Icon Modern truly is a story about building a business around materials — specifically urban wood. Ten years ago, I was a manufacturer’s rep for a contract furniture company. I started to learn more about urban wood and it just captivated me. That concept of taking something that would otherwise be wasted, and instead, making beautiful things out of it. The market for urban wood was and is mainly craftsmen and residential projects. Material like this does not exist in the contract furniture world. So I put together a network of people — an architect who is now a business partner, a fabricator, and a sawyer — and started a commercial and contract furniture business using reclaimed wood.
Our first big customer was Starbucks and stayed that way for the first three years of our business. So we basically designed our operations to service them. Working with Starbucks opened doors for us to start working with Whole Foods and others. There was so much pent-up demand for reclaimed materials in contract and commercial furniture that up until last year, our business grew by word of mouth and referrals.
About 80 percent is urban wood, meaning truly reclaimed urban trees. We have a balance of products that are reclaimed wood, building materials, found objects, car parts, and other salvaged materials.
We have built our world by working to people’s strengths. We typically buy finished kiln-dried lumber or slabs from suppliers. Or we contract to purchase kiln-dried loads, then determine the specifications we need. We also utilize a network of makers in the Chicago region, mainly small-scale craftsmen, wood shops, and steel shops. We go upstream when there are larger projects and talk to larger manufacturers who can help us. We provide the wood and work with good workshops to help us fill any order. That way, I could make one coffee table or 700 dining tables without skipping a beat.
I always promote urban wood by telling its story. In the contract and commercial furniture industry, sustainability became a focus about 10 years ago. But all of the sustainable products that became popular, like bamboo, aren’t really that sustainable. That’s because large companies can’t work with truly sustainable materials. They are not easy materials to work with. In the case of urban wood, every board has to be looked at and dealt with, just like traditional woodworking. In my opinion, urban wood is filling a void in this industry that desperately needs to be filled by the consumer.
We do have a few customers who want urban wood products for other reasons than sustainability. We have broad product claims and services we offer, like architects and designers on staff who can take a concept all the way through to a finished product. Our differentiator as a furniture manufacturer is a combination of what we do and how we do it. Many customers come in because of an interest in using reclaimed materials, but when they see what we can do with the materials, the project always grows.
Finding reliable sources for material. It is much easier now that we are working with suppliers in Michigan and Wisconsin, but we still sometimes find ourselves scrambling to get materials. And, the general challenges of running a furniture company on top of it.
All of the perceived negative features of lumber are in fact selling points to us – knots, stains, checks, movement, any weirdness or uniqueness of the wood is exactly what we sell. Traditionally, mill workers would discard these pieces because they aren’t considered “perfect” by industry standards. And solid wood furniture manufacturers tend to shy away from it for those reasons as well. But we don’t like straight edges. We love boards with blue-gray stains from the mill or a big knot that looks like an animal face when we put a pattern together. Urban wood has the features that we think make our furniture beautiful. Urban wood is gaining momentum as an industry, but there is still a lot more to go.
Our mission is to inform, collaborate, and connect to build business and consumer confidence in the urban wood industry. Whether you are looking to expand your existing model or want to start a new business dedicated to urban wood, click here to see how we can help you be successful.
The Urban Wood Network is made up of individual and organizational efforts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin, working in cooperation to connect and enhance the full circle of sustainable urban forestry. This website was created as part of the grant project, Bringing Urban Forestry Full Circle: Localized Approaches for Capturing Value and Enhancing Public Benefits from Urban Forests, funded by the U.S. Forest Service. The Urban Wood Network provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetics.