by micha thomas
(Also ran in Of The Wolves)
It’s possible my friend Cooper is the dirtiest person I know - in appearance, not in his go-to jokes. His “dirty” seems to derive from the motto “my work is my life, and my life is my work”. Or perhaps he posits the ladies nonsensically dig the dirt. But he's done something many artists aspire to - he's unwittingly adapted a style, in his work and his appearance, over decades that’s fully customized. When I first met Cooper years ago my olfactory system was triggered by the light smell of industrial soap that often wafts from him - a comforting smell from my childhood spent visiting my engineer father in his fabrication shops and garage occupied by classic car restorations.
So, Cooper’s distinguishing characteristics were familiar before he became almost familial. Born and raised in valley and seaside Los Angeles communities – Hidden Hills, Malibu, etc. – Cooper is acquainted with rustic and luxe in equal measures. He loves to restore cars, ride motorcycles, weld, and is an excellent photographer. All the molecules of these creative hobbies bonded and became Spark & Dowel, a Los Angeles-based custom furniture business, four years ago. Following is a recorded conversation between my friend Cooper and I as he embarks on a new chapter for his very young and flourishing company (built on less than $500): taking on a partner, larger and larger workspaces, winning a Los Angeles design award, and a slate of incredible commissions.
How have you and Spark & Dowel changed in four years?
I’ve learned pragmatism. Like most furniture shops, I wanted to build one piece at a time, by myself, or with the help of a friend. I wanted to be a little boutique. A combination of practicality and accidental success has changed my outlook on that. Maybe I don’t build the pieces all by myself. Maybe others build pieces with or for me. Through that we’ve built a much larger clientele and a viable, sustainable business.
So is most of the company’s work still custom commissions or a hybrid?
We’ve developed a standardized line, but we haven’t launched it yet. We’re still fine-tuning the pieces and some of them are co-designed by designers who are friends of the shop. Eventually, I want to rest heavily on the standardized line, which is going to be extraordinary. But custom will always be something we do and something we do well. It’s where we started, and a service we’ll continue to provide.
What’s most exciting about standardizing your products?
Every time you build a custom piece you have to learn to build that piece from scratch. It’s inefficient. It’s fun, but it’s complicated. At a certain point you have to make compromises – though I don’t like compromises very much (imagine a knowing laugh). So we created our first line of pre-designed products - a line I genuinely love. I can’t wait to see some of these pieces in homes all over the country.
How are you going to do that?
In the beginning, relationships with interior designers we currently work with, but eventually – hopefully - e-commerce through our own website. We’d love to have a brick and mortar, too.
Give me a snapshot of the clientele walking in and out of your headquarters? What are they looking for?
Our core clientele is high-end interior designers, celebrity home owners and execs in the tech sector. We work with some restaurateurs as well, though that is not our bread and butter. We just completed some fabrication and restoration of some antique pieces for Jessica Biel’s new restaurant, Au Fudge. Our favorite items to build are dining room tables, but we do coffee tables, armoires, couches – we can pretty much do it all.
Is Spark & Dowel now and forever a California-based business? Elaborate.
Yes, we will always build here, because, for one, I believe building a business is like building a family, and we started one here in LA. It’s been a rocky road to get there, but we are a family unit now – a very cohesive team made up of guys and gals. They’re impeccable artists, and I’m not planning on moving them. We can ship anywhere. There might be less expensive places to manufacture furniture, but being in a cultural hub like Los Angeles or New York is important, at least to how we built the business. You stay in tune with design and how it evolves being here. Most interior designers are based in LA, and I like being able to show them pieces in person.
What’s been the scariest part of building – not starting - a business?
Oh, there are two significantly scary parts: one is giving up building every single piece myself. As an artist you feel like you’re selling out a little bit. But an artist friend of mine who I revere pointed out something that I think all artists struggle with, and that’s acknowledge you’ve created, you’ve already made the art. You can keep struggling through every piece, or you can have people help you produce the art. With that came scaling, and this was horrendously scary. We grew exponentially in one year. In doing that we had to move shops twice in one year. And we’re a bootstrapped business, so I didn’t have investment capital or a line of credit. I started it with $350 dollars in my pocket. To make those changes was brutal. Every single penny went back into the company, and those were sacrifices I was willing to make.
Who are your heroes within the industry?
That’s challenging. There are groundbreakers, like the Eames’s, who did things no one else was doing. And George Nakashima. In modern furniture there’s BDDW. They build beautiful stuff. And a lot of what I design comes from inspiration from them. There’s a guy in Tampa Bay, who tackles just about every project thrown at him. His name is Andrew Watson, and his shop is called Built. We follow each other on Instagram; he’s been in the game longer than I have. His process is a joy to watch. Outside of furniture? Well, what’s fun about this industry is there are some people who treat it like a full contact sport and are highly competitive with everyone around them. And there are people who look at it the way I do: we’re building American-made products for American homes, and I want to support that and others who are doing that. One of the most innovative is Meyghan from (wh)ORE HAüS STUDIOS. She’s doing something no one else is. And she, too, shares a shop with other furniture makers and home designers. I actually get calls from other designers who’ve found me on Instagram and ask “how have you grown?”
Your brilliant marketing strategy?
Word of mouth. We’ve lived and died by that sword. Instagram I would put into that category. These days, social media outweighs web traffic a lot in our world. Our Instagram isn’t designed to be – look at this furniture, look at that piece. It’s more of an exploration of my life. I don’t know – I think it’s more identifiable. People want to see the story, and every piece genuinely has a story. I met a piece we made as it was delivered to the buyer’s house this morning – an actress’s house. Every inch of it was made from an old barn from Oregon. She had a lot of questions about the piece, like, where did these holes come from, why is it so heavy, how many of you did it take to make it? You can buy a table anywhere. It likely doesn’t have a story. It might have been made in China…by children, and that’s a sad story.