Amidst the economic doom and gloom, there's a definite bright side for those confident and resilient enough to grasp it: putting out one's own shingle. Various small businesses in virtually every category increase threefold during a recession and it's no different in millwork. Case in point: the Chicago-based, full-service custom furniture and cabinetry studio Ingrain.
Founder Rick Koepke has taken the current downturn as an opportunity to make a name for himself at the ripe old age of 30. And as Koepke knows since starting Ingrain in 2007, lean practices and versatility are his keys to survival.
"I don't ever want Ingrain to be a big business, especially since I specialize in custom fine furniture. I started Ingrain because I wanted to be able to control every part of my process, which would be a character flaw if I were even just a little bigger. But with the type of work I do, I'd never have to hire more than two or three people to work for me."
Owner of: Ingrain
Year established: 2007
Products: Custom furniture and
Shop size: 1,400 sq. ft.
Web site: www.ingrainchicago.com
His sentiments are not without plenty of experience in larger shops, which sometimes wore his perfectionist patience a bit thin.
"It's common for some places to take on more work than they can handle. As a one-man shop, I have to stay within my limits and I avoid mistakes that come with a lack of focus. Of course, shops of every size have their pros and cons, but for me, staying small keeps me as economical with my time as I am with money. And time is money."
This is especially true in an industry where marketing and advertising come largely from word of mouth, and also in a time when many shops have been forced to cut deep into their staff.
Thus, Koepke makes sure Ingrain is as cost-effective as possible at every touch point. His refreshingly no-nonsense view of what being "lean and green" really means puts it into perspective: "Buying just what I need; to me, that's the original 'sustainability.' And what little is left over goes into making something else. Nothing goes to waste and that's not a trend. In fact, the piece I'm working on right now - a birch end table - is all scrap wood."
His deeply ingrained (pun intended) work ethic and devotion to detail are rounded out by his ability to see a piece of furniture in wood others might consider unusable. "I frequently head over to The American Barn Company, a wood salvage shop here in Chicago. I've had some really nice finds there."
A coffee table he completed last winter - a Shaker-influenced, duo-toned hickory and black walnut piece - is mostly salvage, but one would never be able to tell.
As for turning a profit, he goes on to detail the importance of being able to adapt to any assignment:
"Custom fine furniture is my passion, but I also do custom cabinetry and installation. I take on as much of it as I can, because that's where the steady income is. People may not be building new homes right now, but they're remodeling or touching things up. For example, I'm redoing all the trim in a friend's house right now. So someone going into this line of work should be flexible."
Koepke works out of a small, but precisely laid-out 1,400-sq.-ft. shop in Chicago's West Loop. He shares it with a former boss, who he still freelances for on occasion. But, surprisingly, that doesn't mean he's sacrificing any personal workspace preferences.
"I was both a craftsman and shop foreman when I worked here for another company, so I was able to set the space up precisely to my tastes. It's an extremely clean and organized environment; that's the only way I can work."
Drawn to woodworking
So what did it take to get to this point? A little more than a decade of experience. "But not by any of the traditional standards," adds Koepke.
"I didn't grow up with woodworkers in my family. I didn't even take woodshop class in high school. I had no experience working with wood until the second half of college."
In fact, he entered the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design as a painting major. A semester-long project for an elective class during his junior year made him realize his passions needed to be prioritized - and in more ways than one.
"The assignment was to design and build desks for all of the senior interior architecture majors. It was an astounding feat, to create such high-quality furniture in such a short period of time, but I found it satisfying on more levels than painting or drawing."
Finding the strength and beauty in math and measurements felt as equally important as color and proportion. As philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell said at the turn of the 20th century, "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty." So for Koepke, it was about solving a problem or meeting a physical need in the most efficient, yet aesthetically pleasing, way possible.
"The other big draw was the physicality of woodworking and working with the natural beauty of wood. That really set it apart from paint or charcoal as a medium."
Following his graduation in 2001, Koepke did a three-year stint as a landscape designer. He quickly realized sitting behind a desk was the last place he wanted to be.
"I really don't like computers," he says with a grin. "Or sitting in a chair all day."
It seems a veteran woodworker and this relative newcomer might have more in common than meets the eye. But as much as many woodworking forefathers would respect him as a purist, others would blanch at his next move. In his quest to be doing something "more dynamic," he decided to move to a much bigger city.
Being that Chicago lay a mere two hours south of Milwaukee, the choice was a no-brainer. Interestingly enough, Koepke had no set plan other than work construction to stay afloat. But yet again, woodworking found him.
"A few weeks after I'd moved to Chicago, a friend of mine was having some custom cabinetry installed in his house and I went over to oversee the install. Honestly, I didn't know much about cabinetry or installation at that point but, long story short, I ended up doing pretty much all of it myself. Two days later, the company doing the install offered me a job."
One could viably say, at this point, that Koepke didn't choose fine woodworking. It chose him.
Being in tune
Koepke's art school start entrenched the aesthetics of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley. As he harnessed his own talents and began working professionally, he leaned more towards Modernism. But despite his rigorously academic background in the arts, he doesn't get overly caught up in labeling what he does or pinpointing who his biggest influencers are at the moment. "Ingrain is all about adapting to each client. It's not about forcing what I love on them. It's a partnership, and from it, I create something they can't get anywhere else," Koepke explains.
Which is why he's equally emphatic about getting to know his clients and seeing where a piece will go.
Though Koepke gets his fair share of "make this, but smaller," he gets plenty of clients who have only a general idea. "They'll want 'a chair to go there, in this color,' but aside from that, I'll have lots of reign to explore and do something I feel they'll really like, that will work in harmony with the space and their lives."
Currently, green finishes are a hot topic in the woodworking industry and clients who are aware will ask about greener practices.
"It's tough, because lacquer or shellac isn't environmentally friendly, but holds up forever, so there's less refinishing. Then, you have the 'eco-friendly' waterborne finishes, which are more expensive and don't hold up even half as long. So it's up for debate. But I've found some middle ground in the form of tung oil, which comes from the nut of the tung tree [native to southern China, Burma and Vietnam], then mixed with polyurethane. Also, it's not an aerosol spray - you wipe it on. It's an incredibly simple, beautiful solution."
Just build it
Going back to Koepke's "old-school sensibilities," he can't reiterate enough how important his background has been to his creative process.
"There's no computer program that can hold a candle to being able to draw or being able to understand every facet of how something comes together in your head," he says. "Before I set foot in the shop, I know exactly what I'm building. I do detailed drawings and think it all through. So once I get to the studio I don't need the drawing, I just build it. It's also why I don't run into issues with the design during construction."
As for the business half of things, networking is an art form within itself. Making - and keeping - connections is the lifeblood of a small business like Ingrain and something Koepke clearly excels at. It's the adhesive between all the different hats he must wear: businessman, designer and craftsman. And he'll attest to the business half of things being the toughest.
"I've learned a few things from my former bosses, but for the most part it's self-taught - trial and error," he observes.
But the act of woodworking, new ideas and new discoveries make it all worth it, which leads to the topic of tools.
"You could say I'm a tool nerd," Koepke says. "I'm always trying to find something better. For smaller hand tools, I'm currently hooked on the Festool brand. I have their circular saw and miter saw. Expensive, but very worth it. For bigger machinery, I work on a Delta Unisaw. But if money were no object, I'd work on SCMI's machines. Nothing can touch them, as far as I've found."
Branching out on one's own is not for the faint of heart. "This is something you truly have to know you love doing and have confidence in your skill set. It's not for anyone who wants to make a quick buck," he states in his typically grounded manner.
"For what I do, and not yet being established, creating here in Chicago feels right. There's a large group of potential clients who recognize and appreciate good design, love seeking out what's original and have the money for custom furniture. Yet they realize the benefits of giving someone creative freedom and are laid-back - the type of people you can kick back and have a beer with. After all, this is still the Midwest."
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.