Never underestimate the usefulness of a good, sturdy wooden stool. Furniture designer-maker Asher Dunn built a business on one.
In 2009, a year after he’d graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and opened his own woodshop in Pawtucket, Dunn was struggling to establish himself in the midst of a dismal economy. He’d been chasing commission work to pay the bills but itched to do his own thing. His dream was to create original furniture and accessories, in sustainable American hardwood and other “honest” materials, with the look and feel of the midcentury modern classics he loved: clean and streamlined, yet warm and familiar, with a contemporary twist. That’s what he was going for when he built his first self-initiated design, a little round wooden seat with slender, tapered legs. He called it the Coventry stool.
“That piece sat in the shop for a couple of months,” Dunn, 26, recalls. “It was a very simple piece, kind of a rethink of a classic milking stool. It kept getting compliments, and people asked where they could get one. That inspired me and gave me the motivation to design a whole collection around it.”
Within a year, that collection of tables, stools, chairs, shelves, and accent pieces – The Rhode Island Collection by Studio Dunn – won him Best New Designer honors at the 2010 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Dwell magazine called the Coventry stool “a feat of woodworking.” Elle Décor called his Barrington chair “sleek and modern while recalling exquisite New England craftsmanship.” Studio Dunn was off and running.
Today, Dunn has a solid team in place – two full-time employees and one part-time employee who help design and craft the pieces, plus a network of freelance artisans and fabricators, many of them friends and former classmates. And he is immersed in the challenges of growing his young company. In 2012 he moved his base to Providence, an art-centric city that calls itself “the creative capital.” Along with Studio Dunn, his operation includes Keeseh Woodshop, a community space he started as a way to fund his own creative endeavors, offering members access to workspace, machinery, classes, and a gallery.
“It was a means to an end, but I also have a passion for teaching, so it brings something I love doing into the mix,” he says. (Keeseh, which means “chair” in Hebrew, is a thank-you to his parents for his strong Jewish upbringing.) Recently he joined with Matt Grigsby, another RISD alum, to launch Anchor, an incubator space where aspiring artists and designers can rent studios as they begin their careers. All three enterprises share one 13,000-square-foot building – a synergistic, creative environment that, Dunn says, gives him balance and a foundation.
For Dunn, it’s the blend of self-determination, resourcefulness, and collaboration that is key to surviving and thriving as a maker. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurship that rises to the surface during hard times and high unemployment. People feel less secure about the job market and are more willing to invest in themselves,” he observes. “Our generation, with the economy, we have to come together to support each other,” he adds. Also essential is the connection to the larger design community and to his clientele via the Internet.
“What’s nice about a lot of young companies that have started out in the last couple of years is this newfound level of transparency,” he says. “We put a lot of pictures on Facebook and on our blog to show people what’s going on in the studio, and I think the consumer really responds to that.”
A born craftsman, Dunn was always curious about how things were put together and how they worked. As a toddler, according to family lore, he dismantled the household ventilator system with his Sesame Street screwdriver. His parents, both doctors, loved art and filled their Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, home with it. His father was an avid amateur woodworker with his own basement shop, where Dunn learned basic techniques. Copies of American Craft magazine (yes, the very same) were always on the shelves, and Dunn would regularly thumb through them. “My dad got on my case about dog-earing his magazines, so I got into this terrible habit as a child of taking an X-Acto knife and cutting out my favorite pages.” The Dunns encouraged their son’s creativity and nudged him toward RISD, a school they felt would nurture and challenge him.
“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” he says of his time there. “RISD was all about a mindset. You come there with a level of raw talent and abilities, and they help to mold the way you think about it and approach it and apply it.” As an industrial design major, he received a well-rounded education in the creation of a product, from concept to making to marketing, with RISD’s signature emphasis on craft. He leaned toward jewelry at first – “My mentality was ‘I’m not gonna do what my dad does’ ” – but changed his mind after taking an introductory woodworking class: “I fell in love instantaneously.”
In the year following his breakout debut, Dunn deliberately introduced only a few new products – a careful, considered approach he describes as “testing the field, trying things out, seeing where the response is, to learn and grow.” Now he’s ready to devote more time to designing. “We’re on a good track with new pieces, sticking to our goals of continuing to work with very honest and traditional materials,” he says. That doesn’t rule out pushing woodworking’s limits, as in his Corliss chair, which smoothly fuses a sculptural cast-aluminum back to a wooden seat and legs. “We’re going to start incorporating more metal. We’ve really enjoyed some of the experiments we’ve been doing with brass.”
These are Dunn’s nose-to-the-grindstone years, more about building a brand than reaping financial rewards. “I consider myself to be a starving artist,” he says, “but it’s a mix of choice. I have a passion for my business. I like to see it grow. I reinvest a lot in seeing us develop new designs and pursuits. And I have a very minimalist lifestyle, luckily for me.” One day he’d like to explore licensing his designs to others to produce and sell. For now, he’s more than happy with the hands-on work of creating objects that customers live with and love. One of his favorites is the graceful Bristol console. “People are so passionate about that piece,” he says. “When we complete one and we’re packing it up, we know it’s going to a really good home. I think that’s what fills us with such pride in the studio.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.