Can Brian Boggs change the world for pro furnituremakers?
The ever-inventive Brian Boggs—not satisfied with re-inventing the ladderback chair form and every tool and technique used to produce it—has turned his attention to the biggest problem of all, one that has dogged him and other professional woodworkers for decades: how to make a decent living while producing top-notch work.
When I first met Boggs in 2001, he was in his spacious shop in Berea, Kentucky, surrounded by chair-making innovations: his Rube Goldberg contraption that sliced hickory bark into thin strips for his traditional chair seats, a huge custom steam tank, light-bulb kilns for super-drying tenons, slat-bending forms shaped like a human back, his improved version of the classic shaving horse, a sharpening method that involved diamond dust, and a host of other machines and jigs all customized for the unparalleled precision that Brian’s chairs require. And he was beginning work on a new line of spokeshaves (at left) that would fulfill the tool’s great potential. Those are sold now by Lie-Nielsen.
But when I asked this larger-than-life guy how he marketed and priced his work, he visibly deflated. He had no good answer, he said. How do you charge for a chair that was the result of 20 years of evolution in design and engineering, and the only chair that Sam Maloof bought from another maker?
Nine years later, Boggs might have the answer. He explained it at a recent seminar I attended in Kerrville, Texas, at the annual Texas Furniture Makers Show (check out some pieces from this great show). When the economy tanked in 2008 (and Boggs’ marriage ended), he saw an opportunity to start over, to change his location, reshape his career, and revolutionize his business model. “I wanted to build something bigger,” he said. He also wanted to break away from the stigma of being a ladderback chairmaker, he said.
He had outgrown the quiet hamlet of Berea, Kentucky, so he set up shop in Asheville, N.C., a growing center for fine craftsmen and a perennial draw for wealthy vacationers. But he was confronted with the same old challenges: wood sourcing, marketing, attacting skilled employees, and finding time for the design work, tool development, and joint testing that had been indispensable to his progress as an artist and maker. Plus he had new challenges: local wood sources and word-of-mouth.
Since Asheville has a strong Arts & Crafts legacy, and lots of homes in that style, Boggs began to design contemporary pieces loosely inspired by that style. But he needed to be able to have others build his designs, so he could design more pieces and evolve more quickly.
The breakthrough came when he hired business consultants to help him make a bold new strategic plan. Together they came up with The Boggs Collective.
The idea is strength in numbers, and creating an infrastructure that could support craftsman from the time they decide they want to be a woodworkers, providing training, helping them source materials, offering them designs that fit their skill set, marketing their work, giving them business guidance, etc.
The truth is that most woodworkers are not good at all of the necessary components of running a successful business, and most lack a certain level of professionalism, Brian said.
The Collective was able to hire a full-time marketer who is as good at marketing as the makers are at designing and making, Boggs said. Most woodworkers can’t afford that.
He had tried all the typical ways of selling high-end work, Boggs said. The traditional gallery is out for itself, he said, not marketing and being loyal to you. They also don’t survey the market to see what it wants from a given woodworker.
The Collective provides designs and takes a royalty when they are used. It also takes in interns and provides training. They do vet prospective members to ensure they have a certain level of talent.
Boggs says that new pros usually bite off too much. They spend their time fixing problems, rather than developing skills. So he designs pieces for them that are easy to make but still elegant. Some of these simpler designs have turned out to be better sellers than The Collective’s more complex designs, and thos elegantly simple pieces train and create better employees, Boggs said.
Then next stages are for that craftsmen to tackle Boggs’ most challenging designs, and then teach others to make them, and anytime along the way, begin to pitch his or her own designs. “He will then be designing with a fluent skill set, and with a better idea about marketing by watching what has been going on,” Boggs said. “His learning curve will be a lot faster than mine was.
“What we are trying to create is nothing less than an incubator for genius,” he said. The goal is for each member to open up his own studio, with the local ones sharing space with Brian and the others in Asheville.
Outside designers and makers are welcome, too. Peter Galbert, Curtis Buchanan, and others are already designing chairs for The Collective.
Boggs says doors are opening that never would have opened before. He recently received a $100,000 business incubator grant for The Collective. And a high-end guitar company called to get special chairs (at right) for players to be comfortable in.
Brian then gave the seminar attendees a reality check: “People have enough furniture, so what is the value that we provide?” This launched a group brainstorming session, where the answers bubbled up naturally from the group of mostly pro makers:
1. The ability to take someone’s creativity and give it a tangible form.
2. Shared passion
3. Soulful experience
4. Allowing clients to particpate in some way in the process, and give them a good story to tell others
5. Connecting to real craftsman, where they live
6. An education in quality and taste
Boggs explained that these are the principle that The Collective is founded on and will stick to, and that following them is the only way to survive. And he advised that a maker’s Web site should covey all of these value points, and also have videos of the process, joints coming together, etc., so people can share in it.
He also emphasized finding the right venues for selling, and targeting people who are educated and have money.
He donated a chair to a local chairity and then organized a cocktail party to introduce the collective to wealthy local people who run and run contribute to the charity. He also said woodworkers should direct their activities so they make for good press. For example, building the collective has been a great story.
Boggs says that organizations like The Boggs Collective can build a community of connoiseurs of furniture, just like cigars, wine, cars, guitars, etc. It’s a tall order, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if he succeeds.
Boggs, right, with his partner, Melanie Moeller, and the Asheville members of The Boggs Collective.
This is the ladderback dining chair that made Boggs famous in woodworking circles.
Dream Guitars of Weaverville, N.C., recently hired The Collective to design and produce a chair for guitar players. This is the result, designed to be comfortable for someone in the playing position. Boggs also developed a new joint, seen at the back of the seat, for this chair.
Boggs also designs his own tools. His line of spokeshaves is manufactured by Lie-Nielsen.