CWB April 2000

 

Huston & Company Furnishes Offices with Simple Elegance

Good proportions, subtle details are the design hallmarks of this New England firm's classic furniture for the executive suite.

By Helen Kuhl

 

Huston & Company built this conference table for a law firm in Portland, ME. It is 22 feet long in figured cherry with an ebony inlay. Owner William Huston says that most of the company's work is in cherry.

 

Everything seems as it should be in the offices, showroom and shop of Huston & Company. Located in Kennebunkport, ME, the firm sits near forests and a stunning coastline that make the beauty of nature hard to ignore. Thus it seems fitting that the company's custom woodwork, built by craftsmen using time-honored methods, emphasizes the wood itself and keeps the designs simple.

"I do all the design work, and I think I have developed a very good sense of proportion and subtle detailing," says owner William Huston. "I have never thought of our furniture as wild or GÇÿknock-your-socks-off.' We refer to it as GÇÿsimple elegance.' The wood itself is a big part of the design."

About half of the company's work is residential and half is commercial, which encompasses corporate offices as well as libraries, which are an important niche market. Most customers are along the East Coast, from Philadelphia on north, with a special focus on the nearby Boston design community.

Although sales of office furnishings account for only about 30 percent of the company's annual total, Huston says that there is a definite market for high-end office furniture. "In corporate environments especially, the look of an individual office or office area is very important as kind of a statement, a corporate image," he says. "Having something made that is unique to the space and the individual is one of the advantages of custom work."

Desks are perhaps the most complex pieces of furniture in an office, carrying with them a need for functionality and, with today's technology, the challenge of wire management. "There are often very specific functional things going on, where we are looking at wiring and data access, and then incorporating that into a good design, so that office furniture does not have to be stodgy and dark," Huston says.

"The challenge is always getting the wires from the desktop to the floor in an aesthetically pleasing way. This has to be incorporated in the initial design," he adds. "But even though desks are full of variables, it doesn't throw us, because we do custom work all of the time."

To keep an attractive look, Huston does internal wire chaseways either in wood or metal so they don't show. However, he makes his own grommets in wood, sometimes in a contrasting species, and uses them as a visual accent.

There also can be a lot of variables in building file cabinets, Huston says. "We made cabinets for a professor at Indiana University to accommodate a massive amount of files. They were lateral files and we made double-deep drawers using 28-inch drawer slides. There was one set of lateral files in back of another. We had to design this structure for an enormous amount of weight. We called it the aircraft carrier because the top was so big."

Credenzas, the third element in most executive offices, are very similar to the residential sideboard, Huston says. "In an office situation, the piece usually incorporates file drawers and storage compartments, either open or behind doors," he says. Recently, as a visual element, he has been designing some credenzas with granite tops. "Especially in a high-end office, that's a real nice combination," he says.

For some of its larger office jobs, Huston & Co. also has built armoires for storage of clothes or supplies, plus auxiliary pieces like occasional tables or seating, or conference tables. Work that the company has done for a Portland, ME, law firm included its law library, which required study tables and end panels for the shelving, plus tables for its reception area.

Commercial jobs also sometimes incorporate reception desks or, in the case of a library, a circulation desk. The company will do that type of project, although Huston says that he tries to stay away from built-ins and installation work. "If a job is so big that it needs to be assembled on-site or fit to walls, we will do 99 percent of it in the shop," he says. "We will design around it to minimize the installation work."

Huston adds that particularly in that type of work, there is a difference between millwork and furniture. "It's just a different way of approaching woodwork," he says. "Our focus is furniture and we build everything as a piece of furniture, whether it is a study table or the main circulation desk. As a result, the circulation desk may be overbuilt, but we would rather be sure it is done to our high furniture standards. By contrast, millwork shops are familiar with building cabinets and boxes, but the furniture will probably be foreign to them. So they will take their millwork techniques and experience and apply that to building the tables."

While millwork is by no means inferior to furniture work, Huston says that he does point out the differences when he is dealing with commercial clients and architects or when he is bidding projects that have a mixture of work. "There are lots of different definitions of woodworking and none of them are right or wrong," he says. "It's just different ways of approaching it. We are building furniture exactly the way it was built 200 years ago -- a different approach from millwork."

Although durability can be more of a concern with office furniture than it is in a residence, Huston says that all of their pieces are built the same way -- built to last.

"Our furniture is freestanding pieces that can stand anywhere in the room. They are all finished on the back with a frame and panel," Huston says. "We use mortise and tenon joinery and hand-cut dovetails, and we do a lot of small details, which are time-consuming."

The focus is on craftsmanship and true custom work. "Every piece is built by one person, start to finish," Huston says. "They select the wood, they do all the joinery, they do all the sanding. They are matching the grain so, for example, on a five-drawer chest they are making sure that each drawer has similar wood or it comes out of the same board."

 

Huston matched the office interior's repeating grid pattern in this solid cherry credenza, which features a granite top and wenge door pulls.

Having started the company in 1988 with just himself, Huston now has four additional employees, and that is the size he wants to maintain. "We made a very conscious decision that this is about the size we want to be. We don't have aspirations of doubling the size or having a showroom in New York," he says. "That's just a personal decision, because on my part I don't like dealing with lots of employees, and I'm not working in the shop as much as I would like even now."

Huston actually started his own business because of his desire to be in a smaller company. After spending two years in an intensive furnituremaking school in Norway as part of a college exchange program, he began his U.S. woodworking career in 1976, working with Thomas Moser when he was just getting started. At that time there were only three people in the Moser workshop, Huston says, and during the 12 years he worked there, it grew to more than 100.

"It was a unique educational experience to grow with a small business and see all the different things that occur and the ramifications of getting bigger," he says. The opportunity helped him develop a lot of important business skills, but he was missing certain aspects of working at a small company.

"In a small company, you have to wear all the hats and you are involved in every aspect, and I missed that," he says. "And I really missed working with individual customers and doing design work for clients."

Being able to work directly with the end-user is one of the things he enjoys most now. He also likes the challenge of doing custom work and having each project be different. The company does publish a catalog which many customers use as a starting point to get ideas, "so we aren't starting from scratch every time," he says.

"For the client and the general public, it's often an education process to help them understand custom work," he adds, "because how many opportunities do you have to have something made just for you? People almost draw a blank sometimes when we tell them that they can have a piece built any way they want. That's one reason we have a catalog, it helps people kind of get a starting point."

The catalog and other pieces of literature showcase the type of work Huston & Co. does and are an important part of the firm's marketing efforts. It has a database of about 5,000 that it uses for periodic mailings. It also sends out the catalog free of charge to people who request it through the company's Web site.

The Web site (www.hustonandcompany.com) is about one year old and, in addition to generating five to 10 requests for catalogs a week, Huston can credit actual jobs to the site.

"We just got an order for $10,000 worth of furniture for a law firm and the client specifically said that it came from his research on the Web," Huston says. "However, when people request a catalog on the site, we ask them to respond to some questions to give us a better idea of what type of client it is. And we also show the range of our prices so that hopefully if they are only looking for a piece of furniture that's under $500, they will not say they want a catalog."

To cultivate relationships with his architect clients, Huston conducts "lunch and learn" sessions in their offices every other month or so. He talks about what Huston & Co. can provide that they cannot find elsewhere and explains how they can add interesting details or design elements to their projects without adding to the cost. Huston brings samples of work or joinery and educates them about their options. "You can just see the light bulbs going on in their heads sometimes," he says.

At one time the company had sales reps in New York, Boston and the Philadelphia area. But they didn't really understand how to sell custom furniture, Huston says. "They liked the idea of having a custom connection where they could say to a customer, GÇÿWe can have that made for you.' But they didn't know how to sell it."

There also was confusion with the "game" of list pricing versus net pricing, he adds. Huston says he prefers to sell direct, with one set price for his work -- one of the valuable lessons learned at Moser.

Also important to the company's marketing and sales is having a showroom and being located in an area that attracts well-heeled summer visitors and residents who will stop by to browse.

Huston started the company in Poland Springs, ME, and moved to his current location in 1995. He had the facility built according to his design, including the showroom and doubling the size of the previous production area. It is about 4,500 square feet, with 3,200 square feet in the shop and storage area, and the rest in showrooms and offices.

Shop equipment includes two Delta Unisaws -- a left-tilt and a right-tilt; a 36-inch Cemco widebelt sander; a 12-inch jointer and 20-inch planer, both Taiwanese; a 10-inch Inca finish planer; a 14-inch bandsaw and a 6-inch edge sander, also from Delta, plus a Griggio slot mortiser.

The one area of production that Huston subcontracts is the finishing. He used to do finishes himself when he was doing an oil and wax finish on residential work, but he says that he doesn't think that finish works for people's lifestyles today. So he switched to using a conversion varnish for everything and has developed a good relationship with a local finisher that works very well, he says.

"This way, I don't have any issues with the fumes, insurance or dust control," he says. "On the flip side, I have less control over my schedule and a little less control over the finished product. But it remains an easy tradeoff, and we have a couple of finishers who know what we want and what we are trying to achieve. It works well."

Annual sales are about $650,000, Huston says. Office jobs tend to involve high-ticket items, such as $5,000 for a desk. And library projects can range from $100,000 to $250,000.

When it comes to pricing, Huston says he is pretty good at estimating how long something will take, and employees also track projects pretty closely. He has a mindset that it is important to make money, he adds, and does not think it's necessary to be content with just "breaking even," simply because he is doing what he enjoys.

"I have always defined a craftsman as someone who not only can do the work extremely well and of very high quality, but also who can do it at a pace and level of efficiency that we can make money at it," he says. "We can build the most beautiful product in the world. But if we can't make money doing it, we won't be around next year to keep making it."

Similarly, he emphasizes to clients that custom work does not have to be unaffordably expensive. "If you are looking at similar quality in a standard (mass-produced) piece and comparing apples to apples, the pricing is going to be amazingly similar," he says.

Huston says that he thinks it is important to keep a mix of residential and commercial work to minimize the feast-or-famine situation that can occur in custom work. He enjoys being able to design new pieces almost continually, he adds, which is an advantage with doing custom. "That's what keeps it interesting," he says. "None of us would be happy making the same five tables week after week."

 

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