Success in Manufacturing Home Theaters Is a Team Effort
Fremont Interiors use designers, audio-video consultants and customer input to create the best results.
By Sam Gazdziak
Fremont Interiors Inc. specializes in high-end woodwork; what form that woodwork can take is constantly changing. The Carmel, IN-based company can change from custom furniture to architectural millwork to a reception desk to kitchen cabinets.
“Part of the reason I started my own business is because I wanted to do the things I love do to, and that’s design and build furniture and cabinetry,” says R. Kent Gilchrist, president of the company. “If I had to do only one thing, only build kitchen cabinets and not build the audio-video cabinetry and custom furniture, I don’t think I would enjoy doing it.”
That versatility has paid off nicely for the company. Fremont has developed an expertise in entertainment centers and home theaters, which account for 25 percent of the company’s business. Those projects can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.
Projects that involve home electronics tend to come in two sizes — home theaters and entertainment centers. Home theaters, which are dedicated rooms, can include several rows of seating, multiple speakers and acoustical treatments on the walls and ceiling.
Gilchrist says that when Fremont Interiors is working on home theaters, a collaborative effort leads to the best results. Most customers also have interior designers and audio-video consultants to work with Fremont on the total design. In those cases, Fremont also works as the project manager.
“If the client is a true audiophile who wants the room to achieve a certain degree of sound quality, then the AV consultant is going to make sure that it meets those needs. We, as a cabinetmaker and designer, have to design around those criteria.” He adds that if customers don’t have an AV consultant, he recommends that they hire one.
Interior designers also play a major role in home theater design. Certain colors are more reflective than others and can cause a glare, lessening the picture quality of the TV or movie screen. Designers can help pick colors that will lead to a better viewing experience.
“If the customer is adamant about a color, then the interior designer can make custom window treatments to block out the light, if that’s an issue,” says Joanna Menke, who along with Gilchrist and Amy Adamson, is one of three designers on the staff. If customers do not have an interior designer, one of the three on staff will work with them.
One of Fremont Interiors’ recent home theaters has doors made of olive ash burl veneer center panels with a quartered anigre veneer around the perimeter. Ash trim in the theater and around the screen is stained steel blue. The company specified acoustical panels on the walls of the theater and curved acoustical panels on the ceiling and a granite floor in the lobby. It also built a dry bar and a wine cellar in the lobby. There are two rows of tiered seating, and each row has its own set of speakers. In addition, there are the standard three front-channel speakers, two subwoofers and a 100-inch screen.
All of the electronic equipment is hidden behind one of the wall panels on a touch latch. The equipment is on a rack system that slides out of the wall for easy access. Including all of the electronics and lighting, the total cost of the room is more than $250,000.
Smaller entertainment centers that are made from a wall of cabinets do not have as many critical requirements as home theaters. Still, Fremont Interiors has to ensure that the speaker enclosures are not hurting the sound quality and that the unit has enough ventilation. Gilchrist says that if a unit isn’t properly vented, the heat buildup from the electronic components can bubble the finish or warp the shelves.
Fremont Interiors is not limited to the local area and has done projects throughout Illinois and Indiana and as far away as Florida and the Caribbean. It has been able to expand by customer referrals as well as being active in several associations. Fremont is a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute, National Kitchen & Bath Assn. and the American Society of Interior Designers. Aside from finding supplier partners, membership in these organizations has introduced the company to designers and architects that work on high-end projects.
Fremont Interiors’ nine employees all do multiple jobs. One does all the engineering drawings and is working on the company’s new Web site (www.fremontinteriors.com) and CD-ROM brochure. Production manager Sherry McLucas runs all the Pattern Systems software (Draw Power for drafting, along with AutoCAD, Cut Planner for optimizing and Drill-Mate for tool path setup). She also runs the Weeke Optimat BP 12 CNC machining center from Stiles Machinery.
A full-time finisher does all the finish work, including stains, standard finishes, glazes, crackle and distressing. Fremont uses DeVilbiss and Binks spray guns and Mohawk and Guardsman finishing products. Three journeyman craftsmen do all of the other wood and solid surface machining. They use a Striebig vertical panel saw, a Powermatic table saw and shaper to make hardwood trim and a Brandt edgebander from Stiles Machinery Inc. A typical lead time for complete entertainment centers is eight to 10 weeks, and about 12 weeks for home theaters.
Fremont also uses Salice and Hettich hardware, Knape & Vogt full-extension drawer slides and Conestoga Wood Specialties door and drawer boxes.
Menke says that its staff designers have also spent time working in the shop. “We get hands-on experience building cabinets or tops, so we have an understanding of what it’s like,” she says. “When we meet with the clients, we know what we’re talking about.”
The designers also play a role in educating clients. Gilchrist says he has been working with one client for more than a year, and the company has not cut the first piece of wood on the project yet. (Customers do sign a design and documentation agreement, so Gilchrist is being paid for his time.) Menke says that many customers do not initially understand the cost of a project. Once she explains the whole process, she says that customers understand why a home theater can be a six-figure investment.
“Another misconception concerns the wood species available. A lot of people don’t know anything more than maple, cherry, mahogany or walnut,” says Gilchrist. “They don’t know that olive ash burl or sapele pommele or Japanese tamo ash is out there. They come here and see something unique and different, and then they get excited. They have a better understanding that, yes, it’s expensive, but look at how much more they’re getting. It’s not going to be the same product that their neighbor has.”
Gilchrist adds that Fremont works with several local veneer suppliers, including Speer Veneer and Indiana Architectural Plywood. The latter company also lays up panels for Fremont when there are large quantities or oversized panels.
Gilchrist says he would like to move the shop to a larger space. Fremont is in a 4,000-square-foot building, and he would like to add room for more production and for a larger showroom. But he adds that being in a small space hasn’t hurt his company’s output.
“Our machinery dealers love to bring clients in here who complain that they don’t have enough space to add a machine,” he says. “It’s surprising how efficient we can be with our space. But our plan is to move into a bigger building.”
The company’s ability to do so many types of woodwork has a couple of advantages. Fremont Interiors is able to do whole-house projects, which also helps when the new home market gets soft. Gilchrist says that a project that may have been just a $20,000 wall of cabinetry five years ago becomes a $150,000 project that covers several rooms today.
Fremont is also able to keep work steady year ’round. Even home theaters have a season, explains Menke, especially in Indianapolis, home of the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. “Home theater demand rises around the winter holidays, and they go until May, before Race Day,” she says. “People call and say, ‘I’ve got to have it by Race Day, I’m having a big party.’”
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