Sharp-Looking Cabinetry That's a Cut Above

An Omaha stylist- turned woodworker saw an opportunity in the mid ’80s to turn his passion for woodworking and appreciation for good design into sophisticated, high-end custom cabinetry for salons and day spas.

By Lisa Whitcomb

Inner-Salon Designs Inc.

Omaha, NE

Year Founded: 1986

Employees: 23 full-time

Shop Size: 35,000 square feet

FYI: Owner and president Curt Brannon was originally a licensed stylist. He then became a distributor of hair care products and eventually transitioned into woodworking by designing his own line of high-end salon furniture.


Curt Brannon, co-owner and president of Inner-Salon Designs Inc. in Omaha, NE, says his interest in woodworking has roots back in his childhood when, at five years old, he was intrigued with homes being built in his neighborhood. This interest soon developed into a hobby and before long Brannon was building his own structures. “I built many forts throughout my childhood,” he recalls.

His woodworking hobby turned into a full-fledged passion in high school when he took a woodshop class. “I excelled in shop class and eventually helped to build a house as a senior project. When graduation time came, my choice was to pursue a career as a cabinetmaker,” he remembers.

However, Brannon’s father suggested another career path — hair styling. “I knew that styling hair was becoming increasingly popular and since I enjoyed working with my hands, I agreed that this might be a good fit,” he adds. So, he considered both career paths and eventually decided to follow his father’s advice. Needing money to pay for classes, he took a job as a trim carpenter, a lead from his high school shop instructor.

After college, at the age of 21, Brannon purchased his own salon. Shortly after, at the age of 22, he was introduced to a product line that impressed him so much that he approached the local distributor and asked if he could partner with her. “I was introduced to a new hair product line called KMS and loved the results. I approached the distributor about working together to build sales in Nebraska. Realizing that I was growing her business and making it more valuable, I became interested in becoming a distributor myself,” he says. Within a year he bought her out and sold for himself.

Curved casework, like the reception desk above, is a popular design element in high-end salons and day spas. Inner-Salon Designs also produces sleek-looking service cabinetry for salons.  

In 1986, while he was still a distributor, Brannon transitioned back into woodworking and founded Inner-Salon Designs after creating a line of custom-designed furniture, fixtures and cabinets for high-end salons and day spas. “I think that woodworking was more of a passion for me, although I always enjoyed the hair industry and needed the creative outlet; I like change and the hair industry is all about change.”

Brannon quickly carved a niche market for himself because he saw a need that was not being met in the salon and day spa industry. Shop owners wanted to break away from the mundane and were looking for quality furniture and casework with metropolitan design appeal. “It used to be that there was not a lot of creativity in salon furniture. Coming from that side of the industry gave me a first-hand perspective on how to design better-looking pieces,” he says. Brannon also sought to improve the furniture by designing pieces that would be more convenient for the stylist, like workstations. “Understanding the psychology of the industry and the services performed in salons allows me a chance to fulfill its needs,” Brannon adds.

Brannon says, “At first, I designed, sub-contracted [the construction] and installed every small job I could get.” He continued working as both a hair care product distributor and custom woodworker for five years until he decided to grow the woodworking business further by bringing all manufacturing in-house. After establishing himself as a design-build firm, Brannon sold the distributorship so he could concentrate his full attention on building his woodworking business.

Where Do We Grow from Here?

Brannon has grown Inner-Salon Designs exponentially and reached the $2.3 million (gross) mark last year. This year he projects to finish at a little more than $4 million. In January 2003, Brannon took on Jim Harding as a partner. Brannon had been looking for a partner with whom he could grow the company with and Harding fit the bill because he complements Brannon’s strengths and weaknesses. Harding serves as Inner-Salon Designs’ vice president and is a stockholder in the company. His expertise lies in running all internal and front-end operations, and Brannon says he is happy to have him on board to help grow the company. “I took on the partnership so Inner-Salon Designs can continue to grow,” Brannon says. “The franchise market has been booming lately.”

Metallic laminates are used to accentuate casework and other salon furniture. Glass and/or mirrors are also used to complement a piece’s design.  

In addition to designing and building custom displays, furniture and cabinetry on a national level for salon and day spas, Brannon has expanded into franchise rollouts for businesses like coffee houses, chain salons and strip mall exercise facility chains in 1995. In recent years, the franchise work has exploded and now makes up 80 percent of Inner-Salon Designs’ business. Custom salons and day spas fill in the remaining 20 percent. The average cost for a custom project is $45,000, but this varies, depending on the salon’s size, number of pieces ordered, materials requested and other factors. Brannon says the average rollout ranges from $30,000 for a low-end franchise package to $90,000 for high-end full-service.

Inner-Salon Designs practices value-added engineering and offers full-service packages that include items such as product displays, reception desk, styling stations and service room storage cabinetry. Brannon offers his clients three levels of service that he breaks down as, “Things we build for the client, things we buy for the client (i.e. mirrors, sinks, etc.), and things we buy parts for and make new things (i.e. Plexiglas hairbrush holders and other display stands).”

As a side business to Inner-Salon Designs, Brannon builds and offers waterfalls to salons and day spas through a second company, Big Kahuna Walls of Water. “I created this company after I saw a need. I was originally working with another man to sell waterfalls, but he took advantage of me, so I went into business for myself,” he says. Brannon produces all parts for the waterfall in-house and even goes as far as to recreate CNC-machined company logos in metal to be placed on the water wall of a waterfall unit. “I am not afraid to see a need and go after it,” he says. “Producing waterfalls is an emphasis of my business philosophy of trying to deliver an experience.”

Brannon says the shop focuses on projects that present a design-build opportunity. He does not split the services because it is more productive for the shop to do both. The shop is positioned with 50 percent of its resources devoted to design and 50 percent devoted to production. Of the 23 full-time employees, there are three interior designers, one project manager, a staff architect and Brannon, who designs pieces and explores the engineering aspects and possibilities of each space he is commissioned to fill.

Brannon says he finds design inspirations in everyday places, like in the shapes of buildings or in the pattern of a slab of marble and in designs of yesteryear. “It’s combinations of all these influences, and it is everywhere. But you have to be open to seeing it. In the shop, we love playing with different materials like lighting, laminates, tin, copper, steel or glass. We are always pushing the envelope and are incorporating metals and glass into our designs. We also look for new laminate patterns and unique hardware. We do a lot of curved cabinetry and countertops as well,” he adds.

Everything is shipped blanket-wrapped to customers in the shop’s own fleet of trucks. Brannon also likes to go on-site and assist with the installs so he can see how his cabinetry and furniture is performing on the client’s end. “It gives me an opportunity to change the engineering because the design has to be sensitive to the installation,” he adds.

In addition to building cabinetry and salon stations, Inner-Salon Designs also purchases and routs Plexiglas product display holders as a value-added service. The shop outsources all metal work for these pieces, but constructs the final product display piece in-house.  

Business has been good and no slowdowns have resulted because of the economy. Recently, the shop has begun to branch out into eye-glass stores and dental spas. “Right now the demand for custom commercial cabinetry is outstripping the supply. We are actually turning down business because we feel that we could not control the level of quality or hire the right people to meet the large demand. Delivering quality is still very important to us,” he says.

The Theory of Mass Customization

The shop is set up in work cells, which is beneficial to Brannon’s theory of mass customization because cells increase throughput, he says. The shop has spent the last few years mastering parametrics, an AutoCAD-based design program that allows it to change the height, width or depth of a rollout piece to best fit the location that it is to be sent to. “It gives us a chance to engineer better products and change them for our clients. If they have something specific that they need changed, we can reconfigure and tweak it using parametrics to suit their needs,” he says.

With parametrics, the shop can store all of its past designs, both custom and rollout, in a file library and then use or alter them again to mass produce other “custom” pieces for someone else. In addition to keeping a library of design files for itself, the company offers its rollout customers highly detailed development manuals. Inside the manuals are floor plans, cabinet drawings and specification information for everything that will be used in the project, so the franchise owner knows in advance what will be built and can sign off on it.

The shop also works with a wireless intranet and there is a PC in every work cell. “The challenge for us is to have a seamless interface between design and production. We really want all of a project’s control to be in the hands of the designers and not on the production floor. We are trying to master all of the construction details before the design gets to the shop floor,” Brannon says. “Having PCs in every work cell has also helped us to improve our job costing. Right now we are doing it by job, but eventually we want to do the costing by cabinet.”

There are 10 work cells on the shop floor: laminate layup, CNC router, laminate slitting, edgebanding, assembly one ( hardware is applied and cabinet boxes are built), post laminating, assembly two (countertops, toe kicks and the like are added), drawers and doors, quality assurance, and logistics (shipping and receiving). Brannon adds that work cells are also conducive to training new employees who may not be experienced with woodworking or heavy machinery.

Cabinets are built using the European construction method, but blind dados are used instead of dowels. Hafele slides and glides are used with drawer boxes that are made in-house. The shop nests its panels on a Routech Record 130 CNC router and cuts parts on an SCMI 16-inch sliding table saw and a Powermatic table saw. Laminate brands from all companies are laid up on an Evans laminating line and edgebanding is applied using a Brandt edgebander. Brannon says that woodgrain laminates are very popular and do not go out of fashion, so to speak, as quickly as solid colors do. Light-colors, custom designs and patterns are also popular laminate choices for commercial use. The shop likes to use metallic laminates as a complement to a project’s design.

Looking to the future Brannon says that he and Harding plan to continue growing the franchise rollout portion of their business and mastering Parametrics. “We are always looking for ways to use information again on another project, and this is where mass customization comes in. We are very committed to using parametrics, and it is my goal that one day 80 percent of all pieces drawn will be done using parametrics,” Brannon says.

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