The Lively Furniture of Lorinart

Art Tabrizi creates beautifully curved furniture with graceful shapes in his Canoga Park shop.

By Leland Edward Stone

If Fred Astaire were to be reborn as a chest of drawers, the Lorinart studio would be the delivery room. For in this tiny workshop, Art Tabrizi fashions furniture so lithe and graceful that it could only be destined for the dance floor.

Tabrizi, president of Lorinart Furniture Design in Canoga Park, CA, laughs at such a description of his work. "It's an inside joke here at Lorinart to never visit the shop after dark -- that's when the finished pieces start to party!"

Tabrizi's creations evoke more than a festive atmosphere, however. They speak boldly of sweat and skill and echo Tabrizi's background in architecture. "I want my work to remind clients of great architectural motifs," he said.

A tonsu chest in Tabrizi's shop perfectly demonstrates this ideal. Devised by Japanese craftsmen, tonsu were originally used both for storage and as staircases. At Lorinart, the tonsu has been rendered in miniature, and its only purpose is storage.

Tabrizi's Japanese predecessors would have been pleased by his craftsmanship. They also would admire his attention to business. While Lorinart's neighbors come and go, Tabrizi is carefully considering expansion.

"It's easy to expand and get reckless, but jobs come and jobs go. Before signing a lease, I'm going to be sure that I can afford the expansion. I don't want to wind up like my neighbor. His was one of the better cabinet shops, they paid attention to detail, but now there's an eviction notice on his door," he said.

That kind of consideration extends to every purchasing decision Tabrizi makes. Whether it's a lease on a new building or just a new letterhead, no money gets spent until both the need and the benefit have been carefully weighed.

Tabrizi is currently considering several big purchases for his shop, including a high-quality sliding table saw. But he said he is leery about lease payments that have to be made, especially during slow times. Most of Tabrizi's equipment has been purchased for cash, including the Unisaw he'll continue using for now.

Sharing shop space with that saw are a Powermatic sander, a dust collection system from Grizzly, a Performax drum sander, a Delta shaper, a drill press, band saw and jointer. All solid stock joints are cut on a Robland mortising machine from Laguna Tools. Because space is at a premium in the 800-square-foot shop, everything is mounted on casters. There is no workbench, and storage is restricted to several chests tucked around the shop.

Worrying about future machine purchases or the lack of space doesn't take up a lot of Tabrizi's time, however. His most serious concern is simply building a clientele. "My biggest problem is not the sawdust, the chemicals, the regulations or the complexity of the piece I'm working on. It's just getting the attention of potential clients long enough to show them what I can offer," he said.

Tabrizi describes his clients as "selective" and notes that they aren't likely to respond to traditional advertising methods. That eliminates the telephone directory, which Tabrizi believes appeals to a different kind of buyer than what he's after.

"People turn to the yellow pages when they shop for kitchen cabinets," said Tabrizi, adding that they are also looking for a bargain. He prefers to emphasize Lorinart's niche status. "We don't build typical kitchen cabinets, and I don't want to promote that kind of image for my business," he said.

While any type of marketing is expensive, reaching the people willing to buy Lorinart designs can be especially costly. Tabrizi focuses his marketing efforts on design professionals, who he said are most likely to appreciate his custom capabilities. Their clients are also more likely to be able to afford Tabrizi's creations.

But good designers are busy people who often won't look twice at a printed brochure and sometimes not even at 11-inch by 14-inch glossies of past projects. So Tabrizi invested in a laptop computer to help with presentations.

"I don't look at this machine any differently than I do my shaper or sander. The computer is a tool, and whether I'm designing furniture or putting together a brochure, this tool allows me to do the job faster and more professionally."

Tabrizi said using the computer gives him an edge that no printed work can offer -- the ability to captivate designers with "in-the-round" views of what their ideas will look like when built. Textures, colors, hardware and lighting can be manipulated instantly, catching the eye of a busy designer.

Sometimes an entire product niche can be garnered from a single client by using such efforts. For example, Lorinart recently developed sales counters for the Paris location of a well-known hair salon chain. Those counters provided a basis for reaching other clients in the same industry.

"With the permission of our client, we digitized photographs of the pieces we had created for them. The designs are copyrighted, but the client is quite liberal about letting us use them for strictly promotional purposes. That way, we can actually show other designers in that field just what we're capable of doing," Tabrizi said.

When Tabrizi refers to "we" in speaking about his business, he refers to the other half of Lorinart, marketing vice president Lori Weinerman. Like many craftsmen, Tabrizi prefers concentrating his efforts on materials and machinery. He leaves sales of the finished product largely in Weinerman's hands.

"Selling, just like designing, is a highly specialized skill. And since Lori is a 'people person,' she's very adept at handling the sales aspect of our business," he said.

Promoting Lorinart is her primary responsibility, but during a "crunch," Weinerman also is drafted for sanding and other shop tasks. Helping with production lets her not only reduce Lorinart's payroll, but also learn about construction and materials. Being able to answer clients' technical questions gives Weinerman an edge in sales.

Finding clients who are willing to buy fine furnishings is a constant and demanding search. Tabrizi and Weinerman both spend a lot of "free time" canvassing for prospects.

For instance, they target renovated downtown districts, such as Santa Monica, CA, which often attract clusters of architects and interior designers. Contacting these high-end professionals is just a matter of walking into the office and introducing themselves. If the offices are closed, Tabrizi or Weinerman simply slip a business card through the mail slot.

"But when we do find an office that's open, we're ready to give a brief presentation," said Tabrizi. That usually means pitching to the receptionist (be nice -- these people are the real power in most offices, Tabrizi said), but could also be a meeting with the boss. On those occasions, Tabrizi uses an attractive, self-produced brochure as part of his introductory effort.

"These impromptu visits are usually made while we're out on a Saturday afternoon, and we don't expect to meet the decisionmaker that day. Even if we do meet him or her, it will be for only a brief interview. We just make the initial contact, we get a foot in the door. Then our brochure does the job of selling Lorinart," he said.

Tabrizi admitted this cold-call approach to selling has a low response rate. But he also noted that the cost is next to nothing, and added, "The type of client approached in this way is more likely to need and appreciate the upscale woodworking services offered by Lorinart."

Tabrizi, who estimated that his annual sales will reach $60,000 this year, recognized that boosting his sales volume requires exposure to a greater number of potential customers. That is why he plans to exhibit his pieces at a design show this year. Though still uncertain about which one to attend, Tabrizi has decided to exhibit in New York.

"I know that showing there is very expensive," he said, "and not just because of the exhibition fee. There's the plane fare and lodging to consider, as well as the cost of being away from work. But I'm looking at this show as another investment, one that will give me access to national and even international clients. It may sound trite, but it's still true that you have to spend money to make money."

Tabrizi isn't just throwing money into his promotions and hoping to make a quick profit, however. Attracting new clients requires innovative designs, and that's part of the program. But keeping those clients requires an ongoing commitment to quality. And for Tabrizi, that means in-house fabrication of virtually every wooden component used at Lorinart.

It's a labor-intensive process, but one which allows Tabrizi greater control over each project, he said. It's also an approach that meshes well with the Lorinart design philosophy.

"Anyone can order components and assemble them into adequate cabinetry -- and there's certainly a market for that," Tabrizi said. "But my clients are paying me to produce their work just for them. They don't expect average, that's probably why they contacted me, and at this level of the market, they have a right to hold me up to a higher standard."

There's very little hand work going on at Lorinart. Tabrizi is as frugal with his time as he is with his money and recognizes the advantages offered by well-designed machinery.

"The level of technology available today puts sophisticated tooling within the reach of even small shops," he said.

For example, Lorinart has its own vacuum press, from Vacuum Pressing Systems. Referring to the new press, Tabrizi said, "Obviously, spending $400,000 on machinery to build a single component is foolishness. But the vacuum press was affordable, and using it gives me a level of quality control that I can't achieve by using outside vendors."

Balanced construction, exacting sizes with specified veneers on both faces, lowered production costs and on-time delivery are the reasons Tabrizi gives for doing work in-house, even if the decision means buying new machinery.

But his commitment to quality craftsmanship has emotional dimension as well. It comes from the feeling that Tabrizi said he gets when looking at a photograph of a finished piece, next to its original concept "sketch" on the computer monitor and slowly realizing that the two images appear to be bookmatched.


A Lesson In Profit

It was the red eviction tag on his neighbor's door that drove the point home for Art Tabrizi. He said, "That's the reality of business. No matter how good you are, if you can't make the overhead, you're out of business."

Tabrizi, whether by chance or plan, has developed several tactics for staying alive in a very competitive market.

  • Cultivate a niche. Trends are great, but everyone wants to exploit them and the marketplace is quickly saturated. That brings down prices and profits. Concentrate instead on establishing your own "territory," Tabrizi said, a piece of the market that you can build better than anybody else.For example, Lorinart used an initial contact with a well-known hair salon to learn what salons require from their casework supplier. That led to an intensive marketing effort directed towards hair salons, capitalizing on the recognition of the first client's name.
  • Aim for the high end of the market. Profit margins are wider, work is steadier, and the clients are more likely to appreciate fine craftsmanship. You will work just as hard getting a low bid as you will getting a higher paying job, Tabrizi said. Go for the greatest return on your investment.
  • Expand carefully. Since expenses remain even when income departs, it pays to carefully evaluate the cost of any plans for expansion. Lasting benefits are one aspect of a purchase that should carry the greatest significance. Are you buying a new panel saw for just one job, for example, or will it become the main saw for all future panel processing? Are new employees absolutely essential, or can some work be more efficiently subbed out? Is more floor space really necessary, or can the workload be squeezed into the current shop? Pressing existing resources to the limit before adding to them or replacing them is a good rule-of-thumb to follow, according to Tabrizi.
  • Invest in debt cautiously. All of the equipment at Lorinart was purchased for cash -- no lease options, no interest payments, no worrying about the next installment coming due during a tight month. Credit isn't necessarily bad, but badly managed credit can be a nightmare, Tabrizi said. And even good credit can't always purchase as good a deal as cold hard cash can buy.
  • Promote your work continuously. The worst time to look for work is when you need it. Make time for marketing even during your busiest months, and keep the inevitable slow season to a minimum, Tabrizi said. You may not have a partner dedicated solely to sales (like Lorinart's Weinerman), but that's no reason to neglect selling. Make it a habit to look for opportunity, and remember: even if prospects don't buy today, you should be giving them a reason to call you when they are ready to buy.
  • Stay informed. Keep in touch with what's developing in the woodworking industry and learn how those developments can benefit you. Tabrizi was able to acquire an affordable vacuum press because he had been tracking several sources through professional journals. Keep up with issues affecting your clients' industries, too. One large manufacturer, noticing a trend towards home offices, began marketing "fold-away" computer work centers. That company met its clients' needs in the same way that every shop should be doing, whatever its size. (And small, custom shops have an advantage that the "big guys" can't hope to match: a fast response time.)

-- Leland Stone

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.