The Craft of Design: Tyler Hays

The Craft of Design: Tyler Hays

Tyler Hays Lake Dresser

Tyler Hays. The muted, modernist Lake dresser in graphite and oxidized maple. Photo: Courtesy of BDDW

“I want to make stuff I can be around,” Tyler Hays says of the design philosophy behind his sleek, artful, easy-to-live-with furniture. “You know – cool enough, nice enough, but if I need to forget about how my house looks and have some emotions, I can do that in the room.”

With his company, BDDW (a name taken from some letters on a brick chimney visible from the window of his first woodworking studio), Hays has turned his lifelong “control-freak obsession” with materials and craftsmanship into a high-profile brand. He’s got 85 employees, a 5,000-square-foot showroom in Manhattan, and two buildings totaling 300,000 square feet in Philadelphia, where the “hot, sweaty, dirty work” gets done in his own woodshop and foundry.

“We’re mostly about handmade stuff, but also more than handmade. I’m interested in extreme quality, things lasting,” says Hays, who designs each piece, is involved in every aspect of its production and marketing, and guarantees it for life. “A lot of stuff you can do better with good machinery. And it’s more repeatable.”

Art, for him, is conceiving the big picture: Why put an object out there? Where does artistic expression meet customer demand? “I did a lot of analyzing and questioning and compromising, figuring out the pure parts of what I was doing,” he says. “If I’m making a table, is it about me or other people? How do they see it, and use it?”

But to build a business, he’ll tell you, there’s no substitute for sweat equity. Hays came to New York right out of the University of Oregon art school in the early 1990s, and for years “just worked my ass off,” he recalls. “There was really no plan. I found a bunch of other obsessed craftsmen who were looking for a place to pour themselves into and make a living at it. That’s what drives this larger engine. We’ve become kind of our own little industry. It’s really beautiful.” 

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Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.