Seattle Furnituremaker Changes Directions, Concentrates on 'The Artist Within'

Four years ago, Terry Johanson switched his focus to develop his own furniture line. Today, his Briarwood collection comprises about 80 percent of total sales.

By Renee Stern

 

Briarwood's entertainment armoire is based on an Art Deco style reflection. The case is Macassar ebony, the doors are figured English sycamore and the base is an ebonized walnut. The interior has a pullout swivel TV shelf, a VCR shelf and a couple of tape storage drawers. The piece features nickel hardware that Johanson produces himself.

Terry Johanson's joy in his work comes more from designing wood furniture than from building it. Now, with 26 years' experience, he is letting his creativity loose.

Tables, cabinets, chairs and other pieces from Johanson's Briarwood Furniture in Redmond, WA, are available through showrooms around the country. Not bad for a career he stumbled into after graduating from high school.

Back then he was Christmas shopping when some inlaid furniture in an antique store caught his eye. Queries about local furniture makers led to an apprenticeship, thanks to another customer who overheard and knew someone in the business.

After five years in that small shop, learning not only woodworking basics but also drafting, sales and the nitty-gritty of running a small business, Johanson struck out on his own.

Along the way he has worked on some large projects, such as supervising a 15-person crew to supply 250 beds, nightstands and other furniture for a 60-unit hotel in Portland, OR, and concentrated on earning a living.

But four years ago he switched directions. He moved a little farther from urban Seattle, set up shop in a barn behind the house and started to listen to the artist within him.

"I had been so absorbed in learning the details that I never took the time for my own personal design interests," Johanson says. "Now, at this stage I am buying higher-grade materials and researching design periods I am interested in.

"I am only doing the work that I want to do at this point and trying to keep the look in the line that I want to produce," he adds.

About 80 percent of his production is his Briarwood line, shown in The Bradbury Collection, Los Angeles; Wroolie & Co., San Francisco; and Barbara Pearlman Design Atelier, Chicago. Customers can also page through his portfolio and place orders online, at www.briarwoodfurniture.com.

"This was my original concept," he says, "a rural location and a national line."

Some of his more popular pieces -- the Nile dining table, African tea table and quartered drum table -- incorporate curvilinear shapes.

Johanson says he strives for a look that is both classic and recognizable as his own. "I am using a fair amount of restraint with my designs so they won't get that trendy look, so that it's timeless," he says.

He focuses on balance and flow, "using materials and designs that work within that flow," he adds.

He prefers to work with such woods as lacewood, figured sycamore, anigre and karelian birch. "And I get a lot of positive feedback on my finishes," he says. "People call me an artist, which surprises me."

In his repertoire are faux finishes such as marble, stone, camelskin, tortoiseshell and parchment. He also incorporates metal pieces, sometimes with plating or etching.

"Putting together these combinations is a selling point," he says.

He prepares about 40 percent of the metal he uses himself and subcontracts the rest. He says he would like to find more subcontractors, to take over more of the furniture production so that he might devote more time to design and to creating prototypes.

"I love art, movement, color and things put together in a flowing way," he says. "Seeing a cohesive room, a cohesive set of colors. I enjoy being involved in interiors and putting them together."

 

A jig guides cuts on the shop's Altendorf sliding table saw.

Johanson, who works with one part-time employee, says he is not certain he wants to add more employees to his operation. "Even though it seems with a four-man crew you will produce four times as much, experience tells us it may be half as much," he says.

Supervising and training workers is a hard-to-quantify cost in both time and money, he adds. "It's hard to track how much time gets lost in communication."

A small shop that focuses on custom work, where every job is different in some way, can find it hard to train employees quickly and smoothly, he also says. But once you get past that point, "Having a trained crew is so advantageous if you are doing any work requiring varied skills and imagination. It is so much less stressful."

Working with design studios and showrooms has helped to streamline sales to some degree. Those orders use a checklist, marking off which item and which finish the customer wants.

Displaying samples in a showroom also helps to spread the word about his work. Designers and showroom managers visit, see Johanson's line and contact him.

"My feeling is, the more you are out there, the more you are seen, and that familiarity is going to breed trust," he says.

With that in mind, he recently began advertising in a handful of national and regional publications, including Seattle Home and Lifestyles, Interior Design and Fine Furniture International. One ad alone drew almost 180 reader inquiry cards; he responds with a combination of postcards and portfolio packages.

Orders that he can attribute to those ads have come in slowly. But he says it is an investment in the future in the same fashion as his Web site.

Online marketing "hasn't caught on yet, but it will," he says. "Once I started doing national ads, I figured I needed it." People who visit his site can peruse his portfolio without having to request a package of photos.

After not quite a year in business, the web site has yet to pull in any orders, but it is catching attention. Johanson says he sends out about five price quotes a month from online queries; this spring, for instance, he took a phone call from someone in Washington, DC, who found the Briarwood site and wanted price information.

But web marketing comes with its own dilemma: how to set prices. Without having to include the overhead required for showroom sales -- including their commission -- he could sell his work for less and still make a profit. Yet lower prices online would put him head-to-head with the showrooms. It's a question he is still wrestling with.

Retail prices for his pieces range from $7,600 for a walnut commode to $13,000 for his Nile dining table and $17,000 for an Art Deco-style armoire. Roughly half his orders come from showrooms, an amount that tips him toward adding more employees to handle the work. Showrooms are a steady and dependable business, he says. A large percentage of the rest of his sales comes from designers.

Showrooms also offer extra help with sales, but the help comes with a price tag. Floor samples and other marketing tools, from price lists and tear sheets to finish samples, add up, Johanson says.

Money is the biggest challenge for a custom woodworking business, he adds. The more money an owner can invest in his shop for tools and training, the more efficiently he can complete jobs, Johanson says. But larger shops can also serve as a resource for equipment that is out of reach for the moment, he says, adding that the cost of turning to outside help can be quite reasonable.

In his own shop, Johanson primarily uses an Altendorf sliding panel saw, a 6-inch Samco stroke sander and a Rockwell bandsaw. He can cut both wood and metal with the bandsaw, giving him enough flexibility so he doesn't have to send all his metalwork out of the shop. The Altendorf is his mainstay for doing large cuts, he says.

A vacuum bag veneer press from Mercury Vacuum Presses is a recent addition that has opened new possibilities. "Being able to do the type of flat and form pressing that the vacuum bag allows me to do saves a lot of time and lets me do stuff I would not attempt otherwise," Johanson says.

With the vacuum bag he can press veneer on curves without needing elaborate forms or molds, a particular help when it comes to curves in more than one direction, he says. The bag also comes in handy for cold-pressing hollow-core panels. The time and energy that would otherwise go to tightening down as many as 20 clamps per piece is better spent on other projects, he adds.

Estimating how long a project will take is a skill Johanson says he still hasn't quite mastered. "That is one of the nice things about doing my line. I know my little table is 27 hours," he says.

New designs, however, are uncharted territory. For bids, he adds 30 percent to his best guess of the amount of time needed.

Even though for most of his career the bulk of his work has come from designers, Johanson says it is important to remember that they aren't the actual clients. Keeping in contact with the buyers is the way to build a steady customer base, through repeat purchases and word of mouth, he says.

 

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