— Craftsmen at a furniture manufacturing shop in Virginia are still making -- and selling -- one-of-a-kind products despite a sluggish economy and competition from discount furniture stores.
Festus Kamara has been a woodworker almost all of his adult life. He currently works with about 40 other craftsmen at Hardwood Artisans in rural Virginia.
“It pretty much makes me feel good knowing that I’m making things that customers get to appreciate when they get to the house,” he said. “And it’s a lifetime thing for them to always come in their room and see it and love it.”
That feeling of pride is at the heart of this American company which has been in business since 1976.
The craftsmen and women can build anything out of any wood but they typically use birch, maple, cherry and walnut primarily from the United States, and mahogany from overseas, all from sustainably grown trees.
They use solid wood to make one-of-a-kind products the old-fashioned way -- by hand, often using traditional tools. The company offers everything from simple plant stands to elaborate, custom-installed wall systems, to complete kitchens.
Mark Gatterdam is one of six partners, all craftsmen, who own and operate Hardwood Artisans. The company makes more than 500 items to sell in its four showrooms in the Washington, D.C. area.
Although the products are expensive, Gatterdan says they still sell.
“How do you survive a recession? When the phone rings, you answer it. And you do exactly what you say you’re going to do,” he said.
That often means creating a custom piece, which Gatterdam said is about half of what they build.
"I’ll visit with a customer, go to the home, pull measurements and design something and work it up from there,” he said.
Gene Rossidivito is a craftsman who now works at Hardwood Artisans in an administrative capacity, literally dealing with the nuts and bolts of the business.
What Rossidivito said he likes best about working at the furniture-making facility is working with the customers directly.
“There is no middle man,” he said, and added that he feels a personal sense of accomplishment “seeing that everybody gets what they’re supposed to get when they’re supposed to get it.”
A custom kitchen in the Hardwood Artisans showroom. (J. Taboh/VOA)
“We talk with the customers, we find out what they want, if they have questions we give them answers so we really have the opportunity to make sure they’re satisfied.”
Part of that dedicated customer service is adapting to changing demographics.
Gatterdam noted that their customer base is getting younger.
“Our customer used to be in the 45-65-year range,” he said. “But I’m seeing a lot of 30-something year-olds coming in.”
And, with the growing trend of telecommuting, more and more clients are spending money on home offices.
“People have spent a considerable amount of money modifying their homes to make their home office just like their work office,” he said.
But whether it's a desk or a dresser, Gatterdam says quality craftsmanship is what keeps customers coming back.
“Nobody needs a $4,000 dresser. Nobody. But we sell them every week,” he said. “If you buy one from an importer…nobody really goes in there and expects something to last a lifetime. You come in and buy a dining room set from us…there’s an understanding that this will be the last time you have to do this.”
Gatterdam says he has high hopes for the future of Hardwood Artisans.
“We’re still here because we didn’t compromise. And maybe 90 percent of the furniture businesses are out, because they did. People are always amazed, but I don’t consider what I do any different than say a doctor; a doctor works under a certain code of ethics,” he said. “Well why wouldn’t a furniture maker be the same? It’s no different. I want to go home at night knowing that I did the best job I could.”