place where I can be generating new designs - stretching my creativity, doing one-of-a-kind."

35_fireman_06And how does he go about designing? "I like to go with my gut and my intuitive sense of proportion. I rely on those universal principles of good design to automatically rise to the surface."

Though his portfolio includes an occasional chest and a small line of ladders, applying his own methods to tables seemed practical and logical. He had created his iconic Heron table as a visual aid while writing his 92-page dissertation for his master's in architecture. The piece - a canted vertical member rising from a tripod base with a cantilevered top - has the look and feel of the stately bird. From almost every angle the cantilevered top suggests the long bill and the support, the curved neck.

Through building the Heron table, he was developing his own how-to course, a detailed instruction guide with insight into the why's behind the how's. The intention was to confront all the unexpected problems of taking raw wood to the finished piece, explain actions and finally apply the same procedure to other projects.

"I wanted to experience all aspects of working with wood in order to anticipate everything. I think that to be truly creative, you have to be well-informed and get inside the whole process. Then you'll feel a deeper joy from discovering and creating. I've always maintained this philosophy, no matter what I was doing. One of my favorite quotes relating to this is from Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet: Let the beauty we love be what we do.

"For me, right now, that's completely giving myself to designing and making furniture."

Branching out

All the lessons Fireman learned in architecture school and through his own analysis will be used in the development of his family of chairs. He wanted to be able to offer an enhanced portfolio, something besides tables, when he presented at the 2009 Architectural Digest Home Design Show. The initial piece he named "Swallowtail." The design idea was drawn from a multitude of mental images. Also helping to inspire ideas was his "Wall of Inspiration," the inside of his door. Tacked to it are several pictures of wood chairs he particularly likes.

35_fireman_07As he constructed "Swallowtail," he kept detailed notes on templates for easy duplication. His practice is to buy new tools as needed. For this project, it was a Festool system consisting of circular saw, mortising attachment, and more.

When "Swallowtail" was assembled, it was sanded smooth as glass and hand-rubbed with four coats of Livos, an environmentally friendly European finish. "It's all about the wood for me. You're giving it a second life and it's important to bring out the natural grain and invite one to touch. Too much finish separates the person from the chair."

The final piece revealed some changes he will make on duplicates. For instance, he feels he used more structural pieces than necessary for strength and he will make the legs a little more slender to give it a lighter, more balanced look.

Designs on the future

Fireman has stayed busy making more chairs and filling a backlog. He has faith that the past will repeat itself and contacts from the show will come in with an order or two. Now 40, he could be satisfied, but he has other plans. Letting his degree in architecture collect dust isn't one of them. Soon he will launch into a demanding two-year registration process so he can operate as an independent architect.

"I'm really excited about doing my first house design. I want to concentrate on environmentally friendly, green plans that use solar, straw bale, that type of thing. It would be a turnkey operation - design, build and furnish. I'd keep my woodworking business intact and design and sculpt-design the furniture myself. I'd subcontract cutting of the basic forms and hand it over to someone else to finish. I'd also introduce my 'secret weapon', my wife, who specializes in fiber art. She'll be doing upholstered seats for some of my chairs."

Fireman will add as many rungs to his ladder as his free spirit sees fit or until it feels right. "I've always done what seems most exciting at the time and whatever makes me happy."

Contact: Brian Fireman Design, 122 Vineyard Rd., Tryon, NC 28782. Tel: 828-712-6660.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.