Furniture makes a Colorful Statement with Aniline Dyes

California furniture designer Benjamin Le turns furniture into art by creating unusual designs with aniline-dyed, inlaid veneer.

Furniture designer Benjamin Le said he began experimenting with aniline dyes because "I like things colorful," -- a sentiment that is readily evident in the brightly colored swirls and patterns which characterize the line produced by his company, AXI Contemporary Furniture in Fullerton, CA. It's a look that has found widespread popularity very quickly, since the company grew from zero to $1.8 million in annual sales in only four years.

Although Le said that he liked to design furniture as a young child, he did not pursue it as a career until four years ago. He owned a retail furniture store in San Diego at that time and began producing a few of his own pieces and putting them on the floor. "I got very good reaction from customers," he said. "So I decided to shut the retail store and go totally into design and manufacture."

In the beginning he did everything himself, designing and building furniture pieces and taking them to specialty furniture retailers to put in their stores. He exhibited at a San Francisco furniture show after only three months in business and received a lot of orders almost immediately, he said. Subsequent exhibits at shows in Miami, High Point and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City brought similar responses and production took off. He moved from his original 1,000-square-foot shop to 10,000 square feet in Anaheim after only two years. Last February, he relocated to a 25,000-square-foot building in Fullerton. He also has a permanent showroom in the Design Center in High Point.

Le said that he thinks his furniture became popular so quickly because it's unique, both in the design and the colors. "I think only one or two people do this type of work in this country," he said. "I try to bring art into furniture. The patterns, the artwork is unique. You don't see much like this. And the colors of the aniline dyes, combined with a polyester resin finish we use, really brings out the beauty of the wood."

Le's 30-piece furniture line consists primarily of tables, case goods and some beds. Most is made from MDF and white birch veneer, with some maple. He uses Sanply veneer from Jacaranda Inc., which is a paper-backed veneer with a layer of aluminum underneath, which helps reduce bubbling, Le said.

He added that he likes the way the birch and maple wood grains stand out with the aniline dye. "I could use exotic woods, but that would make my pieces more expensive and I like to keep the price more affordable," he said. Using veneered panel products also allows him to incorporate design elements he likes -- a lot of curves, circles and angles.

AXI lays up its own veneers, using four shop-built vacuum presses. All components are built in-house, Le added, and he himself determines how each piece is to be constructed. Le said that he had no real formal training in furniture production, but just figures out a way to build his own designs. "I'm not looking at other furniture and how its built and trying to build like it," he said. "I just figure out a way to build my own. So it's a little bit different, but it's not very complicated."

Le said he was drawn to aniline dyes because he wanted colors in his furniture, and it was the only finish that offered him bright, primary colors. He develops all dye colors himself by trial and error. While some are easy to create, others pose problems with fading, he said. "Some colors take three or four steps before I can get to the color I want and keep it from fading when exposed to direct sunlight. I have to mix different chemicals to get the right color." Le said he works with Keystone, his local aniline dye manufacturer, to try different chemicals to reduce fading.

Because of the problems with some of the colors, Le said that he doesn't play around too much with the colors he uses, once they are chosen and perfected. He said he adds only one or two new colors to his designs each year.

The polyester resin finish is applied to the aniline-dyed veneer using a process that was developed by Le. It's a time-

consuming application that is sprayed, poured and sanded in five or six different steps to achieve a high gloss. The resin is made by ABC Industry in Long Island, NY. Le has a special dust-free drying room with bright lights, where tabletops are inspected and air-dried. The entire finishing process can take several days to complete.

For "easy" colors, the aniline dyes are applied to the veneer by sponge. Trickier colors, such as blue and green, have to be sprayed in several layers, with thin coats of lacquer sealer applied in between. Several different brands of HVLP sprayers are used to apply the blue aniline dye, as well as the polyester resin.

Le said that he chooses colors for his designs the way an artist chooses colors to paint a picture. "Some people try to copy my concept," he said. "But they can't really do it, because the way they put colors together is ugly and the design is ugly."

About five percent of AXI's aniline-dyed furniture business is custom work, with the balance in Le's line. However, Le said that each piece AXI produces is hand-made and, therefore, slightly unique.

"For almost every piece of furniture, we draw the design on the veneer, cut out the pattern, stain it and glue it back together. It's like a puzzle," he said. "Sometimes, I also do a real inlay. For example, for one buffet I inlay walnut burl into the white birch. But all the furniture is hand-cut, hand-stained and hand-glued. So no two pieces are exactly alike."

Most of AXI's production area is devoted to finishing, veneer layup and assembly. For construction of the pieces, equipment needs are basic -- table saws and hand routers and sanders. All pieces are hand-sanded between each finish coat and before application of the polyester resin.

Le said that the trickiest part of the construction is gluing the veneer patterns back together after they are stained, because the seams must be very tight. "I have to hire people who have good skills with their hands to cut and glue tightly, because you want the seam to be tight. Most people who see my pieces think that the design is just drawn onto one piece of veneer. But it's cut and inlaid, so it must be very tight."

AXI now has 50 employees, including production workers and office staff. There also are 10 independent sales reps selling the line nationwide. Le said he wants to begin exhibiting his line at foreign shows and expand into the international market. He expects business to keep growing and foresees needing even more manufacturing space eventually. He added that he would like to manufacture furniture for 20 years and then retire.

Although he has enjoyed an unusually rapid growth, Le said that he worked very hard to get his company started. "I started with myself and one helper. I worked 12 or 14 hours a day when I began," he said. "It wasn't easy."

Le added that he signed and numbered his first 100 tables because he did everything himself, from cutting to staining to gluing. Now he concentrates on the design and engineering. But he still signs each piece. "That's one of the things customers like; each piece is hand-made and original," he said. Le also said that he adds an average of three new pieces to his line every three months, as new introductions for the major furniture shows.

The AXI name, which Le said he gets asked about often, was originally suggested by an Indonesian woman who worked for him part-time in the office. "She said that in her country, 'axi' means modern," he said. "I liked it because it's simple."

However, Le added that when asked about the name, he likes to say he chose it order to get people to bless his company. "When someone calls on the phone and we answer 'Axi,' it sounds like a sneeze, so the person calling will say, 'God bless you.' I say that way, my company always has God's blessings."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.