Two Brothers Take a Chance and Start a New Line
Custom woodworker Tom Hobgood and his architect brother Kenneth are following their dream of developing and producing their own line of high-end contemporary furniture.
By Hannah Miller
Longtime custom furniture builder Tom Hobgood of Charlotte, NC, is living the dream of many a woodworker.
Prompted by a shared passion for contemporary design and painstaking craftsmanship, he and his architect brother Kenneth in January launched their own collection, Aequalis Furniture.
Hobgood Furniture Workshop has been one of the area’s better-known custom shops for a dozen years. But in launching your own line, Tom has found, “There’s a lot more blood, sweat and tears. That’s sticking your neck out there.”
He estimates the brothers have spent a quarter of a million dollars in the three years they’ve been planning and starting Aequalis, which means either “equal” or “contemporary,” depending on which Latin translation you use.
Kenneth designs; Tom builds. They are co-owners and are financing the venture from savings. Kenneth lives in Raleigh, 150 miles from Tom’s 7,500-square-foot shop in Charlotte, where Aequalis shares space with a remnant of his custom work. Tom has cut his half-million-dollar custom business by 80 percent and let six of his eight employees go to concentrate on Aequalis.
The brothers had been talking for years about making furniture together, Tom recalls. They felt there was a void in the marketplace they could fill. “There was not a lot of finely built furniture, especially with modern design,” Tom says.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for furniture,” he adds, “and the craftsmanship that goes into it.” He worried that his custom work was headed in a direction he didn’t want to go: quicker and less careful. And both brothers wanted to help keep craftsmanship alive. “We’d like for them (customers) to have a piece to hand down,” Tom says.
Three years ago, he remembers, “I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot. Let’s go for it.’”
Now he and Kenneth keep e-mail busy, transmitting plans and even digital photographs of Aequalis pieces committed first to paper and then to wood.
In January of this year, they introduced their first piece, a 6-foot 4-inch, circular bird’s-eye maple table on steel-spoked, rubber-tired wheels. The highly contemporary piece could be described as “refined industrial,” Tom says. It appeared in an ad that cost them $8,000, including design, in the New York-based design magazine Metropolis.
They expected to receive 25 inquiries about the $24,200 table ($22,800 to architects and designers, which is the market they are targeting). By June, they had received 400 inquiries resulting from the ad, placed a second ad and started a Web site, www.aequalisfurniture.com. By the end of the year, at least 10 more pieces will be completed, a catalogue will be out and other ads will appear, Tom says.
They have had no orders in the early months, but Tom says it may take a year or longer for Aequalis’ name to become known. Architects and designers have to know the furniture is available, so that when they get jobs suited to it they will know where to call, he says.
Both Hobgoods have built a reputation with previous work. Kenneth won the 1997 Kamphoefner Prize from the North Carolina State Architectural Foundation for sustained contribution to modern architecture. Tom, working in both traditional and modern styles, has done work for Bank of America’s suite in Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, Pneumafil’s boardroom, and offices of IBM and Deloitte & Touche, as well as private homes.
They grew up in Smithfield, near Raleigh, NC, separated by seven years but sharing an interest in design and The Three Stooges (who inspired three Aequalis chests, according to the brothers).
Kenneth is 50; Tom, 43. After a cabinetmaking class in high school caught Tom’s interest, he earned a B.A. from Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory and also studied furniture design at Catawba Valley Tech. He worked for several North Carolina furniture manufacturers in sales and product development, then apprenticed to master craftsman David Powell at Leeds Design in East Hampton, MA. Twelve years ago, he moved to Charlotte and set up his own custom shop.
Now, Tom is devoting two-thirds of the shop’s time to Aequalis and one-third to his custom work. The custom work shares overhead costs with Aequalis.
“We are trying to ease into it,” he says. “It gives us a chance to learn as we go.”
When a custom order comes in, he tells himself: “If we do this piece, I’ve got my salaries for a month.” If it can be done in two weeks, “that gives you two weeks to work on prototypes,” he says. “You are always robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The table “Linherr” that started them off ended up taking two years and $40,000 to make. “It took $1,200 just to get the raw wood in here, before we even touched the table,” he says.
He first used regular maple to make the 4-inch circular edge for the tabletop, which was 2-1/4 inches thick. “By the time you cut the radius out, you cut off all the quarter and you were left with just the heart or the cathedral,” he says. “We just hated it and cut it apart.”
He sought quarter-sawn maple instead. “To get a 4-inch edge on a radius, you have to start with a 9-inch piece of wood. It took me a long time to even get anybody to talk to me about 9-inch quarter-sawn maple,” he says. “Finally, we found this guy who would cut trees for us,” at Tech-Wood Inc. in Bethel, PA.
Another problem with Linherr was solved by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in California. Tom sent the table’s wheels there when they failed to support the top; the shop made sturdy spokes and trued them up motorcycle-style.
Tom works with the basic woodworking equipment he has had for some time. “If we were really going to stick our necks out, we would spend half-a-million (on machinery),” he says, but he wants to see what the sales volume will support.
“If it really hits the way we want it to, then we have some hard decisions to make,” he adds. They will have to have computerized equipment, more space and more people. Presently, he rents out part of his shop to a woodworker who used to work for him.
He uses Powermatic and Altendorf table saws, a Rockwell bandsaw, Mercury Vacuum veneer press, Oliver joiner and a lot of hand tools, including Record hand planes. He and one employee do most of the finishing. They don’t stain the Aequalis pieces, preferring a natural look for the fine woods. But they do offer a choice of paint on some. They use conversion varnishes from Sherwin-Williams, spraying them in a DeVilbiss spray booth with Binks, DeVilbiss and Kremlin spray guns.
A fan of Bauhaus and Corbusier, Tom likes the fact that Aequalis’ spare, mostly unadorned surfaces depend for their beauty on “the type of wood and what you do with it. The simpler a piece is, the harder it is,” he says.
Aequalis uses a lot of maple and cherry. “You can’t cheat maple. Either there’s craftsmanship there or not,” Tom says. Also, he adds, “it ages really well.”
He often uses stainless steel with wood, as in the wheel assembly on Linherr and in sculptural-looking drawer pulls for two vertical chests called “Tall Boy” and “Short Boy.”
“You can do everything so precise in steel. If you can do woodworking the same way, you really have something,” he says. “You have such a cold, hard aspect, and wood is so warm. It’s a nice contrast.”
Besides Linherr, the prototypes completed so far include “Tall Boy” and “Short Boy” in bird’s-eye maple or quarter-sawn cherry, and glass and wood corner and side tables named “AnnieBelle” and “Pauline” (for the Hobgoods’ grandmother and great-aunt). Like their namesakes, the two differ in size. Their grandmother, Tom recalls, “was a little bigger than Pauline.”
There are also three chests inspired by the Three Stooges: Fat-legged, curly-maple Curly; Larry with curving steel strips representing unruly hair, and Moe, with painted stripes. “They used to wear those striped bathing suits,” Tom remembers. “A really loose interpretation,” he calls it. He is investigating the cost of using the Stooges’ names.
“They are the most exciting pieces to me. They are real different,” he says. A long glass and wood sofa table and a couple of other occasional tables are scheduled to be ready this summer.
Tom acknowledges that 18th century furniture is considerably more popular in the U.S. than modern, but he thinks there’s a hard-core audience that remains committed to modern.
He also thinks there may be a market for Aequalis outside the U.S. He is investigating the cost of showing at next spring’s design show in Milan and also at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.
As the brothers plan promotion, they wait for orders and keep making furniture. It’s still too early to make long-range plans, they feel.
“Christmas is a good spot to sit back, say, ‘This is what we’ve done this year,’ and project,” Tom says.
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