A Perfect Partnership
Alan Lazarus and Jerry Williamson joined forces to produce 'Very Fine Furniture Design,' and the combination works.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
It might look like the "Odd Couple" to some, but a business partnership between Alan Lazarus and Jerry Williamson made perfect sense to the two men almost from the beginning. That beginning was in 1999 when Lazarus, with some 40 years experience as a studio woodworker, furniture designer and educator, met Williamson, who was looking to make a career change and sought his advice.
Williamson had been a chef for 17 years, but had a life-long passion for woodworking, maintaining a home shop and honing his skills by doing commission work and taking classes over the years. What began as a consultation meeting became the basis for the business Lazarus & Williamson LLC, Very Fine Furniture Design.
"Jerry came to me at a time when I had recently closed a shop and was thinking of opening another. We realized we had an awful lot in common, and we knew that we could bring things to the business that would be complimentary," says Lazarus. "My greatest assets are my experience in design, fabrication and a knowledge of the history and style of furniture. Jerry, although years younger, has developed expert skills in veneering, cabinet construction, and current technology and production."
"I used to run a kitchen crew," explains Williamson. "There are a lot of similarities in making food and making furniture. You start with a raw product. It can be a carrot that you turn into a wonderful flan or it can be an oak tree that you turn into a beautiful piece of furniture, but the processes are very similar."
Williamson says the two met through a designer craftsman friend and quickly discovered they shared the same vision about work and business. "We discovered we had very similar values. We found we shared attitudes about the functionality of furniture and the use of materials and tools. Also, we trusted one another," he says.
Lazarus & Williamson LLC, with a tagline of "Very Fine Furniture Design," was born in June 2000 with the intent of establishing a firm that was a little different than past ventures. "We wanted to branch out and bring the same quality of one-of-a-kind and studio pieces to interior designers and architects while maintaining a relationship with collectors and connoisseurs," say the partners.
The one setback in their business plan happened as they were preparing for a major show in New York City. "Our first exhibition was planned for November 2001 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center," says Lazarus. "Like everyone else, we got a kick in the face with 9/11."
Williamson says it was a tough time for everyone, but both agree it has been a great partnership. "I feel I couldn't have a better business partner," he says.
The business is located in a 4,000-square-foot shop in the historic mill district of Paterson, NJ. "Our shop is near the famous Paterson Falls in one of the old silk mill buildings," Williamson says. "The building was built in 1887, and our space has high ceilings and black beams. The old oak floors are soaked with the oil from the looms that used to fill the building. You feel like you are coming into a bit of history when you come to work."
Dual Philosophies in Action
Asked to describe his basic work philosophy, Lazarus says, "I believe furniture design should challenge preconceptions of our living and working space. When considering a new problem, I deal with form, structure, material and utility. The reward of a good design is to break through the framework of convention and develop objects of character and personality that label us for what we are and who we hope to be."
Williamson says that the two formed the business because they both believe they have something unique and of value to share with each client, plus a passion for the business and the product. "We have a creative spirit when we come here, and we have a great time at work. We respect our employees, our clients and ourselves," says Williamson. "When you love something, it's not work. Like with any business, if it isn't a way of life for you, there's not much chance for success."
The partners believe that their philosophy would apply to any business. "We are also committed to looking forward and working with new materials and new technology, augmenting our knowledge so that we can become better designers and produce a better product," Williamson adds.
In addition to the two owners, they employ two full-time employees and three part-time employees along with college-age student interns. Their shop is filled with the standard fare of woodworking shops, including an assortment of power and hand tools.
Williamson says that people in business today must use a variety of resources. "For us, that sometimes means outsourcing to other shops. We get different components for our furniture pieces, from time to time. We have one company that makes our dovetailed drawers. They give us the highest quality drawers, and it is much more cost-efficient to buy the drawers rather than make them ourselves."
Lazarus agrees that outsourcing can be an important resource for a small business, "as long as you maintain the quality of your work. We work with a large CNC company that makes cabinet parts to our specifications. They are expressly designed for our needs, with edgebanding and drilled dowel holes. We avoid investing in CNC machinery or increasing our shop space. It is a cost-efficient option that allows us to maintain our quality. We focus on making specialty panels or doors, applying rare veneers, inlays and shaped surfaces."
When it comes to the division of duties, both say they prefer to share in all aspects. "We both are involved in the day-to-day running of the shop, marketing, research and maintaining quality," says Williamson.
"We like to say we work on both sides of the aisle, with designers and architects and then with our own work," adds Lazarus.
They work primarily in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania but also have clients around the country. Lazarus has maintained connections with past clients from Virginia and upstate New York. They also are refining their Web site so that they can take orders online, as well. The Web site, www.lazaruswilliamson.com, gives an idea of the range of materials they use and projects they have done.
Lazarus estimates that 40 percent of their work fits the contemporary mode, while the rest is more traditional in scope. Projects range from whimsical, playful clock designs to sophisticated bedroom furniture made from figured maple, pigmented maple, bloodwood and holly. Their "High Roller Hutch" features mahogany teamed with Brazilian rosewood, sapele and granite. The scope of their work extends beyond the studio pieces to commercial and residential work, including libraries, entertainment centers, tables, chairs, furniture and even kitchens.
"We are constantly developing our line, from a bedroom set to a dining room table and chairs, plus our custom studio work," says Williamson. "We recently did a dining room set for clients where everyone in the family was more than 6-foot 4-inches tall. The designers and architects we work with often bring the client to the shop so that they can see how the pieces are crafted and get an understanding of the quality of our work. It offers a sense of confidence for all involved."
Both men believe in exhibiting regularly in shows, and their calendar is filled with dates for upcoming events.
"We are always meeting people who say, 'I saw your work two years ago,' and they come to us and want a design or a piece. Even if a show isn't lucrative at the moment we do it, they are very important at establishing ourselves in the marketplace," says Williamson.
"Web sites are necessities today," he adds. "It's a very simple way to showcase your range and is another point of contact with the public. If you don't have a Web site, you just aren't current with the times."
Asked about changes in the industry he has seen from a vantage point of 40 years, Lazarus says the real difference is the growing number of people who run small furniture businesses. "It's due to the number of good programs that give people the opportunity to study the craft in art schools and universities.
"Also, for the larger part of the industry, the tools have changed dramatically," he adds, "including the means of applying veneer, cutting parts and computer imaging of designs."
Lazarus and Williamson use computer-aided design, but Lazarus still begins the process with pencil and paper. "I like the ability to design with CAD, but I also enjoy the feel of the pencil on paper - the tactile sense of the design process," he says.
Both are in sync about the way the shop is run. "We like a relaxed and productive workspace, but we encourage input from the people we work alongside. We are always looking for better ways to build furniture," says Williamson.
"Both of us are very frugal. Any machine we have in our shop is because we need it," says Lazarus. "We can't live without our joiners or planers to prepare the wood. We still use hand chisels where it's appropriate, but will use the latest tool available if it does the best job.
"We have multiple concerns about the work, which differentiates us from a lot of people in our business," he says. "We love the feel and tactile quality of furniture, and we strive to put our thumbprint on all we do. Each shop has its own identity and attitude. Making the product a certain way is important to both our lives.
"I thought about retiring at one point," he adds. "But why should I when I'm having such a good time?"
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