Pretty but Practical — The Opulence of Veneer

An Illinois closet company caters to the busy lifestyles of today’s professionals.

By Lisa Whitcomb

“The closet business has been building for 10 years, and in the last five it has really taken off,” says Kristina Ferrigan, director of marketing for Closet Works in Elmhurst, IL. Closets are no longer just an afterthought in the design of a home. They are becoming a quintessential element in a home’s overall design process, especially in new homes, she says. “It is a room that has been forgotten for a long time. Now it is really starting to come into its heyday. In the last five years, we have seen this market just explode.”

     
 
The island in this cherry veneer closet, stained cherry, has a polished granite top. Brass hanging rods were used along with upgraded handles and drawer pulls to dress up the closet.  
     

CEO Mike Carson began the company in 1987. “When I got started, I was building furniture such as book shelves and butcher block tables as a hobby. I thought that I would be a master woodworker, but [I soon realized that] it was taking me a month to build a butcher block table that I would only be able to sell for $1,000,” Carson recalls.

“Then one day, I went to my dad’s house while he was having his closets reorganized by a local company, and he said to me, ‘You should be doing this.’” At first, Carson says he did not think of closetmaking as ‘real woodworking,’ just panel processing. Eventually, though, he realized the potentials in making closet systems and took his dad’s advice.

While still living in a two-flat, he constructed his first closet systems for a friend who was rehabbing a six-flat on the same block. At the time, he had to carry the pieces down the street to install them because he did not own a van. “With the money I got from that job, I was able to go out and get a van and it all kept rolling from there,” he says.

The industry has really come of age, Ferrigan says, but it was not always that way. Back when Carson first began his business 15 years ago, his friends thought that he was crazy for doing closets exclusively. They told him that he should also do kitchen cabinets or something else as well. But he felt sure that he could make his company a success by just doing closets, and so he did not listen to them. Much to their surprise and delight, his business took off. “Carson’s main passion has really always been closet systems,” Ferrigan says.

Today, Carson Properties is the umbrella company for all of Carson’s business ventures, which include Closet Works (now co-owned with President Michael Wallace), The National Closet Group (NCG), which is a consortium of closet manufacturers from across America, and Heartland Panel Inc., which is a nested based value-added panel processing operation.

Closet Works serves the Chicagoland and Southeastern Wisconsin area. Its current facility is 30,000 square feet, and the company employs 56 people, nine of whom are full-time designers. Ferrigan says the company anticipates grossing $5.8 million dollars this year. “We have been doing some really strong growth in the last three to four years,” she says. “2001 has seen some slower growth, but it is still positive.”

Inside, the shop houses a multitude of equipment that is used for all Closet Works and Heartland Panel jobs, including a Holzma HPL 23 panel saw, a Homag España CH 12 panel saw, an Altendorf Elmo F 45 sliding table saw, a Homag SE 9600 single-sided edgebander, Weeke BP 140K and BP 80 CNC machining centers and a Brandt KTD-51 contouring edgebander, all from Stiles Machinery and Altendorf America.

Closet Works’ designers, who conduct a wardrobe inventory and ask homeowners how they will use the closet space before they begin designing, use Cabinet Vision Solid software. They design many projects on site with this CAD program using laptop computers. “This is a huge advantage in our industry,” says Ferrigan.

The cutlists that are produced from these designs are used with Cut Rite software, which forwards them to the machines. For programming and contouring work, the shop uses WoodWOP software on its Weeke machines. After the closet systems have been designed and manufactured, the pieces are delivered knocked down and assembled at the customer’s home by Closet Works’ full-time installers.

These days people expect more in their homes, a higher quality, says Ferrigan. They will not just accept wire as the standard for closets any more. People want a more “polished” look for every room of the house, including the closets. “We are getting a much more educated consumer than we ever did before,” she notes. “They know how to judge the quality levels of the product, the service and the design.”

Clients tend to be people who have really busy lifestyles. “They are looking for the finer things in life,” Ferrigan says “from their clothing to their home,” adding that they like to have a dressing suite as opposed to just a closet. In order to meet this demand, Closet Works incorporates extras like built-in dressers, islands and peninsulas into its closets.

     
This men’s closet has a maple laminate finish. Valet poles, seen on the top left open shelf, pull out and can be used for temporary hanging or to lay out outfits for the next day.  
       

The company has two segments of clientele right now – the average homeowner, who is looking for a cost-effective way to maximize his closet space, and the homeowner who has the ‘I don’t care what it costs’ mindset. For the average homeowner, Closet Works offers a melamine laminate with white

wire baskets and rods.

But for its upscale clients, the company offers chrome or brass rods, chrome wire baskets from Whisper Glide, real wood veneers and a new trendy Italian laminate panel product called Mové from Snaidero. It has a contemporary high-end finish that is considered to be ultra modern looking, says Ferrigan. Carson says Mové uses a back panel system, which gives the final closet a fancy appearance, more like a store fixture display.

A closet system can run anywhere from $500 to $30,000, with most around $2,600 to $15,000. Veneers and lavish finishes like Mové are a growing market, Ferrigan notes. “We got into veneers because we were encountering situations where people would have us do the laminate work in their whole house, (i.e. pantries, laundry rooms, etc) and then they would call a millwork or cabinet shop to come in and do the master closet.” Closet Works felt it was “missing the boat” on the high-end work, she says. So the company decided to expand its product lines to meet the growing demands of its clients.

“If you get a great veneered closet and a dressing suite, it feels like you are going shopping in a really great boutique everyday,” says Ferrigan. When constructing a closet, the shop tries to maximize the usable space. Veneer emphasizes functionality, Mové emphasizes style, she says. “A customer might have a really cool-looking Mové shelf that is lit up, but it needs three inches of space in order to install the recess lighting. The homeowner loses a lot of usable space with this look.”

She does admit though, “Hands down, the Italian product is beautiful to look at.” But, if a homeowner really wants to maximize his space, then wood veneers (like the cherry, oak and maple, which can be stained, clear-coated or left unfinished) are the way to go. The company offers birch as well, but it is left unfinished and is to be painted only.

Some of the biggest closet systems that the company has installed are in the 15-foot by 30-foot range. Even in closets this size, homeowners want to maximize the usable space as much as they can. That is where using veneer comes in as a great advantage, says Ferrigan. Veneer systems use crown mouldings and toe kicks, which create a finer finished look.

Closet Works also uses 16- or 23-inch- deep panels in its back-paneled veneer systems, instead of 12- or 14-inch-deep panels, which are used on the laminate systems. The panels are deeper on a veneer system to ensure that clothing will not rub on the panels, because the backing is inset into the panels by 1/2 inch. This makes it necessary for the shop to move the hanging rods forward and widen the panels proportionately in order to fit the clothing properly, thus making veneer systems larger overall.

Standard features of the shop’s frameless cabinet closet systems include Accuride slides, Blum hinges and Grass Zargen metal drawers, which are installed in the laminate closets. Solid-wood birch dovetail drawer boxes with full-extension ball-bearing slides are used in the veneered closets.

Natural stone tops, crown moulding, glass and mirrored inserts, and lighting are just a few of the elements used to dress up the overall look of a high-end closet, giving it a “finished furniture” look. Additional features that homeowners can add include brass, pewter or herringbone handles, jewelry cases, slanted shoe shelves, hampers, tie butlers and more.

       
The Ties That Bind and Build

The National Closet Group (NCG) is a consortium that ties together closet company owners from around the United States. It was started by Carson three years ago to establish a network within this niche market. Participating members must be primarily laminate closet manufacturers.

Benefits of membership include sharing information on the best suppliers and practices, as well as new ideas, innovations and more. Only one closet company is chosen to represent each regional market. This is to ensure that the group stays non-competitive, which also allows them to share information about themselves, recommend client referrals to each other and share professional photographs for similar products.

Currently there are 40 members, with 10 more anticipated to sign on by year’s end, says Ferrigan. “When you get 50 innovative companies putting their heads together, you come up with some fabulous ideas and real solutions for problems that everyone is wrestling with,” she adds.

 
   
       

“We are getting a lot of people asking for slanted shoe shelves, even though they are not the most effective use of space. Most people think that it is a great look and it really displays the shoes well. This makes getting ready in the morning easier because a person can mix-and-match outfits quickly,” Ferrigan says.

Another popular trend that the company is seeing lately is glass door and drawer fronts. These make a closet appear tidy while at the same time making it easier for a person to select clothing with very little effort. “It is a contemporary look that is starting to gain some momentum and a lot of people are looking for it,” she says.

Closet Works has installed its systems in many downtown Chicago condo rehabs and new homes in the suburbs. Occasionally, the company has commercial closet jobs, like the one it did last year when it installed more than 600 closets in the DePaul University dorms in Chicago. The closet systems contained hanging sections, shelves, drawers and baskets. It was the company’s largest project to date.

New business is procured through word-of-mouth, repeat customers, professional alliances and the yellow pages. Russ Fann, the shop’s production manager, says he finds most of his good employees from the Greater West Town Woodworking Program in Chicago. The program teaches underprivileged children the art of woodworking. “The kids are trained in shop safety and know how to run machinery, read a tape measure and laminate when they complete the program. It is a nice pool to pull from,” Fann says proudly.

Mike Carson says he sees the future as bright for his company. “I think that this will be the decade of the closet,” he says. “Consumers are beginning to demand a better closet, and builders are beginning to realize that they can use custom closets as a competitive advantage for selling homes. I think we are at ‘critical mass’ and the industry is going to explode.”

“It used to be that other woodworking segments looked down their noses at the closet industry because they thought it wasn’t as sexy. To them, it was just putting up a rod and a shelf,” he adds. That is not the case anymore, he says. “Now, the demand for high-end closets is drawing a lot of attention from other people in the woodworking industry. They are looking closely at closets and seeing them as a viable line.”

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