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Vermont's furniture makers build a brand


Published April 28, 2004 at 12:47 p.m.

The "Made in Vermont" cachet is branching out. The state's reputation for purity and integrity provides a seal of approval for its specialty food products, from maple syrup to ice cream to salsa. Now that marketing magic is about to wave a hand-turned wand over its furniture. At least that's the idea behind the fledgling Vermont Wood Products Marketing Council. Anyone who goes to the first-ever showcase of the state's fine furniture makers this weekend at Shelburne Farms is likely to say, "Well, duh."

Indeed, it seems that a product combining the words wood, craftsmanship and Vermont would be the very definition of high quality, and certainly furniture makers from one-person shops to factories already benefit in a general way from that esteem. It's no accident that furniture giant Ethan Allen -- which is based in Connecticut --cashes in on the name of a famous Green Mountain Boy.

What the Marketing Council aims to do is "brand" the state's wood products in much the same way its agricultural ones have been, using that "Vermont = quality" equation to boost the industry that comes from trees. The reputation part is easy; what makes it harder is that marketing money doesn't grow on those trees.

Enter the Vermont Department of Economic Development -- and a supportive Douglas administration, which has taken notice of an industry that comprises nearly 19,000 Vermont workers and benefits the state to the tune of $24.9 million annually, according to 2002 figures. A debut appropriation of $40,000 from the Vermont Legislature, along with a couple of grants from other sources, made possible this weekend's event.

"The showcase is one of the outcomes of a long process our department has been doing with the wood industry in Vermont, specifically secondary wood products," explains Deputy Commissioner Richard Smith. "It goes back a couple of years; a guy on our staff, George Robson, has been looking at the industry, the natural resources, and looking at the threat from overseas and the opportunities that Vermont could avail itself of to compete. The comparison to agriculture products is there."

That "threat from overseas" hit Vermont's furniture industry hard in the last few years, when Ethan Allen closed its factories in Island Pond (2001) and Randolph (2002) and reportedly sent jobs to China. Maybe the state-sanctioned Council can't avert such disasters. But, when they do happen, it can provide support for such efforts as the Island Pond Woodworkers -- the employee cooperative that rose from the ashes of the Ethan Allen plant.

A direct outcome of state surveys and branding research, the Vermont Wood Products Marketing Council consists of nine members representing the whole spectrum of the wood industry. Its mandate is more complex than "sell more chairs," though. As a nonprofit educational group it aspires to increase, both in state and out, "awareness of the outstanding design of the products, the environmental sensitivity of the manufacturers, and their commitment to customer satisfaction."

That's a mission Jeff Parsons has stood behind for 21 years with his own company, Beeken Parsons, which crafts beautifully unique pieces of found "forest furniture" on the grounds of Shelburne Farms. Parsons is also the president of the Marketing Council, which he thinks can benefit Vermont professional woodworkers across the board. "The wood products industry is a pretty diverse group -- from the industrial-type personalities to the displaced hippies making stuff," he says. "There hasn't always been the level of communication and cooperation within the industry. I think the council is a real serious effort by as broad a spectrum as we can put together to really market ourselves."

Parsons notes that smaller operations tend to fall short in the self-promotion arena. Meanwhile the larger businesses find themselves shouldering the burden of competing with less-expensive foreign goods. "There's a very real potential for the Council to serve both groups well, small and large," Parsons says. The key is to educate consumers "about what the brand attributes are of our industry, our region and state."

Those attributes include the timeless appeal of handcrafting; the idea of products made by a local artisan using local, natural, renewable resources; and the aesthetic of beautiful, high-quality furniture that will become heirlooms. Of course, all those ideals can splinter when a consumer is faced with an attractively designed, cheap knock-off at a discount store. The Marketing Council hopes to encourage them to go with the Green Mountain grain.

Even auxiliary participants in the furniture biz -- architects, designers, interior decorators and the like -- need to be better informed about Vermont's resources, suggests Parsons. That's why the Vermont Wood Products Showcase is offering a "trades" day on Friday. Governor Douglas himself will arrive in the afternoon to present awards in the First Annual Vermont Wood Products Design Competition.

With nine categories, from production furniture to bowls to musical instruments, the options were broad. But even so, says Parsons, he was amazed at the diversity of participants. "We've had more than 100 entries and they come from all over," he notes. "I've been on the board of the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association for years and I think I know a lot about the industry in Vermont, but I didn't recognize a lot of the names." In addition to well-known woodworkers, entries came "from high school students, guys doing projects in their basements," says Parsons. Prizes will be granted based on the quality of the workmanship and the innovation of design.

The winners' works will be on view for the general public on Saturday, along with displays from some 20 established furniture makers and related businesses. Attendees can also take a guided tour of a working forest, look at model rooms furnished with Vermont wood products, watch demonstrations throughout the day -- from lathe turnings to string inlays to carving curls for sleigh beds -- and try their hands at building a toy truck.

One of the "door" prizes is a small, handsome table made by Burlington woodworker Lars Larsen, who will also be demonstrating wood joinery techniques Saturday afternoon. On the "one-man-show" end of the woodworking industry, Larsen doesn't have a website and he's not trying to brand his own name. Yet, networking by word of mouth, he's been building custom furniture since 1970.

Representing the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers along with Colchester chairmaker Randall Henson, Larsen believes that "what we do is the draw" as far as that Vermont cachet is concerned. That is, handcrafting master-level pieces of furniture one at a time. Even large Vermont manufacturers with assembly lines rely on that reputation, he suggests. "The Marketing Council benefits of branding will trickle down," Larsen says. "It's important that the Council direct some of its resources to the smaller producers, but it's also important for the smaller groups to speak up."

The Marketing Council is not, of course, the first or only wood-specific association in the state. After all, as the official, tree-shaped "Vermont Quality Wood Products" logo notes, the industry has been around since 1791. The council's umbrella covers some half-dozen other groups: the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association (VWMA), the Guild, the Vermont Forest Products Association and Vermont WoodNet, as well as the state departments of Economic Development and Forests, Parks & Recreation. Each of these is represented by a member on the Council, along with individuals from several businesses.

As important as these groups are within the state's wood industry, no one expects the general public to keep track of the acronyms, nor to care about who does what. But the Council does hope and expect that potential customers will come to understand exactly why that pricey, handmade Vermont furniture is a good buy.

No one could have more enthusiasm for that point than Council Secretary Mary Jeanne Packer, whom Larsen calls "the most important asset to woodmakers in the state." She's also the executive director of the VWMA, which is a founding Council member, and has become a spokeswoman, mover and shaker "because the other organizations don't have staff," she explains cheerfully.

From a cell phone in her car, where she apparently spends a lot of time, Packer waxes about the showcase -- "It's similar to open studios, but we're bringing the studio to the people" -- and about the Council's plans beyond the debut event. That includes optimism about continued support from the Vermont Legislature: the new proposed budget is more than triple this year's.

A couple of small grants from state and federal agencies will facilitate one of a half-dozen new projects -- displays that chronicle the history of woodworking in Vermont, which could be placed at museums, visitor centers and participating companies. Some of the Council's other goals? A second annual showcase and design competition. An improved website at Woodworking demonstrations at touristy locations. And, perhaps most importantly, promoting the Vermont brand at national trade shows.

Mike Dorey couldn't agree more that furniture buyers need a little education, even right here in Vermont. The manager of the new Cotswold Furniture Makers Gallery in Stowe, he notes that some shoppers simply look at price tags. And some "can't handle the idea that they could have custom-made furniture." But he concedes that some customers do "walk in here and know right away the techniques and historical background" of the furniture.

Cotswold's designer is English craftsman John Lomas, who relocated to Whiting in 1992 and continued building fine furniture adapted from the clean, elegant styles of Shaker and Mission traditions. The shop, which annually produces furniture valued at a half-million dollars, employs just four to 10 workers, Dorey explains. The Stowe showroom suggests a much larger operation, but despite an evident product line, he points out that 60 percent of the pieces are still custom-made.

The proliferating furniture makers and related businesses in the area are planning to market themselves as a group, according to Dorey. "We want to find as many reasons as possible for people to come to Stowe," he says. As for the Vermont Wood Products Marketing Council, he believes the exposure, particularly out of state, is all good, but that the group's success "will depend on money from the state."

Cotswold is one of many Vermont manufacturers that have been successfully building their own brands -- think Pompanoosuc, Charles Shackle-ton and Copeland, among others. Some one-man shops have got the branding thing down, too, literally imprinting their names into the backs or bottoms of their creations. But many individual craftsmen, and women, let their finished products speak for themselves.

One of them is Randall Henson, who has been making Windsor chairs for nearly eight years. Each chair, with its characteristic broad, carved seat and spindle back, uses three kinds of wood and takes about a week and a half to make. Henson's Colchester shop is the size of a two-car garage, and bears evidence of canoe building, too. But the chairs are his premier product, and about 75 percent of his business. Prices range from $1600 for a rocker to $200 for a stool. Henson's love for traditional craftsmanship is revealed by his equipment -- the kind that was in use two centuries ago.

What's the appeal? "There's less emphasis on power tools," he says simply. "I can listen to VPR and shave spindles with hand tools." Henson demonstrates lovingly on his shaving horse, just as he does once a year at the Shel-burne and Fairbanks museums. "Even a 4-year-old is big enough to work this," he says.

Like his friend Lars Larsen, Henson sells a lot through word of mouth and established customers -- though he is online. He also relies on the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers shows at galleries around the state. Henson says customers for his strong, and handsome chairs tend to be "people who are educated in and historically interested in furniture, who have an engineering slant to them."

Henson sat on the Market-ing Council committee as it was forming, representing the Guild. "It's hard to say how effective it will be," he surmises. "I feel the Guild is competing against the larger organizations. But the advantage of the Guild is, we have 32 independent furniture makers who have been working on their skills for years. They're very marketable.

"When the Council wants to sell an image, it's of the sole proprietor pushing a plane in his or her shop," Henson continues. "In the mind of out-of-staters, Vermont is associated with being very green, and Vermont-made with integrity and craftsmanship. Hopefully it will translate into more income for all secondary woodworkers."

Knock on wood.