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Passion in Pittsburgh

I Design: Bruce Berman is a custom furniture shop in Pittsburgh that’s been in business for more than 40 years, well before the introduction of the iPhone or iPad.

Bruce Berman’s furniture shop draws clients from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — a region he has always called home

“I Design stared as a name in 1975 and it predates Apple. It’s an acronym for both ‘I’ design and industrial design, so it made sense. I have to assume that Apple copied me,” Berman says jokingly.

Berman and his team of four craftsmen serve customers in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, building dining room furniture, home theaters, display cabinets and other products for the home, as well as functional and sculptural pieces for businesses and religious institutions.

It’s been an interesting journey for the Steel City native.

In the beginning

Berman was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in nearby New Castle. He attended Carnegie Mellon University to study physics, but switched majors more than once. He eventually completed his degree in architecture.

“In my last year of school, I supported myself doing fine woodworking,” Berman says. “My father was a mechanical contractor and, from the age of 12 on, every summer and winter I worked for his construction company as a laborer.

“I finished up [school] during the recession in ’74. I supported myself as a designer/contractor because there weren’t many architecture jobs available. At the time it was the biggest recession since the Great Depression. I did this for a span of three years in Pittsburgh and developed a clientele. I enjoyed the fine woodworking more and decided to focus completely on furniture and custom cabinetry.”

I Design does most its work for middle- and upper-class homeowners, though at least a quarter of the commissions come from local businesses and Fortune 500 companies.

“Non-residential projects often present opportunities for some very exciting larger projects,” Berman says. “For many businesses and corporations, the reception area, the conference room and the executive office are areas where the image of the organization is manifested in the design and presentation of the furnishings and the artwork.”

Making a name

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Early on, Berman joined a cooperative shop near the University of Pittsburgh that was initially called the Shop on Semple Street. He had his first gallery show in 1977 and was soon accepted into the Craftsman’s Guild of Pittsburgh and Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, two of the city’s premier craft organizations.

His resume also features exhibitions at the Society for Arts and Crafts, Blue Sky Gallery, Sewickley Academy, South Bank Gallery, Shady Side Academy and Moxie-DaDa Gallery, and at several museums.

The co-op dissolved in 1977, which set the stage for Berman and other contractors to rent the former Duquesne Brewery on the south side of Pittsburgh.

“Many of the factories had closed on the South Side and we were treated like new investors coming in. We were new blood in the area and the locals were happy. We were there for 11 years and that’s where I brought on my first employee. We shared the rent and equipment. By the time I left, I knew what I needed for a shop.”

Berman says he thoroughly enjoyed the co-op experience. “Competition is part of any business,” he says, “but with local woodworkers it’s usually pretty friendly. Some of us worked with a higher-end clientele or had special areas of expertise, but the atmosphere was relaxed and we often shared information.”

A trendsetter

In 1987, Berman moved to Pittsburgh’s Strip District where he and three artists — a weaver, ceramicist and photographer — purchased and remodeled a 13,500-sq.-ft. building.

“We rent out about 40 percent and occupy the rest,” Berman says. “It was a very good deal and it’s all paid off.

“We sort of pioneered the arts business in this area. We were also the first art group on the South Side, where all of the art galleries emerged during the ’80s. We used to get a lot of media attention for that.”

Berman learned to design at the drafting table, but has traded in pencil and paper for computer software. He’s no longer building much furniture, relegated more often to running the business and meeting with customers.

One of his specialties is designing furniture around modern technology. Before off-the-shelf hardware and motors were available, he figured out how to make a television rise from a cabinet or have a bed emerge from a wall unit. Today it’s mostly about accommodating computers, flat-screen TVs and wireless devices.

He’s also known for incorporating veneer, stained glass, metal and other materials into his designs.

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“The local art critics have often referred to our Art Deco-inspired designs as Neo Deco,” Berman says. “But we also do a lot of Art Nouveau-inspired pieces as well as Craftsman variations. A lot of our work is very architectural in form extending to post-modern themes and even some deconstructionist assemblies.”

Berman tries to match the best material with a particular project. The shop goes through quite a bit of figured maple, cherry, quartered oak and walnut, and uses sapele, wenge, bubinga, makore and lacewood to great effect.

If it ain’t broke …

Berman can’t imagine ever leaving Pittsburgh and isn’t particularly interested in expanding the business any further. Four employees is just about right, he says, and referrals continue to generate plenty of orders.

“The galleries, shows and articles always help you put your name out there, but satisfied customers are just as important,” he notes.

“Pittsburgh is a region of great variation. There is a rich cultural community with all of the options that you would find in a large city. A lot of my clientele is often involved in the arts. There are a lot of galleries and events with chances to make contacts with interested patrons.

“For me, the surrounding mountains have been a great venue for my other passion, extreme whitewater kayaking. Western Pennsylvania, western Maryland and northern West Virginia are part of one of the best paddling regions in the world. The cross-country skiing and bicycling are pretty good, too.”

Contact: I Design, 2820 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Tel: 412-471-2525.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.

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