Architectural Woodworking of the Rich and Famous

Mike Gordon Inc. caters to high-end residential customers in New York City.

By Sam Gazdziak


For a customer's collection of Venetian glass, Gordon installed pin-point fiber optics in the mahogany shelves to light each piece individually. The lighting alone cost $40,000.

Michael Gordon has made sure his company can provide two things: service and quality. It sounds simple, but those two tenets have earned Michael Gordon Inc. an impressive body of work in 30 years of operation, with celebrity clientele, including Donald Trump and Dustin Hoffman. More than a dozen projects have been featured in Architectural Digest.

"I realized that to develop that high a level of business, the most important things are service and quality, and that's what I directed my business to provide; a high level of quality and the best possible service," Gordon said. "When our clients say 'Jump,' we say 'How high?'"

Michael Gordon Inc. is a Paterson, NJ-based woodworking company founded in 1969. The company specializes in high-end residential architectural woodworking. Primarily, the clientele is located on Park and 5th Avenues in New York City, NY, but the company has done work throughout North America, including Palm Beach, FL; Chicago, IL; Mexico City, Mexico; and Toronto, Ont., Canada. "But the majority of the work has come through New York architects and interior designers," Gordon said.

Gordon's company does complete interiors of apartments, from paneled libraries, custom doors, trim, bathroom vanities and built-in media units, down to radiator enclosures. The company will also take on smaller individual furniture pieces. Projects range anywhere from $50,000 to $400,000. One recent job was a town house for the owner of the Hit Factory, the largest recording studio in the world. The project took about seven weeks and involved painted and mahogany finishes, curved bow front vanities, bow front office storage cabinetry, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall dressing rooms, built-in bars on four floors and paint-grade interior doors.

Gordon's list of celebrities includes Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. Most of the projects involve similar types of work. "The projects usually include a library, whether it be a traditional paneled room or a more contemporary lacquered finish. They usually involve a custom kitchen with all the bells and whistles, bathrooms, which include not only the vanities but also built-in storage cabinets, shoe storage and custom dressing room arrangements, as well as doing all the heating-vent and air conditioning enclosures," Gordon said. He added that the HVAC enclosures are common in New York, where the high-rise apartment buildings have heating and air conditioning units in front of the windows.

He said that approximately 90 percent of his work is residential, though he also does some commercial work, such as the sales office for the Trump International Hotel in New York. "We've also done a whole floor at the Woolworth Building in New York City for a prominent law firm," Gordon said. The 22,000-square-foot job included a paneled reception area, conference room and table, law libraries, crown and base mouldings and work stations. Three of the partners also contracted Gordon directly to do their offices. That job cost approximately $400,000 and is one of the largest jobs Michael Gordon Inc. has ever done.

Before going into the woodworking business, Gordon did woodworking as a hobby. He graduated with a degree in business from Temple University in 1965 and developed a chain of private brand service stations. Gordon sold the gasoline business to Texaco in 1972 and went into woodworking full-time as an artist/craftsman.

"After a couple of years, I realized being an artist could not support three children, so I set my mind into making it a business," Gordon said.

"One of the things that I felt has been important to me in the past 30 years is that I was in business before I became a woodworker, which I think accounts for a great part of my success," he added. "There are a great number of wonderful woodworkers, who, unfortunately, are not businessmen. I was fortunate that I was a good woodworker and that I knew something about business before I got into the business of woodworking."

Gordon found a market in high-end residential architectural woodworking early in his career when he became friends with a man who had a showroom at the Decoration and Design Building in New York. "We became very close friends, and he introduced me to a couple of the top-name designers in New York at the time," he said. "I developed their business. My business grew, as their demand for quality and innovation spurred me to learn new things, new techniques."

Some of Gordon's jobs have required more than just the usual touches. The company has built remote-control mechanical units including tambour cabinets with custom TV lifts. They have done casework that is mounted on concealed steel frames, which pivot to expose hidden rooms. Gordon uses faux book spines on door faces to conceal unattractive storage areas. One customer wanted a library to display a multi-million dollar collection of Venetian glass. To accentuate the collection, Gordon installed pinpoint fiber optics into the shelves, so each piece was lit individually. The lighting alone cost $40,000.

After 30 years in business, Michael Gordon Inc. has grown into a 19-employee operation with sales of

Yankee Ingenuity

One of Michael Gordon Inc.'s more unusual pieces of machinery is a custom-built vacuum press. It was built about 15 years ago, when Gordon needed to make several curved pieces on an entertainment center.

"Now, vacuum presses are widely accepted," he explained, "but at the time, I needed it immediately. So I bought a vacuum pump from W.W. Grainger, and a friend who makes convertible tops fabricated the bag from plastic similar to that used in vintage convertibles."

Gordon bought a discharge tube, built and leveled a large table and grooved it to let air escape. After a week of trial and error, the vacuum press was ready. "That job was a polished polyester painted finish job that was published in Architectural Digest in 1986," Gordon said. The vacuum press is still a shop staple today.

approximately $2 million last year. Gordon said he hopes to increase that to $2.5 million in 1999. His shop is a two-story, 20,000-square-foot shop that was built at the turn of the century, during Paterson's days as the hub of the silk industry in the United States.

"It was, I think, a dye house originally," Gordon said. "But the construction was such that there are clear-span spaces, as opposed to a building that is multi-story and has posts or columns every 15 square feet, which is not as conducive to the flow of production."

The company recently rearranged the placement of machinery and materials to make the work flow in almost a straight line. Gordon divides his employees into teams, so while the solid wood parts are being milled and machined, the panel processing team cuts the panels and machines the cabinet sides. Machining is done on a Putsch-Meniconi automatic panel saw, Griggio shapers, thickness planer and joiner, an AEM widebelt sander and two Holz-Her edgebanders. The panel saw, the sander and the Griggio machinery were purchased through Atlantic Machinery. The company also has a shop-built vacuum press for special shapes and veneering. European hinges come from Salice, drawer slides from Accuride, and custom olive-knuckle hinges from P.E. Guerin.

All the pieces are preassembled in the shop by the benchmen. "They take the boxes that one team has made and put them together with the solid wood parts," Gordon explained. The parts have to be checked for fitting before they are sent to the finishing department on the second floor.

Gordon operates spray booths using Kremlin equipment. He said that the company does very little "off-the-gun" finishing; most of the finishes are hand-rubbed with steel wool after being sprayed. "What we are producing now has a much softer look than 10 years ago, when there was a more plastic-looking high-gloss finish to the furniture," he said. He uses pre-catalyzed lacquers and oil finishes, as well as traditional nitrocellulose lacquers. For closed-pore polish finishes, Gordon said he uses M.L. Campbell products.

Once finished, the products are reassembled in parts and transported to the site. The company does the installation, so Gordon makes certain that the parts are built of a certain size and weight. "Everything we build has to fit in an elevator in New York City," he said. "That is part of the engineering problems that we face." He has five full-time installers to take care of the work.

Gordon attributes much of his success to the quality of his employees. "We feel that we turn out more quality work per employee than most," he said. "It's very much a team effort here.

"I've talked to people who work in a kitchen cabinet shop, and they say they have 10 years' experience," Gordon added. "What they really have is one year's experience 10 times over. Our employees are generally more well-rounded. Being a custom shop, it has served us very well. People can fill in for other people, and most of the fellows can do almost any operation, even though some are better at some jobs than others. The employees here are all appreciated for their particular skills."


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