How to spot high quality
"We thought it would grow slower," laughs Scott Hudson of Henrybuilt, the furniture and kitchen design company he founded with friend Peter Strang. Although it has been in existence for only 2 1/2 years, the company, with a retail showroom on Seattle's Western Avenue, has catapulted into a highly successful business.
Before Henrybuilt, Hudson worked in the publishing industry. On long business flights between Seattle and Japan, he filled sketchbooks with drawings of furniture. In 2001 he asked Strang, a longtime friend who was involved with construction and cabinetmaking at the time, if he would be interested in a joint venture. "We started out looking at it as a sideline thing," explains Hudson. But clients came quickly, and before long, orders that began with a table were ballooning to include a sideboard, kitchen cabinets, and beyond.
Strang and Hudson ― both modest to a fault ― seem genuinely surprised by their company's rapid success, but it's easy to see what's gotten them here. On Western Avenue, where a handful of European importers offer sleek but not always well-constructed designs at break-the-bank prices, Henrybuilt offers an alternative. By controlling every step of the process ― design, manufacturing, and retailing ― Henrybuilt is able to give customers more for their money.
"Our clients are dealing with a craftsperson, not a salesperson," Hudson says. "If someone comes into the showroom and says, 'I really love that, but it is 84 inches long and I have an 82-inch space,' it's no problem. We can make it any size."
Furniture for everyone
What's absent from Henrybuilt's furniture is as important as what is present. There are no glitzy metal finishes, no heavily lacquered surfaces, no decorative ornamentation, and no wood stains. The designs grow from the function of the piece and are driven by the process of construction and the nature of the materials. The wood, including cherry, mahogany, walnut, and bamboo, is left as natural as possible, and details such as interlocking joinery at the corners allow you to see how the pieces are put together. The resulting aesthetic is modern and minimalistic, but at the same time warm and approachable.
Henrybuilt is named for the owners' grandfathers, who were both named Henry and who both worked with their hands to make enduring, utilitarian products. But Hudson and Strang also feel that the name conveys the down-to-earth image they want their company to have. "We don't want people walking by and saying, 'I can't go in there,'" Strang says.
"Our customers are regular people," Hudson adds. "They are nurses, engineers, graphic designers, and PR people." And many are outdoorsy people ― a quality that Hudson and Strang find intriguing. They think there might be a parallel between outdoor gear and their furniture, because both are meticulously engineered for functionality and durability.
Fittingly, Strang and Hudson have a democratic leadership style. Each project is "owned" by a lead cabinetmaker, who follows it through to completion. The status of each project is updated daily on a wipe board that takes up a full wall of the company's nerve center ― an office space carved out of the noisy but extraordinarily tidy workshop. If a cabinetmaker comes up with a better way of making something, it is chronicled in a production report and incorporated into future pieces.
Where do they want to be in 5 to 10 years? "At home," jokes Strang, a new father. Hudson chimes in, on a serious note: "In 5 to 10 years we want to be doing the same thing ― but better."
INFO: Henrybuilt (closed Mon; 913 Western Ave.; www.henrybuilt.com or 206/624-9270)
- Look for solid surfaces. "Solid materials wear and age more beautifully than veneers and can be refurbished again and again," Hudson explains.
- Pay attention to veneered components. Make sure a good substrate, such as plywood, is used; fiberboard and microdensity fiberboard are inferior. And solid-wood "nosing" ― a piece of solid wood glued to the edge of the plywood ― is superior to veneer tape.
- Ask how the furniture is finished. Conversion varnish is stronger and more moisture-resistant than lacquer.
- Examine the joints. Overlapping connections are far stronger than dowelled and glued joints. For stronger joints, finishing work should be done after assembly.
- Ask about the warranty. Henrybuilt offers a lifetime guarantee with respect to defects in material and workmanship. "Any good custom cabinetmaker should stand by their work," says Hudson.