Teamwork Puts Cabinet and Furniture Company on E(asy) Street
E-Street Makers works with its customers to develop products that work as well as they look.
By Sam Gazdziak
From the heirlooms of tomorrow to the cafeteria tables of today, E-Street Makers has the capabilities for almost any type of project. In its nearly 10 years of operation, the Anoka, MN-based custom cabinetry, millwork and furniture company has worked on high-end homes and businesses. In fact, David Elvig, president of the company, was a local pioneer in that field, starting with his first company in 1982.
"We really pioneered bringing high-end to the commercial industry," he says. "It was a wide-open market at the time, so I spent a lot of time explaining to people what the difference was between staples and face frames. It caught on fairly well."
That company, Elvig Design, eventually added on a CNC machining shop and grew to more than 100 employees before splitting into two separate companies in 1995. Elvig renamed his side of the business E-Street Makers and re-focused on the custom woodworking side.
The company now employs about 20 people. Elvig says the company's strengths are "product development, assisting with the conceptualizing all the way down the line, and project management. We put a lot of emphasis in our drawings, and we like to think it through before we start cutting boards, both for us and for our client. Our design development services makes it easy for our clients to be involved with custom product."
Commercial successes involve teamwork
Originally, E-Street worked on the firm's Minneapolis offices, and the results were positive enough that it spent last summer working on the firm's New York City offices and will now do work in the Washington, DC, branch.
Elvig calls the New York offices project a true collaborative effort with the architect. They feature English sycamore that was a patch panel pattern. All facets of the job were slip-matched, so the grain showed a strong linear pattern. E-Street also used vat dyes to create large occasional swatches of color in the wall paneling.
The office was supposed to have systems furniture, but Elvig said the furniture the firm purchased did not complement the rest of the space, so E-Street made the furniture as well, carrying over the patch pattern look. Column elements were also added to the furniture pieces to make them blend in with the rest of the decor.
E-Street's designers also collaborated with the firm's employees when planning out their workspaces. "[The firm] didn't want overhead storage," Elvig explains. "We had to integrate all these three-ring binders and other items into the drawer areas and find a way to do it in an effective manner. We sat down with the administrative assistants and programmed in how they wanted their furniture to work."
With all the high-end furniture being designed and fabricated, the firm's cafeteria couldn't have plain plastic laminate tables. E-Street built the tables with an extra-hard core wrapped with Swiss pearwood and hard maple and gave them a polyester finish. These tables stood up to the abuse that cafeteria furniture typically takes; when E-Street returned to the building a year later for touch-ups and small repairs, there wasn't a single cafeteria table that needed work.
Another recent project, a North Star Bank branch in Minneapolis, was another collaborative effort between woodworker and customer. Before E-Street Makers started on it, the bank had rough-sawn cedar siding with a black stain and concrete columns. E-Street worked alongside the architect and owner to come up with the final design.
"The owner and I stood for a couple of hours and watched the clients walk up to the teller line," Elvig says. "A lot of people had briefcases and banged into it, or they had zippers on their coats and beat up the face of it." E-Street Makers made sure to put enough relief under the line so that customers' wouldn't bang into the woodwork constantly.
The teller line was altered from the original woodwork in several other ways. The wickets were angled so that bank workers cannot put photos or plants on top, giving it an overall cleaner and more professional look. Also, at the owner's request, the face of the teller line where the customer stands has a very short lip so that customers can't stand in front of the teller line and sign their checks. "You're supposed to do that elsewhere," Elvig explains. "By good product design, you can alter how people function, and we came up with a really clean space."
E-Street also made the furniture, including desks and workstations, because the bank couldn't find contract furniture that matched its size requirements. That resulted in a better overall look because E-Street was able to match everything. "What we were able to do was take architectural elements and run them all the way through," Elvig says, "from the doors to the casings, teller lines, fixtures and furniture, so that everything is a very tight, cohesive package. It's all flitch-matched, color-matched and detail-matched, and it makes for a very crisp space."
The hands and the heads
The shop currently holds two Altendorf sliding table saws, a Butfering widebelt sander, Brandt edgebander from Stiles Machinery, Hess edge clamp and Vac-U-Press vacuum bag.
The company's skills in project engineering allow it to design custom pieces using both production manufacturing and hand craftsmanship. For example, while working at the insurance firm's offices in New York City, the custom offices were originally not part of the package. "They gave us a budget first of what they could buy systems furniture for," Elvig explains. "We designed around the parameters of the sizes they needed, which was quite a bit larger than what the standard offices were allowing, and we were able to do some value engineering in ways that made manufacturing sense for us."
"A standard manufacturer has to take it to a custom realm in order to hit the size and some of the other parameters," adds Michael Humiston, COO. "Once we redefined what our approach could be to fold in all the requirements that they had, the net result was a 5 percent difference. At that point, it was easy for the customer to say, 'I know what your quality is, I know what I can get [from you].'"
Those same design abilities come in handy for the residential jobs as well. Elvig recalls a client who was having E-Street Makers work on the master bedroom and several other rooms of his house. As they discussed the project, the client also brought up the kitchen, which had been under contract to various architects and woodworkers for two years and still wasn't completed. Within a half-hour, Elvig had laid out the entire kitchen, including an island with a pop-up television built into it. Naturally, that room was added to E-Street's project as well.
To aid its customers, instead of a showroom, E-Street Makers has what Elvig calls the "petting zoo." The walls of the main office are covered with hundreds of veneer samples, and below each veneer are several different samples of stains and finishes. This way, customers can see all the wood species and color options they have without focusing on one or two kitchen cabinet showroom models.
While the North Star Bank and the New York insurance firm are notable exceptions, Elvig says the residential projects tend to be the most collaborative efforts between E-Street, customer and designer/architect. He says it is because the woodworking company is the one most likely to spot problems in the architectural drawings and provide solutions. "The woodworker has become an integral part to that developmental process," he says, "and that's where we put a tremendous amount of time and effort."
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