Vermont Craftsman Designs Furniture ‘With a Twist’

Kevin Kopil’s designs evolved to meet market demands for Shaker- and Mission- inspired pieces — with great success.

By Helen Kuhl

“Clean lines without any unnecessary adornment and with a lot of contrast” is the way furnituremaker Kevin Kopil describes the pieces he designs for his Jonesville, VT, business, Kevin Kopil Furniture Design. “It could be called ‘Shaker with a twist’ or ‘Mission with a twist,’” he adds.

Kopil, who started designing furniture more than 10 years ago, says that his early designs were vastly different from what he does today. “My very first pieces earned me the nickname of ‘Roundover Kopil’ because I rounded over everything,” he says. “I put the roundover bit in the router, and all corners of everything were just rounded over. And things were very heavy —I just thought bigger and heavier was better.”

     
 
These pieces are part of Kopil’s Classic collection, his first line. The chair is cherry with tiger maple slats and an upholstered seat. The chest is in cherry.  
       

Kopil’s next designs were more free-form and organic. But it was subsequent pieces, which he eventually developed into his Classic line (“Shaker with a twist”), that helped him start building up a market.

“When I began trying to sell my own furniture designs, people everywhere told me, ‘You build nice furniture, but build me this.’ They wanted reproductions, and I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “However, I realized that it was going to be easier to sell something for which people have a reference point. I decided to do something Shaker-inspired so that people could relate to it more easily.”

Kopil started his woodworking business around 1991 after working for other local furnituremakers. Initially, he acted somewhat as a subcontractor for one of his previous employers, who had more work than he could handle. Eventually he built his own clientele, specializing in high-end kitchens and built-ins.

He took his first “Shaker-esque” furniture pieces to the Philadelphia Furniture Show in 1992 as somewhat of an experiment to see if his designs were marketable. “It was basically, ‘Let’s put it out there and see if it will sell,’” he says, “and it did.”

Within about three years, Kopil’s business had switched to 100 percent furniture. In addition to developing the Classic line, he subsequently produced the Floating line (“Mission influence with an Eastern flair”) and the Glasgow line, with details reminiscent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Today, about 75 percent of his business is in those three lines, with the remainder in custom work.

Although Kopil sells some of his work through interior designers and about 15 retail store “wholesale” accounts, most business has come from two retail stores that he owns and operates himself, one in Lambertville, NJ (in the vicinity of New Hope, PA), and one in Bethesda, MD.

“I started out trying to reach the wholesalers. But I realized after a couple of years that it was going to be hard to find accounts that could sell at a volume that I needed. So that’s when I decided to open my own retail stores,” he says.

The Lambertville store opened first about 312 years ago, with 1,500 square feet and about 30 pieces on display. The Bethesda location opened about 112 years ago, and Kopil says both have worked out well. “It’s the reason we are still in business. I would say that the two locations comprise between 70 and 75 percent of our sales,” he says.

However, because of the success of the Bethesda store, being in a more metropolitan area, Kopil recently decided to relocate the Lambertville store to New York City. He was in the process of moving into a Manhattan shop this fall.

“Having the Bethesda location and seeing what kind of sales we were doing in a city environment told me that it would be far better to be in New York than in a small, tourist-type town,” he says.

Kopil also adds that he would like to relocate the Bethesda store, which currently shares 4,000 square feet with an art gallery, into its own space. “In Bethesda, the art is interspersed with my furniture and it doesn’t really match,” Kopil says.

Business-wise, the retail galleries are run as a separate corporation from the manufacturing corporation, and Kevin Kopil Furniture Design sells to his two stores in the same way that it sells to its other wholesale accounts. The manufacturing company had annual sales of $630,000 in 2000, Kopil says, while the gallery corporation did $840,000. However, a big percentage of the $630,000 came from the $840,000, he adds.

While selling his furniture through his own stores is very effective, it also gives Kopil even more “hats” to wear than most other custom woodworking shop owners, which he says is frustrating. In addition, Kopil has been living in Doylestown, PA (near Lambertville) for the past four years because of family commitments, which stretches him even further.

     
 
Kopil designed and built this hall table to display at a craft show in Reston, VA, last year. It is one of his most recent designs. The piece is ebonized ash and lacewood and measures 13 inches deep, 32 inches high and 66 inches long.  
     

“It’s really frustrating, because I feel that I’m doing a lot of things very ineffectively,” he says. “I’m trying to design, I’m trying to open a place in New York, I’m trying to manage Lambertville, I’m managing the shop from a distance. So I’m bouncing all over the place and I’m just not doing anything really well.”

Kopil says that he would like to have a partner who would oversee the retail operations. Eventually he would like to move back to Vermont and spend more time at the shop. “I don’t know if anything like that is going to happen,” he says. “But I am actively looking for a partner.”

Kopil also would like to improve the efficiency of the production facility, he says. The current shop is 8,000 square feet on two floors. Parts are made on the first floor and then carried upstairs to be assembled and finished.

“The plan is to get a New York retail store up and running, with sales similar to the Bethesda gallery,” he says. “At that point, we would not be able to produce enough in this building and the business would be profitable enough to buy a piece of land and build a new shop.

“Once we have that, we would probably want to have a little bit more sales because of the additional expense. So at that point, we would look to add a third retail location,” he adds.

Even though the floor plan of the current shop is not ideal, Kopil does have space to house a full complement of equipment.

The first floor contains a Whirlwind cross cut saw, used for processing lumber, a Crescent jointer, Powermatic 20-inch planer, Delta 20-inch bandsaw, Woodmaster thickness sander, Powermatic shaper with power feed and a Casolin sliding table saw. There also are two boring machines used for drilling for dowels and chair spindles —a Newton four-spindle and a Pade five-spindle.

Upstairs equipment includes an Onsrud overhead router, another Powermatic shaper and tablesaw, a Delta 6-inch jointer and a veneer bag press. Most of Kopil’s pieces are solid wood, with some veneer. The shop buys dovetailed drawers from CCF Industries and back slats for its chairs from a local Vermont company. Most hardware items are purchased from Hafele.

Upholstery work and finishing are done in-house. The finisher is hired as an outside contractor. Typically, the finish is three coats of catalyzed lacquer, and Kopil uses Sherwin-Williams products. The spray booth, equipped with Binks conventional sprayers, is on the second floor.

There currently are 10 employees at the shop and each is a master craftsman, Kopil says. “Every shop owner I talk to says that you should have one or two less skilled people around,” he says. “But in our shop, they never last. Everybody is a master and there is very little patience for people who aren’t as skilled. A lot of the employees have been with us for a long time. And it seems like when we really need to add somebody, they just show up.”

While Kopil hopes that a new partner, a new retail store and a new production shop are in his future, he also is full of new design ideas that we would like to pursue some day.

“I have so many designs in my head. I wish the only thing that I had to do is build furniture, but it’s the thing I do least of all,” he says. “However, no matter what, I manage to do a couple of new pieces a year. I just wish it were more often. It’s so rewarding.”

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