Innovator: Doug Green transitions to design
June 1, 2010 | 7:00 pm CDT

After 18 years of manufacturing cutting-edge artisan-crafted furniture for a national audience, Doug Green, president of Green Design Furniture in Portland, Me., has announced he is transitioning his company to a focus on design consulting for other manufacturers.

Green’s original designs incorporated innovative interlocking joinery without the use of fasteners or adhesives to make elegant and sophisticated furniture that was of heirloom quality but could be disassembled and shipped as easily as cheaper ready-to-assemble lines.

“We have 18 years of real-world experience that have proven the value of these designs and the manufacturing process we invented,” says Green. “Green Design Furniture has developed a reputation and brand that is recognized around the country. Our next step will be to license the designs and technology to others.”

Designer from the start 

The roots of Green’s focus on design began with his education. The furniture line was born soon after Green earned a masters degree in industrial design from the Pratt Institute. His process for making high quality furniture assembled with self-locking joinery was developed in 1991 and patented in 1995.

“The idea was radical in its simplicity: the first fastener-free assembly system that created indestructible furniture structures that could be made and shipped in flat components and assembled without tools or glue,” he says. One customer recently referred to the work as “IKEA on steroids.”

But Green saw a bigger opportunity for the designs in how they could streamline furniture manufacturing by eliminating a huge amount of costs in production, packaging, shipping and installation, without sacrificing quality.

Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, conventional furniture manufacturers were reluctant to embrace the concept, so Green started manufacturing on his own in Portland, Maine. At the peak of his production, he employed 17 workers. As part of the transition to a design consulting firm, that will be scaled back to him and one other craftsman in the shop to develop prototypes. He says they also plan collaborative work with other craftsmen.

Role of the designer 

From his perspective Green has unique insight on the role of the designer craftsman in today’s economy. He sees a “huge chasm between the designer and the craftsman.” He thinks that just as designers have pushed the envelope forward, industry to some degree turned its back on quality, focusing instead on cost savings to build profits. He says his new goal is to build a bridge between the worlds of design and manufacturing.

“From a manufacturing perspective,” he says, “the question is how do we design this for quality but make it possible to manufacturer it at a profit.”

His goal is to create a relationship between manufacturing and the end user that gives design a larger role in the process.
“If you talk to business school graduates and ask them how many ever have taken a course in management of creativity and design, they say it hasn’t even come up,” says Green. “The guys managing these companies think creativity is a function of marketing. All my designs are about solving problems.”

Smaller, smarter, faster 

As the American furniture industry struggles in the face of international competition, Green sees its only future in becoming “smaller, smarter, and faster.” He says manufacturers need to learn to use technology really well.

“The ones that will survive are the ones that adopt new technology and new designs,” he says. “Traditional distribution is collapsing. Container costs have tripled, and the damage rate is high.”

He compares many old-line furniture manufacturers to “dinosaurs in the tar pits.” Innovation is what will pull them out of the muck, he says. “Companies that are doing well today are aggregating technology and developing new technologies,” Green says.

Green hopes to contribute to the successful transformation of the American furniture industry by consulting and licensing his designs to manufacturers.

“We are in discussion with several major American furniture manufacturers who are interested in licensing our intellectual property and design services,” he says. “I’m very excited about the prospect of our designs reaching a broader audience while working to strengthen the position of American manufacturers in the global marketplace.”

Green Design Furniture’s own manufacturing track record is impressive for a small Maine-based business. Since 1994, the company developed more than 200 designs for its furniture catalog, not including custom commissions. The company manufactured more than 10,000 pieces for customers in 48 states, Canada and overseas. Some 80 percent of its sales were outside Maine, and 63 percent of sales were repeat customers.

Recent credits 

In recent years as interest grows in sustainable design, Green’s company earned commissions to furnish several award winning LEED platinum projects, including the Unity House at Unity College and a new public library in Portola Valley, Calif.

Alex Chadwick of National Public Radio commented about the company, “What’s inspirational about (Green Design Furniture) is a sense of mission that derives from the pursuit of intelligent function and excellence in both design and manufacturing, and a sense of your own pleasure in discovering what is possible and of sharing that. There’s nothing arrogant or vain in GDF because there doesn’t need to be and because it’s not in the nature of the company. It’s the purposefulness that’s inspirational, the quality that is absent from many efforts that are meant to inspire buying, voting, faith and behavior.”

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.