Interview with Melissa Lee of Griffin Lee Artisans

 

Location: Fairfield County, CT
Website: http://www.griffinleeartisans.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GRIFFINLEEARTISANS/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/GriffinLeeArt
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/griffin_lee_artisans/

 

Melissa Lee, thank you for sitting down with us – it’s an honor to have an interview with you!  Could you please share with our readers on how did you get started with this unique craft, creating tables?

We were inspired by tables that we saw while on vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona 2 years ago.  Turquoise chips were set in the wood.  We thought that in the Northeast perhaps a warmer look would translate better.  American black walnut and copper would be more conducive to this region.  Also, we wanted to use a wood that is more indigenous to our area.

Daniel [Lee] and Andrew [Griffin] have worked together in construction for several years and they’re a very talented team.  It made sense to have Andrew as our partner and Master Craftsman and Designer.  He’s a genius with wood.
The two men came up with the idea of flipping the live edge so it’s in the center and have hand cut Starphire glass follow its path.  Then, instead of leaving the knots and inclusions open they thought copper would give it that warmth we were envisioning.
Dan thought of the concept of “Creating Art From The Earth”…  Earth, Wind, Water, Fire.   We are creating art, not building furniture.  These are pieces that will be passed down through generations.

 

It must have been very challenging to start a business with such niche as craft tables! What were some of the unique practical challenges that you had to overcome early on, and how did you get the business moving from ground zero?

Firstly, the guys were working out of Andrew’s garage to begin.  It wasn’t temperature controlled nor was it a very large space. Maneuvering around large stacks of wood and keeping the dust down to properly finish the product was also a major problem.  The tables we built in those days had a few problems several months after they were complete such as the wood moving and cracking.  Now that we are in a temperature controlled facility we’ve eliminated those problems as well having a commercial dust collection system and a separate finishing room.  The time frame to complete a table was double compared to what it is now in our 4,000 square foot space we occupy now.

 

It’s almost always a struggle to survive financially when you’re an entrepreneur, and possibly even more so if you’re a craftsmaker. What were the unique financial challenges for you guys, and how have you overcome them? 

I do all the back end work for the business.  As I had been a stay at home mom for 22 years, running a business has been a challenge in itself.  Fortunately, I’m a fast learner with a brain for numbers so managing our finances has been easier than I anticipated.  That being said, budgeting is a constant challenge.  There were months here and there that we went without income from the company so it was important to make sure we each had a personal surplus to cover home expenses before we embarked on this journey.  I follow our finances on an almost daily basis.  Keeping it lean is the trick.  Not always an easy thing to do which is why I have to know to the penny what we have.  For the first 9 months, Dan and Andrew continued to work in their contracting business as well as fulfilling orders for GLA.

 

How did you succeed in growing your business – after all, it certainly was not easy, given your furniture niche?

Our first year we donated several tables to a variety of local groups, firstly because we three are firm believers in giving back to our communities and secondly, it was a great way to get our product seen.  We also sent brochures and spoke to many local interior designers.  We were fortunate to have several pick us up and show our tables in their stores.  We have also let our potential customers know that we offer more than our “signature table”.  We found we had to work to a client’s specifications whether it included walnut, glass, and copper or not.  We no longer limit ourselves and Andrew and Dan are more than capable of creating anything.  We also have expanded into the commercial sector offering tables and banquettes.

 

Would you consider expanding your business beyond Fairfield County, CT – why or why not?

Yes…  Ultimately we would love to expand outside of Fairfield County but we’re taking it slow.  We are still in our infancy.   With our tables being a luxury item, our average prices ranging from $3,000 – $15,000, Fairfield County is the ideal target.   I want people to know that “local” doesn’t just mean where we do business… It also refers to the fact that all of our wood is locally sourced and our glass is purchased from a local glass manufacturer and cutter, a very talented artisan himself.  We like to support other small local businesses.  That’s very important to us.

 

Any business has a list of failures and successes. Are there any you would like to share some of these with our readers?

One of our greatest successes has actually been one of our donated tables.  Dan is a proud Veteran of the 82nd Airborne and we discovered they needed a conference table to be donated.  We jumped at the chance and created a stunning 11′ cherry table that we embedded with the 82nd and their Brigade emblems.  The guys personally delivered it to Fort Bragg this past August.  It was an honor to give back in this small way to the good men and women of the 82nd.

 

Any funny stories you can share with us?

A humorous memory that we still have a good laugh at is early on while still working in the garage, the guys were trying to figure out how to fill the knots with the copper.  They were melting copper strips but quickly realized that the temperature of the copper was much too hot to pour on the wood.  It would catch fire…not a good idea in a small garage space!   They moved on to Plan B.

 

How would you describe the current state of the craft furniture making?

We’re learning that there are many very talented craftsmen in the market and there is a good amount of competition.  Our unique design though, which is patent-pending, is not seen quite as often.  There are more logistics involved in creating our tables, especially with our Starphire glass being hand-cut opposed to all others out there that machine cut their glass.

 

What does it take to learn the craft of furniture making? Can one start in one’s garage?

We had a head-start as Andrew was already a very talented wood craftsman.  His Dad taught him at an early age so he’s been working with wood since he was a boy.  Also, Dan and Andrew have been contractors almost their entire lives.  Obviously, as I described earlier, it is possible to start in one’s garage.  There are just many challenges.  Start small…don’t get over your skis… and patience is essential!

 

We again extend our gratitude to Melissa Lee for sharing her thoughts and their story with us! Please follow Griffin Lee Artisans on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and please do the same with The Maker’s Almanac as well!

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