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Bright lights, big commissions

Graham Lee Associates of Los Angeles specializes in the Arts and Crafts style for clients who will pay top dollar

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Graham Lee Associates Inc. of South Gate, Calif., is a custom millwork and cabinetry shop established in 1981. It is run by four partners who each have more than 30 years of woodworking experience.

The shop, which has about 20 full-time employees, produces custom interior cabinetry, architectural millwork, furniture and light fixtures for a large clientele throughout the Los Angeles area. A diverse range of design styles are offered, but the company really enjoys working in the vernacular of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Throughout the ’80s, the company thrived on building for corporations, from law offices to accounting firms with clients in Los Angeles and throughout North America. When the economy slumped in the late ’80s, business was scarce.

Now an officer in the corporation, Brian Krueger, who was hired as a shop employee in 1989, is credited with moving the business into the residential sector, which ultimately kept the business alive.

Krueger, who had a background in custom residential woodworking, knew the jobs were out there. He adamantly tried to persuade the owners, who were reluctant to make such a transition. The owners preferred the prompt decision making and professionalism required to meet commercial deadlines, and didn’t want to deal with the lack of urgency in the residential world.

California dreamin’
Krueger was born in Michigan, but grew up wherever his father, a U.S. Marine, was stationed. He moved to Santa Cruz when he was in his early 20s because of its appealing “alternative air,” as he calls it, and got a job at a cabinet shop. “I was fascinated by the work they were doing, and the fact that the employees were having fun,” he says.

For the next six years, he got a firsthand education in traditional cabinetmaking.

“Early on, my boss liked my enthusiasm, so whatever commissions he had for furniture, he would let me build. Eventually that led me to build furniture for other people on the side. It was all influenced by Arts and Craft-style furniture. Building in the Stickley style seemed a great self-education in furniture making as it is so basic, but solid.”

Krueger developed an affinity for the Craftsman style, especially after touring the Gamble House in Pasadena, Calif. Contemporary artisans such as James Krenov and Sam Maloof also got Krueger’s attention with their respect for craft, design and use of wood as a material.

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Krueger eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he entered a four-year interior design program at UCLA, and became an assistant to an interior designer. For three years, Krueger built furniture, drew plans and filed building permits.

“The best thing about it was the education on the business side of things. I learned how to deal with clients.”

But Krueger missed working in a shop and, with degree in hand, was hired as an architectural millwork detailer by Chuck Graham. The fancy title basically meant he converted architectural drawings into shop drawings.

Meanwhile, Graham Lee Associates began to tackle any and all residential commissions it could get, and made its way into the high-end L.A. residential market. At the same time, the company had occasional commercial jobs and also went back into a field owner/founder Chuck Graham had worked in for 20 years — store fixtures, which Krueger describes as an utter rat race.

A new market emerges
All along, Krueger kept producing his own furniture with Chuck Graham’s encouragement. In 1999, he was commissioned to build more than 40 pieces of Greene & Greene-style furniture. Kruger steered the job to Graham Lee Associates. An even larger project followed, providing custom interior furnishings at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., a 175-room hotel that embraces the Arts and Crafts movement.

Then, a high-profile Malibu resident called for what turned out to be a four-year job. Despite the highest bid, the company was selected for its experience and completed a two-story Greene & Greene library, sitting room and bathroom, a Charles Mackintosh-style hallway, and a Stickley-style office suite. Krueger was the go-between with the client and architect, making sure the work was authentic.

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Graham Lee now does about a 60-40 mix of residential and commercial work. Jobs range from whole home millwork and cabinetry packages to corporate offices. Work typically comes through architects and contractors, but Krueger and his partners often deal directly with homeowners. Even in today’s economy, the company stays busy through word of mouth, repeat business and leads from the company’s Web site.

“Our clientele continues to feed us without us having to market too much,” says Krueger. “Usually our jobs are about $200,000 to $300,000 on average. One or two more jobs a year makes a big difference.”
The company is a throwback in terms of how it conducts business. After meeting with the client, Krueger puts pencil to paper and creates a drawing.

Brian Krueger

President of:
Graham Lee
Associates Inc.
Location: South Gate, Calif.
Years in business: 28
Annual gross: $ 1.5 million
Number of employees: 15-20
Size of shop: 21,000 sq. ft.
About: Graham Lee Associates has been applying many years of practice and ability to work that demands quality above all else. The company offers custom architectural millwork services, cabinetry packages, furniture, light fixtures and more to an array of high-end clients in the Los Angeles region.
Quotable: “If we build our product to our standards, we should exceed those of the clients.”

“Clients who seek out our historically-themed work appreciate that we don’t use computers to make our designs. Our goal is to make ourselves more visible for the right audience, to do the kind of work we get paid best for and most enjoy.

“Of course there’s a threshold that you have to cross with high-end clients where they trust you because they’re spending a lot of money. Even if they’ve seen our work and we have good recommendations, there’s a point where, all of a sudden, they get it, they know that we know what we’re doing, and life becomes a whole lot easier. They finally realize we’re going to give them a better project than they ever expected.”

In the shop
The 21,000-sq.-ft. shop is located in an industrial building in a blue-collar section of Los Angeles County.

“So much manufacturing has moved out of Los Angeles and overseas, but our high-end clientele really demand a closer liaison with the work. We can survive by catering to their needs.”

The shop’s machinery includes Oliver table saws, planer, jointer, spindle sander, and table-mounted belt sander, Jet small sander, Sandmaster wide belt sander, and Striebig digital panel saw. The work force features four senior or lead employees — three in the shop and one in the finishing room. They supervise journeymen and the trainees.

Again, Krueger is proud of the shop’s old-school approach. “We bring a level of care to our product that is lost in modern technology. Nothing can take the place of a craftsman’s eyes and hands — his most important tool.

“They know old-fashioned hand-tool work. What’s interesting about our wood shop is most of our workers are Chinese. When Mr. Lee [co-founder Ywart Lee] came here from Burma, he came here as an immigrant. The Communists had invaded Burma and he needed to get out … He’s been helping people get out and come to America ever since.”

Finish work is done by Contempora Wood Finishing, also owned by Graham Lee Associates, and all work is pre-finished prior to installation whenever possible. All types of finishes are offered, including clear and paint-grade lacquers, conversion varnish, paint-grade polyester, and water, oil, and alcohol stains. Custom color matching and mixing is also available.

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Who will take over?
The future of the business is a concern, mainly because the owners are ready to retire. Krueger and Michael Chu have been groomed to replace the owners, but the next line of succession is a work in progress.

“One of the biggest challenges in the whole business is how to make that transition. Who would fill the roles that need to be filled? Chuck slowly turned over the day-to-day running of the business to me through a series of extended absences. Now he works when he’s here as a project manager/detailer/estimator.

“Out in the shop, a similar transition has taken over the last few years as Mr. Lee has stepped aside to let Mike Chu take over. Chuck found a replacement for himself in me, but Mike and I are struggling to find our own understudies.”

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Contact: Graham Lee Associates Inc. 8674 S. Atlantic Ave. South Gate, CA 90280 Tel: 323-581-8203.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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