Since the 2005 launch of his company, Designed & Made, Minnesota woodworker Brian Grabski has taken on several requests for custom kitchens, cabinets, mantelpieces, home theaters and even cabinets with secret drawers.
Grabski sees each project through from start to finish, often working closely with his clients in various stages. And though he operates independently, Grabski says collaboration has been essential throughout his career. On a recent project—a custom kitchen in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill Neighborhood—Grabski joined forces with builder Chris Van Klei of Detail Homes and mechanical engineer Mike Prom, whom Grabski refers to as “The Dalai Llama of CAD.”
Grabski says he and Van Klei have worked together on remodeling projects since high school, and the Crocus Hill project was to be their ninth kitchen collaboration. With several houses in the neighborhood already on the national registry of historic places, and others being constructed by St. Paul’s top developers, Grabski and Van Klei both saw the project as an opportunity to go well beyond ordinary expectations.
After generating their own sketches, looking over their previous work, they settled on a design concept—
Grabski says he and Van Klei share a design-forward approach and a tendency to go overboard. But with CNC technology, parametric software and the ability to collaborate in real time with experts like Prom, who lives in Portland, Grabski says they have been able to produce a very detailed product where it otherwise wouldn’t be economically feasible.
By sharing computer screens via GoToMeeting.com and communicating through the microphones on their computers, Grabski and Prom, each in their respective time zones, worked together to design and model the hood and island legs with Inventor by AutoDesk.
“I’ve taken classes to learn the software, but I feel like I barely scratched the surface,” Grabski says. “In collaborating with Mike, I’ve been learning more in-depth how to utilize that software.”
“When you surround yourself with talented people it feeds into what you're doing,” he adds. “Everyone I've worked with brings a different skill set to the table. That's the best part about the collaboration process.”
"Show me your friends and I'll show you your future."
After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Grabski began renting shop space from a family friend Minneapolis and taking in custom orders through Designed & Made.
“The early years were a little difficult at times, being that I was young and not many people knew who I was,” Grabski notes. “That being said, I was working for myself and doing what I always wanted to do earlier that I thought I'd be doing it.”
As his business grew, Grabski says he began working with several builders and interior designers on custom cabinetry in remodeling projects—in addition to building custom furniture pieces by commission.
He has also teamed up with Nordeast Makers, a wood shop in Minneapolis which provides members with access to manufacturing equipment and machinery in exchange for a monthly fee. By cutting parts for his custom pieces on the CNC router at Nordeast Makers, and by networking with Tyler Cooper and the community of furniture makers in the shared space, Grabski says he is now comfortable enough to start making his own investment.
“Nordeast Makers gives me access to machinery that I that I normally wouldn't have access to,” Grabski says. “Making the jump into a larger shop and investing in a CNC router is going to be a lot less risky now that I've been able to learn the CAM software and how to run the machine.”
When Prom, Grabski and Van Klei finalized the plans for the Crocus Hill kitchen, they had the structural parts nested and routed out of 3/4″ MDF. Grabski assembled the parts from the inside-out, securing each piece with glue, pocket-hole screws and automotive bondo. The hood was laminated with 3/8″ bending plywood and paper-backed veneer. The applied molding was nailed on and finished.
“When you have multiple creative minds working towards the same end goal, the finished product always turns out way nicer than it would have if you went at it alone,” Grabski says.
“One of my favorite quotes is from by buddy Josh's dad when we were all kids: ‘Show me your friends and I'll show you your future.’ Dave Van Patter. Josh is the cinematographer that helped me film my demo reel.”
Grabski’s advice for woodworkers just starting out?
“Make friends with a photographer,” and “Always go out of your way to give credit to the people who help you out. “
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