On February 17th, New York’s Museum of Art and Design is presenting The Home Front, a panel discussion about the triumphs and tribulations of being an independent designer. Moderator Jen Renzi pre-interviewed some of the panelists, and this is the second conversation, with Tyler Hays.
Tickets, offered in partnership with Co.Design, are available here for just $9, with the offer code HOME.
As founder of the high-end design company BDDW, Tyler Hays is known for crafting exquisitely detailed furnishings out of precious American woods. But his real creative talent may lie in his business acumen. Through a combination of real-estate savvy, irreverence, and obsessiveness, he’s grown the company from a scrappy startup into a flourishing business over the last decade. We caught up with Hays en route from his SoHo showroom to his Philadelphia workshop to hear about his successes–and his stresses.
How did you get into this business? Did you always want to be a furniture designer?
I think I couldn’t find any other way to make a living that satisfied all my interests. In truth, I want to be an architect or an artist. But I was always entrepreneurial. I’ve done more odd jobs than anyone: manual labor, chopping wood, waiting tables at Friday’s–I even ran a small burger joint during sixth and seventh grade. In college, I got gallery representation and started selling my paintings.
I moved to New York to be an artist and a bartender. But then I got into construction because I was good at it. I’d always made my own shit–musical instruments, clothes–and I was good at taking things apart and putting them back together, good at fixing things.
So you always had a yen for the functional?
I grew up poor in rural Oregon. It was a pretty spartan upbringing. Things had to make sense, and they had to be useful. There was not a lot of room for conceptual thinking!
How did you score your first showroom, at the corner of Rivington Street and Freeman’s Alley in the Lower East Side?now the apex of artsy cool but, in 2000, a relatively unpasteurized corner of the city?
A friend told me about the storefront. The rent was $1,000 a month, which was cheap, but it hadn’t been occupied in decades; it had been a social club in the 1950s and had lain empty ever since. The place was filled with garbage and sewage. We had to go in with gas masks and dig through earthworm-filled soil. And there was a family of Methadone addicts living upstairs. The space was totally raw in every sense. But, back then, I was just so excited to be part of this crazy city!
After signing the lease, we realized we didn’t have any money, so we sat on the place for two years. To fund the renovation, I bought a house upstate and gut-renovated it so I could take out a loan against it. We then built out the space by hand in no time–two months–by working around the clock seven days a week.
Your current Crosby Street showroom was a similar DIY reno job, no?
It was insane: The floor was rubble, it hadn’t been renovated for 50 years, and there was a huge hole in the roof. I put down the deposit the week before 9/11. I would have thrown in the towel and walked away, but I’d made such a huge investment. My whole life was on the line. We had to fill this huge showroom and I had no money?just a few pieces of wood. We sat down and designed a bunch of pieces just to get the place open. Crazily, some of those pieces have ended up becoming our classics; it’s a lot of what still sells today.
We planned to do “furniture for the people?–something populist and affordable–because I assumed it was a better business model. But, in fact, rich people were the only ones buying, and our most expensive stuff ended up selling best. BDDW became a luxury brand by default: because people paid me to do crazy over-the-top craftsmanship, which was a dream to me. Ten years later, we’re finally developing our lower-end wholesale line”
Is that because of the economy?
A big part of it was relocating from Brooklyn to Philly two years ago. We now have a huge factory and can make stuff on that level and be competitive. It’s not just a small shop with guys using hand tools.
Moving to Philly totally changed my business. On every level, the city is way better suited to manufacturing than New York. You have the proximity to New York, yet the real estate is way cheaper, labor is cheaper. There are a lot of the hardworking art students, tons of talent. It’s even got a better art scene because the kids can afford studios.
Philly reminds me of what Williamsburg was like fifteen years ago when we opened our shop there; it’s real, it’s up and coming, it’s not a pipe dream. I moved to New York when you could sleep on someone’s couch for $300 a month. Now its $1,500 a month to sleep on someone’s couch.
You’re seem like a weird combination of shy and ballsy.
I?m generally pretty shy and not good at talking to tons of people. I?m also a terrible salesperson. I love styling the showroom?but in the workshop I?m in heaven. For what I do, my confidence is low. But it’s served me well. I created my own showroom because I wasn’t confident enough in my work to approach, like, Ralph Pucci and ask him to represent me. So I?m totally not confident and yet: it’s supremely arrogant to go and open my own huge showroom. But I got to do it my way.
You’ve got a specific worldview — evident from the moment you step into the BDDW showroom.
Most people who walk in off the street are humbled by the scale and breadth of the space. It’s such a totalizing vision that they either want to throw a rock at me or succumb to it.
It all comes out of: I?m sort of addicted to making the business an object. I’ve really built my own world–not just the showroom, but everything around me. I have such a short attention span that I couldn’t function unless I built my life around me in this way to accommodate my quirks.
Tell me about your design process. Do you sit in a corner and sketch? Do you design pieces collaboratively with your shop guys?
I don’t just sit down and design stuff; the process is more organic. We mess around alot in the workshop. I work on prototypes, but pieces involve lots of back and forth with the guys because I don’t have the attention span to complete anything. I don’t think I’ve ever built anything start to finish. I can’t even wash the dishes without leaving a fork in the sink; it’s a phobia of sorts. I remember when I first read about Japanese ceramicists and the concept of wabi-sabi, [the beauty of the incomplete or imperfect]; I identify with that so much it chokes me up.
You don’t really introduce new designs on any sort of schedule, do you?
The press always asks what’s new, but that’s not what sells. When we design a new piece, it takes two or three years before it starts to sell. People will ooh and aah, but it takes time before people start to believe in it. When we first introduced the Tripod lamp, for instance, it took two years to sell one. Now we sell like one a day.
I tell people who work with me: I don’t think a design is successful until you’ve sold 100 of it. That may not be cool, but it’s true. It’s way more difficult to design something that 100 people would like to own than to design something that’s simply clever. I don’t have the luxury to do that. From day one, I had to make the business work as a business, make furniture that people would want to buy and put in their home. Sometimes cleverness is like? how do you say this without sounding like a dickhead or a bitter poor kid? I love doing cool shit, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
It’s way more challenging and creative to make a successful business than to make a successful art installation. You are beholden to paying your people. Failure is not an option. You can’t hide behind anything.
I think I?m a better designer than I would have been had I grown up with money and studied to become a conceptual designer. There’s something about the wax-on, wax-off of having to learn how to build something before you come up with clever ideas. Of course, part of me is jealous of guys like Droog. In an ideal world, I’d love to be a conceptual installation artist for a living.
But you have creative outlets.
We used to all mess around in the shop until 11 PM, but now everyone has families to go home to. So we inaugurated “Thunder Thursdays,” where everyone hangs out, shoots archery (we have an archery range in the office), screws around with leatherwork and our audio equipment?some of the more fun and unprofitable work, much of which never hits the showroom. We even have a brewery in our credenza assembly room! If you come in on Saturdays, it smells like barley.
What are you most proud of?
That everyone in the company has health insurance–even entry-level woodworkers. And I am super proud of the company and the business, you bet. My dad brags more about my business than he does about any awards I’ve won. I?m not as prideful of that stuff as I am of having a company that offers a living wage and that manufactures in America.
We are unique. There’s no company modeled like us?it’s a very different business model, very weird and scary. There are no right answers, so we second-guess every step. The early years were crazy super hard and almost destroyed me. It took years off my life. There were times that I thought I’d die from the stress. But it’s totally worked, it’s crazy. I’ve learned everything about the business by making all my own mistakes. I?m scared of failure. But I?m also scared of success.
Still curious? Buy tickets to the Feb. 17th event here for $9 when you enter the offer code HOME.