ONCE upon a time designers felt obliged to go to New York or Los Angeles to make it big. Today there are designers not only making their mark in the nation's capital but gaining national recognition. Consider, for exaple, four Washington designers who make it their business to create tables and chairs for mass production.
When Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme wanted a special set of four bar stools for their California home, they scarcely blinked before they plunked down $2,750 each for four of Washington designer Jeffery Bigelow's acrylic snakeshin upholstered creations.
The Museum of Modern Art recently snapped up a revolutionary moilded plywood chair by Alexandria designer Peter Danko. And, when Rep. John Brademad (D-i/nd.) held his wedding reception on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks last year, whimsical sculptural chairs by Washington artist Altina Carey dotted the lawns for the array of guests.
When we sit in a chair or set out a plate on the dining room table, we rarely think about the individual who designed that piece of furniture or how it was dine. In a way, furniture design is a kind of architecture. It is an art form that transforms raw materials into something potentially its glamor, the business of furniture design can be cut-throat. Designers who create tables and chairs for mass productin complain bitterly about the constant threat of "knock-offs" of their designs by less creative minds.
"It's a hard business to break into and an even more difficult one to stay in," says Joe Adkinson, whose 30 years of experience make him the dean of area designers. Adkinson is virtually unknown in Washington though he is one of te country's more successful free-lance designers. Each year he and his associates design several hundred pieces of furniture for American manufacturers. He is one of Hibritten's (traditional moderate to expensive furniture) leading designers, has done work for Flair, Hedstrom (the manufacturer of children's furniture), J. C. Penney and Sears.
The 58-year-old Adkinson had his start as a kind of errand-running apprentice in the studio of the Chicago industrial designer Raymond Loewy. He chuckles as he recalls the privilege of designing upholstery for Greyhound buses under the master's tutelage. After Loewy and a brief stint as an interior designer, Adkinson landed himself a job as a designer for Thonot, one of the nation's leading manufacturers of seating (including the famed Thonet rocker). Thent, became an independent designer and moved to Bethesda.
"The best way to design furniture," says Adkinson, "is to know the taste level of your client, the president of the factory, his wife's taste, his sales manager's and his three best salesmen's; recognize what he wants to do, and try to come up with something he can do."
As a commercial designer, Adkinson prides himself on his flexibility. He has no personal signature, no individual style that immediately identifies his work. His portfolio is heavy with traditional furniture.
"When I go to the fairs at High Point, N.C., every year," says Adkinson, "I see howe things are goong and I talk over new lines for the next year with my clients. They might say to me, Joe, how about trying a Louis XIV living room suite for us?"
Adkinson goes back to the drawing boards, working with three other designers in his studio, and develops rough sketches. One of his key employes is a 72-year-old Norwegian woman who has, according to Adkinson, "a marvelous sensitivity for antiques and a fantastic command of detailing." Adkinson, who avoids "knock-off" designing, keeps few catalogues from ther manufacturers. instead, his reference books on authentic period furniture serve as inspiration for his work. Once a design is accepte, two years geerally pass before the piece is seen on a showroom floor. Consequently it takes two years before Adkinson is paid for his work -- 1 to 3 percent of the wholesale price of each piece sold.
How much thoise royalties total is Adkinson's secret. "I don't put out that kind of information for anybody," he says firmly.
Not content to sit and wait for royalty checks to come in, 31-year-old Georgetown designer Jeffrey Bigelow has opted for the dual role of designer/ manufacturer. Bigelow looks to Adkinson as one of his mentors in the furniture design business.
"He was terrific to me when I was just getting started six years ago," says Bigelow, whose business has grown from a one-job-at-a-time basement operation into a firm grossing a half million a year with outlets in five U.S. cities.
Following a kind of apprenticeship with a Kensington manufacturer of acrylic boxes and pedestals, Bigelow began to make custom pieces in the basement of a rented Bethesda home. The work caught on and soon he had enough orders to hire two helpers and move to Georgetown.
Recognizing the importance of a good marketing strategy, the former University of Maryland business major created the "Jeffery Bigelow Design Group, Inc.," in 1974, complete with a van bearing the distinctive signature found on every chair and table that emerges from the factory.
Unlike Joe Adkinson, Bigelow is not designing for everyman; he is designing for an elite slever of the market willing to pay several thousand dollars for a plastic table or chair. A 96inch x48inch x29inch acrylic-base, glass-top-ped dining table, for example, lists at $11,417.
"People are willing to pay my prices because acrylic is delicate, it's vulnerable. It has a crystal-like appearance and it goes with eclectic environments," says Bigelow, sounding very much like the salesman he is.
Bigelow suffered a substantial business reverse last year when he invested in an expansion plan that he then scrapped before it got off the ground. Right now he draws a subsistence salary and is trying to plow the rest of his profits back into the business.
"A couple of years ago several of the papers wrote about my wearing custommade shirts and $200 slacks and expensive loafers," chuckles the attractive, carefully turned-out designer. "Well, I'm still wearing them, but they're the same loafers, the same shirts and I just bought a new pair of slacks for the first time in a long while."
In addition to a large Georgetown facility, Bielow has a staff of eight to keep busy and thousands of dollars of sample wares in showrooms around the country. Wooden templates cover two walls of his two-room factory for the 26 items in his line. Another wall is lined with heavy acrylic sheets covered with paper waiting to be transformed into a $2,000 plant stand, $1,500 chair or some other precious piece of accent furniture.
"I made more money three years ago when I was working the saw myself and finishing with two other guys. But you can't grow that way. Right now my ovegead is high, but the orders keep rolling in, so I can't complain."
By contrast, Alexandria designe Peter Danko runs a much more humble operation out of a single workshop in the Pond Gallery on King Street. At the moment he is his only emplaye and in the seven years he has worked as a designer, he has never earned more than $5,000 a year. Danko turned to production designing because, "It's more efficient, and besides, I need the money."
Since the Museum of Modern Art bought his molded plywood chair, Danko has been negotiating with several major manufacturers interested in producing the chair and has even been offered a tempting job as the in-house designer for one firm. Danko has patented the design of two of his chairs and is currently working on a patent proposal for a glass and wood table which he feels has potential as a production piece.
The lanky, 29-year-old designer hit on the idea for his pressure molded chair three years ago as he recuperated from a serious hand injury. He spent months sketching ideas rather than working in wood. Out of that convalescence emerged the design for a chair that was so exciting to him that he immediately tried to sell it to several manufacturers, only to be told that the chair couldn't be made to retail for less than under $200 a chair and wouldn't work anyway. After the Museum of Modern Art purchase, however, the same firms suddenly discovered a new interesr in the design. While he waits for one of the nibbles to turn into a full-fledged strike at the hook, Danker sells the chairs he makes himself for $135 each.
Art more than economics figures into the workings of the studio of Altina Carey, located in one of Washington's more fashionable co-op apartments. Unlike the area's three other production designers, Carey devotes much of her time to one-of-a-kind "portrait" chairs and shuttles between Washington and California homes.
Once a painter, Carey approackes her production proaches her production pieces like a printmaker. She wants them to be apprecibted in part because of their limited edition and plans to have the fiberglass molds deatroued once 200 of each have been sold. At $650 to $1,500 apiece, the novelty chairs require a special kind of owner.
The black and white "brides" designed by Carey ( $650) are highly polished fiberglass indoor chairs in which the seat and back appear as seated stained glass figures with sculpted heads. Other production pieces include a "Cleopatera" ($1,00), "Equus" ($1,500) and a silver "Motorcycle Chair" ($1,500). Her production pieces are handled by the Touchstone Gallery on P Street here in Washington and by Los Angeles and New York galleries.
Carey began about 10 years ago in California making people chairs in wood. "I just thought people looked like chairs -- in fact, I've seen a person-chair which dates to 1500 B.C., " says the grandmotherly artist.
Of the future, Carey's main concern is personal fulfillment, "I like to work enough to be able to do what I want, and although I like to make money, it's not the main thing, the fun of it all is the main thing."