CWB April 2000

 

Pittsburgh Company Helps Clients Find Solutions

Challenging designs and complex geometries highlight the work of Craig Elias.

By Greg Landgraf

 

Elias Studios builds executive furniture to match its clients, not just their environments.

"I'm not going to change the habits of any employee or executive, but I can learn how to accommodate them and make their lives a little easier," owner Craig Elias says.

For example, the company built one desk to help alleviate a client's clutter problem. The solution: 20 drawers. "We figured that out not because she needed that volume, but because she needed to be able to have a drawer for each project or customer," Elias says. "Otherwise she had separate piles everywhere." While the quantity of drawers was large for a small office, and the number did add a bit to the cost of the piece, Elias says the look and final results were phenomenal.

 

"This desk was for a PR executive, who we needed to give something classy and elegant, but not too feminine," owner Craig Elias says. The 6-foot wide, 32-inch deep desk is built in Macasser ebony veneer with avodire edges and black lacquer over maple legs and features a pencil drawer recessed into the back edge. Photo by David Albrecht.

Finding innovative solutions like that requires extensive understanding of the customer. The approach requires and attracts customers who are comfortable with being a part of the design process. "[Our customers] want to have their own input, they want to be listened to and they want to be appreciated for their ideas," Elias says. He adds that they also appreciate the high-end work and are willing to wait for it.

But customers, even highly creative ones, may find it difficult to articulate their wishes. The company's role, Elias says, is to determine the function of the room and the role of the person working in it, and adapting the furniture to match. This can range from making a conference table able to withstand frequent pounding and scratching to modifying drawer locations so the worker doesn't need to bend or reach behind to open them.

The aesthetics, likewise, need to be considered from the client's standpoint. "You can design something magnificent that they'll just reject for any number of reasons," Elias says. His design process includes spending time in all the areas where a client works to get an idea of tastes and budgets. "More often than not, you'll find that form and function are not separate, that form is an element of the function," Elias says.

Design, he says, is a process of removing the clutter. "I'm not saying that less is more," he says. "This is not a Bauhaus-type of thing. This is, you strip something to its essentials and adorn as necessary."

Ultimately, Elias adds, it comes down to talking to the individuals using the space to learn their needs, even if they might conflict with what the boss wants. "Then the job becomes almost like a mediator -- make a solution that's acceptable to everybody."

Elias began woodworking in his backyard, while also working and attending journalism school in Colorado. He moved to Pittsburgh and started building furniture to fit architects' designs full-time in 1991, when his wife was accepted to graduate school there.

His first "big break" came in a job for a restaurant chain. The work was for a new restaurant in Florida, but the contractors were based in Pittsburgh. "I jumped at it, and it was the biggest mistake I ever made in business," Elias says.

"I hired some people who were not skilled, thinking I could train them," he says. That notion proved incorrect; so much so that the company missed the truck that left for Florida with the rest of the job. Elias wound up delivering the work himself.

"I had other jobs at the same time -- four or five jobs that I was juggling," Elias says. "Everybody was mad at me, everything was late, nothing was good, and I lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,000 that I didn't have." He finished each of the jobs, however, and ultimately the "big break" only caused the company to lose one customer.

Elias says he was ready to shut down the business at that time, but his wife wouldn't let him. Instead, he analyzed the errors and learned from them, a process which has served him well since.

One of the mistakes which has been remedied is having unskilled help. Elias says they made too many mistakes and required him to spend time teaching and reviewing their work, rather than working in the shop himself.

The company now is able to better afford skilled help, Elias says, because he has learned to price work properly and to calculate overhead, a process the company revisits regularly. It also, however, required "coming to the realization that lower hourly wages don't mean lower labor costs," he says.

Skilled, experienced labor is especially needed in his type of work because many pieces have complex geometries and other features that make for challenging problem solving, he says. For example, one display unit needed a method of holding the shelves in place. An employee solved the problem by coming up with the idea of cantilevering the shelves.

Creative problem-solving has evolved into an employee reward system. Once a month, the employees choose the best idea of that month. The company buys lunch for all the employees in honor of that worker.

The company now has four woodworkers, including Elias, plus one part-time receptionist. The shop is also used at no charge by one retired woodworker, who works on his own projects at his leisure. "We learn more by watching him than we could learn in our own lifetimes," Elias says.

Finding enough qualified workers is now Elias' greatest problem. While the company had more than $300,000 in revenues in 1999, Elias says he turned away more work last year than he took in. This year has started the same way.

 

This table was designed for a dining room but is used as a conference table. It is built in pau ferro with solid ebony feet, and the top is torsion-box constructed for rigidity. Photo by Ed Massery.

While the company started by building furniture for other designers, since about 1995, Elias has built exclusively one-of-a-kind furniture of his own design. While entering the design arena was an intentional choice -- Elias says he wanted to stop getting involved in the bidding wars associated with other designers' work -- he began with the hope that the company would be able to market a line of limited-edition furniture.

"We took some of the stronger designs that I had that were easy enough to replicate and that we figured could sell at a national level, and we put together a brochure," Elias explains. With that promotional piece, Elias showed his work at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Overwhelmingly positive comments made at the show and during follow-up calls, however, translated into zero sales.

"Back in Pittsburgh, in the meanwhile, the demand for my one-of-a-kind work shot through the roof," Elias says. He adds that potential clients in the Pittsburgh area recognized his marketing efforts, which at the time also included advertising in Metropolis magazine. "They liked my style, but they wanted something specifically for them. At that point, I was able to hire skilled labor, and haven't looked back," he says.

It has altered the way Elias markets the company, however. He now runs no advertisements and exhibits at very few shows.

Instead, the company gets involved in one big marketing event per year to get people's attention. "All we really have to do is sell two or three jobs out of that and we're set for the year, because our jobs typically involve a lot," Elias says.

Last year's big event was the opening of the company's showroom. The invitation-only reception was a risky proposition: it included catered food, a butler and valet parking at a cost of about $5,000.

"But it took us to another level," Elias says. "We're not showing in other people's showrooms or galleries because we don't have to." The showroom lets customers see the pieces in a clean and quiet environment. In addition, having the showroom in the same building as the shop lets the company demonstrate its ability to keep total quality control over its work.

For this year's big event, Elias Studios will co-sponsor a fundraiser for epilepsy. While many attendees will probably already know about the company, Elias does not expect the name to be overexposed. "It's not going to be crammed down their throats. But when they are looking at US Airways and Mellon Bank and other big names, they'll see Elias Studios as well," he says. The choice of event was an easy one to make, because Elias' son has epilepsy.

The company does have a Web site, www.elias-studios.com, but it's not a tool Elias relies on for extensive publicity. "The Web site was designed to reflect the image of the company and to provide an opportunity for customers and potential customers to review the portfolio at their own leisure," Elias says. That approach allows the site to make extensive use of multimedia software applications, like Shockwave and Flash, which give the site sophisticated animations but also prevent search engines from picking the site up on a keyword search.

The company doesn't need a national marketing presence; about 90 percent of its work stays in the Pittsburgh area. The company does fewer than 20 pieces a year, about half residential and half corporate.

Equipment in the 9,500-square-foot shop is a mix of old and new. The company uses $7 hand veneer saws, a jointer from J.A. Fay and Egan Co. that predates World War II and a bandsaw from Crescent that was built under a 1905 patent. But it also has a Timesavers widebelt sander and a Powermatic table saw, and it uses the Vellum CAD software package from Ashlar.

CNC technology is the one area Elias has no intention of entering. "One of the things that makes the work here successful is the character that is injected into it by the person making it," Elias says. "The more I alienate someone from their labor or the process, the more character I'm taking out of it."

The company has four veneer bags in different sizes from Vacuum Pressing Systems, and makes significant use of veneer. "It allows certain design solutions that are otherwise not obtainable with solid wood," Elias says. He adds that the company uses solid wood as well, when the application is right for it.

Some new customers bristle at the veneer usage, believing veneer to be inherently inferior. To these customers, Elias has to advocate veneer's usage. "I have a pretty good pitch down now, and I can explain to a consumer why [veneer is] beneficial and, while it isn't the right choice for every application, for certain applications it certainly is."

 

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