Family Connection Gives Furniture Designer a Head Start

Two brothers on opposite sides of the country use their individual talents -- one for furniture design, one for woodworking -- to build a successful furniture collection.

By Margie Melaniphy

The old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention," aptly sums up Marc Desplaines' entry into the world of furniture design.

"I desperately needed a dresser and I could not find anything I liked. Finally I drew a picture of what I wanted and my brother, Rich, who is a custom woodworker, built it for me," said Desplaines.

Four short years later, Desplaines' furniture design company, San Francisco-based Antoine Proulx (pronounced like 'true'), has various collections totalling more than 45 pieces, plus an International Contemporary Furniture Fair award for Best Furniture under its belt, which Desplaines won during his first exhibition at the ICFF in 1995. The Antoine Proulx name is a hybrid of Desplaines' great-grandfather's last name and his grandmother's first name (Antoinette).

After building the initial dresser, Rich Desplaines encouraged his brother to continue drawing furniture designs. Although he was busy with his career in the fashion industry, Marc continued to put his ideas down on paper and ended up with about 30 drawings.

"Some friends of mine in interior design helped me edit the number of drawings down to 16. I was lucky to have a brother who could do such a great job building prototypes of those pieces," Marc said.

Marc, who was living in New York City at the time, kept the prototypes in his loft apartment in the Tribeca neighborhood, and for the first year he and Rich were making and selling pieces as opportunities presented themselves. At that time a friend of Marc's, a former furniture designer for Knoll, took an interest in his furniture and introduced him to the owners of several showrooms.

"The following week, the Antoine Proulx collection was taken on as part of the Dennis Miller Associates collection, which is made up of pieces from many different designers and is marketed to eight showrooms across the country," said Marc. "Making that one connection got Antoine Proulx into a lot of places, and after that things started happening very quickly."

The success of Antoine Proulx and the pressure to provide each showroom with sample pieces forced both brothers to focus on working together, and allowed Marc to quit his fashion industry job and move to San Francisco.

The designer/builder relationship between the Desplaines brothers is unique in that Rich is not technically an employee of Antoine Proulx, and actually lives on the opposite side of the country. Rich's company, R & P Custom Woodworking, is located in Rutland, MA, 10 miles from where the Desplaines grew up in Worcester and 3,000 miles from Marc's office in San Francisco. Although the two companies are separate entities, R & P Custom Woodworking does all of the production work for the Antoine Proulx collection.

With the success of the line, Rich has been able to switch his company's focus from custom cabinets and vanities to custom furniture.

"It is something my brother and I always wanted to do, and we were both ready for the change," said Rich. "And it's working out really well. We've been very busy, and we're booked up for the next two or three months with orders to fill. Eventually we'll probably get to the point where we'll become one company and divide everything."

Marc Desplaines refers to his collection of Arts-and-Crafts-inspired furniture as "balanced asymmetry."

Marc said that inspiration for his designs comes from the work of architect Pierre Chareau; Czech cubist Pavel Janák; and surrealist painter René Magritte.

The initial designs -- those that won Marc the ICFF award -- were inspired by the work of Chareau, a French architect living around the turn of the century who espoused the idea of contrasting the warm tones of wood with the cold feel of metal.

"Chareau never made furniture that was duplicated," said Marc. "He used cold-rolled steel with very exotic woods, and he liked to keep the steel very rough and unfinished. People won't accept that kind of roughness in their furniture now, so we have to do a lot to the steel to keep it looking pristine and keep it from rusting. This combination of materials was behind our first 16 pieces."

After the success of the first line, Antoine Proulx's second effort was the Belgium Series, which features a Cubist style and cantilevered planes.

"I went to an exhibition a couple of years ago on Magritte, who was a very popular Belgian artist, and he has one painting called Les marches de l'été, in which the background is a sky of twisted cubes. Our Belgium Series came from that and is based on twisted cubes."

This year, Antoine Proulx will introduce two new lines of furniture.

The Office System will be introduced at the ICFF in May, then featured again at Decorex in June. The interchangeable seven-piece system is designed for the home office.

"This system is for people who really work out of their homes," said Marc. "When you need to make a corner of a room work as a home office, often you can't find anything finished on all four sides, you can't find it in mahogany, anigre, ash, oak, cherry or ebony. It just doesn't exist. You end up with something in steel that looks like it belongs in an office. This system is designed to look and feel like residential furniture while functioning as office furniture."

The second new line this year will be the Czech Series, described by Marc as "an eight-piece collection of tables and case goods inspired by the Czech Cubist movement, which took place in Prague in the early 20th century."

Marc said the Czech Series, which will be introduced at the first Contemporary Furniture Fair in Chicago in October, is a departure from his cold-rolled steel designs. All of the pieces in this line are constructed from the inside out, with screws and invisible supports used on the inside to ensure stability.

"A good 95 percent of the success of the line has been due to the fact that everything leaving my brother's shop is perfect," said Marc. "I don't have to be there to watch over production. He's the one that says, 'I didn't like the way the grains of the veneer looked, so I made another top and I cut up the old one for scrap.' I know that the quality of production is a problem that plagues a lot of small furniture designers and I'm just thankful I don't have to deal with that."

For the Antoine Proulx collection, Rich buys 3Ú4-inch-thick MDF panels already laid up with exotic and domestic veneers including flat cut and figured anigre, mahogany, ash, oak, cherry and the occasional zebrawood. All pieces in the collection are mitered, with splined corners and veneered edges. Solid wood is used as needed in the framing to make each piece sturdy.

Rich has one other part-time employee with him in his 1,500-square-foot shop. Together they produce up to four or five end tables or coffee tables a week, or one larger armoire or dresser a week.

"We put out quite a bit of furniture every month," said Rich. "Usually a 10- to 12-week lead time is given to customers. We're also still making samples of pieces for the showrooms. Little by little we are trying to supply all 12 showrooms we're currently in with at least two or three pieces from each series, so we're looking to get 15 to 20 pieces into each showroom."

Rich's shop includes a 10-inch Grizzly table saw, an 8-inch Powermatic joiner, a 10-inch DeWalt radial arm saw, a 15-inch Powermatic planer, a 14-inch Powermatic bandsaw and a Delta drill press. Most drawer slides are from Hettich, except for the slides in the office system desk, which are from Knape & Vogt. The hinges are from Grass America.

"Perfecting the finish for each piece is the most time-consuming part of production," said Rich. "For example, in making the new dining table in the Czech Series, we cut everything to size, miter all the corners, start assembling and veneer any exposed edges. Then we sand everything with a 150-grit, followed by a 220-grit sandpaper. We hand rub six coats of polyurethane varnish on it, sanding with a 400 or 600 grit between coats, if necessary. After the six coats are finished, we rub it down with steel wool and wax it. It's the attention to detail that makes a difference in furniture collections."

That desire to attend to the details has led Rich to teach himself to do the metalwork and finish the aluminum on the furniture he builds for his brother.

"I used to send the metalwork out, but it's easier for me to do it," said Rich. "To teach myself to do the finishes I bought gun-bluing and plumb-brown barrel finishes used for polishing gun barrels and practiced finishing those."

Rich still contracts out work that requires a black oxidized finish. Because some of the table legs and tops in the collection are aluminum, he also had to learn to finish that.

"A lot of the metalwork, especially the finishing, is a lost art. Everybody wants to powder coat or dip it. The way I do it there's no thickness to the finish, so you can feel and see the steel and it looks very natural. It's very time consuming, but it's worth it."

The effort that both Marc and Rich have put into building the Antoine Proulx collection over the last three or four years has begun to pay off quickly.

"From 1993 to 1994 we doubled our business, and from 1994 to 1995 we had another 60 percent increase in sales," said Marc. "Between 1995 and 1996, business went up more than 70 percent, and we just keep growing. Now we need to focus on getting more samples to our showrooms and making a bigger impact where we already are. Everything happened so quickly, Rich and I are just trying to keep up production and keep having fun working together."

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