Founder Pete Raho
“Smart design for compact spaces.”
Where do you find the inspiration for your work?
Most often from having a problem associated with living in a small city apartment and then seeing a solution. We come across these sorts of situations every day – like not having any counter space. We’ve all been there. From that came our stovetop cutting board – I love that thing. I suppose working with wood, I’m always looking for ways to bring the outdoors and nature inside, and celebrating the wood for what it is.
Tell us about your design process.
It starts with an idea for something that solves a problem. I like functionality. When I first start working on something, it may get the job done but it’s not that elegant looking and I wouldn’t want to spend any time living with it. Then it’s a matter of stripping it down, and getting rid of anything unnecessary, and making it better.
It’s a matter of using it, seeing how it works and how it feels. If it’s a new design for something, like a cutting board, I ask ‘How do the handles feel? Are they large enough? How does it look if you mount it on the wall to store it? What’s it like to have it in your home?’ Design is a very active process.
What is your favorite material to work with?
I really like working with walnut. It’s just a gorgeous wood to work with. Cherry is a close second. Too often with walnut, people want the color and grain to be very consistent, and sometimes even stain it with a walnut stain to get it darker. For me, I like the range of tones – you can get everything from a pale straw color to a blue or purple or a brown that’s nearly black, and playing with that palate is a lot of fun; it also celebrates the wood in its natural form.
How does your personal style influence your brand/ company/ products, etc?
Gowanus Furniture is a very much a manifestation of my own aesthetic. I grew up a bit north of the city and used to spend a lot of time backpacking in the woods when I was younger (and still do), so the idea of bringing the woodiness of the products to the fore is key. It’s all about the nature of the materials.
One project that’s underway is a wine rack that will have the bottles held in the same orientation as branches on a plant. There’s a bit of math that governs how that works in nature so that all leaves can get some sunlight. I want to show the bottles in the same way so that you will be able to see all of the labels on your wine bottles.
How has your design process changed since your started?
It’s changed a little bit. I like to think the process and pieces have all gotten a bit more elegant. I used to clumsily add more but now it’s all about subtraction.
It’s funny – my wanna-be-engineer science-y side knows the importance of precision and measurements and such, but I rarely draw or sketch anything out. I just figure it out on the fly, with some help from the back of an envelope and seeing what looks good. I need to work with the materials and hold them in my hands. I used to think that’d eventually change, but at this point but it hasn’t.
Where do you imagine you’ll take the company next?
Gowanus Furniture Co. is always going to be about “smart design for compact spaces.” There are lots of problems that need solving and we’ve become too complacent of objects made of particle board and veneers. It’ll always be about celebrating the materials. The depth you can achieve with the grain of a beautifully finished piece of wood is timeless and gorgeous. We want to make that accessible. With that all in mind, the focus for the spring will be more wall-mounted bike racks, lighting and wine storage.
Who would be a dream collaborator?
Finn Juhl, George Nakishima or one of the mid-century Danish masters. Their combination of organic forms that celebrate the wood and functionality is what I obviously love. It’s a “dream collaborator” so I’m going back a bit…
What colors/ patterns are you drawn to right now?
The look of cherry with copper, or walnut with stainless steel. I keep coming back to the Morse code patterns to play with contrasting materials. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Morse’s original idea was that people would see the dots and dashes transcribed on a paper tape by the telegraph, and would “read” the message coming through. Later they realized it was easier to just listen to it, and write it down. But it was originally conceived as a visual medium.
I’m working on a tabletop now for a couple, and they want it to have their intitials in Morse code across the table top. I think it’ll look stunning and it’s a great pattern with meaning but still subtle. And for a dining table, it’s perfect – dinner should be all about sharing ideas and connecting people.
How did you get started in this field/ industry?
I’d always liked making my own furniture and pieces for the home, but never really had it as any formal course of study. I’d studied biology and art history in college, then worked in an auction house for 8 years and then studied at business school.
After that came to an end, I decided that I either had to look for another job in the art world or do my own thing. I did my own thing. If you had told me 5 years ago I’d be making a living making things, I’d be shocked.
What’s one tip you would give to people getting into this business?
Starting a business that pays the bills takes some time. Moving from passionate hobby to business is a real jump. It’s huge, or at least for me it has been. You learn a ton mainly from mistakes, but stick with it. I think a big part of it is knowing who you are, what your brand is, what you stand for and why people should care about what you’re doing.