In a large, bland warehouse space in Royal Oak, working conditions for Matt Michalec are hardly luxurious. Yet this is where you’ll find the master carpenter, designer, and custom fabricator amid stacks of wood and power tools as he slaves meticulously over a table or chair that could hold its own in any sophisticated room.
The work of Michalec and other metro Detroit craftspeople is becoming more and more sought after as those who live in dwellings of all shapes and sizes realize the value of investing in one-of-a-kind furniture locally designed and made. And because of the longstanding design traditions of such area schools as Cranbrook and the College for Creative Studies, Michalec says there’s plenty of sophisticated talent to choose from.
Although Michalec is not formally trained, his 25 years of experience in crafting high-quality case goods means that he has kept steadily busy, working with an array of well-known architects and designers to bring their visions to life, in addition to designing his own pieces. He has always shunned business cards and traditional marketing; his clients come to him through word of mouth. And he says that in just the past couple of years, the number of consumers seeking custom pieces seems to be growing.
“There is a grand upswing in Detroit in handmade furniture,” Michalec says. “People are hungry for design that no one else has.
The attributes unique to custom furniture are certainly important selling points, and what may be driving the trend now, Michalec and others say. But the sheer quality of craftsmanship that goes into locally made furniture in metro Detroit is also an extremely important factor, going hand in hand with the aesthetics of a finished piece.
Michalec recalls a couple who saw a dining room table at a store in Ann Arbor and asked him to re-create it. “I told them to forget what they had seen in the store, though,” Michalec says. Rather than simply copying the table, Michalec hand-selected the hardwood from a local supplier, used “Old World” techniques in the fabrication, and hand-planed the wood to give the 10-foot long table surface texture and depth. “That put a quality into the table that’s safe to say you can’t find in a store,” Michalec says, noting that most “texture” seen in retail wood products is achieved by machine. “I didn’t cut any corners. It was one of those pieces I didn’t want to leave my shop.”
For local designers Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer, design sensibilities are “intimately connected with craft.”
“We want [our work] to be beautiful,” Ali says of the tables, coffee tables, desks, and entertainment centers they build from a variety of solid woods, opting to never stain their pieces in order to maintain the natural beauty. But the furniture “needs to be smart,” too, Ali adds.
To do that, Sandifer hand-makes all the pieces that this husband-wife team design together. “Furniture is in his blood,” Ali says of Sandifer, who studied architecture and worked in furniture fabrication in Chicago before they moved to Detroit last year (Ali also studied architecture). They work out of the Russell Industrial Center near Midtown Detroit and, like Michalec, ply their trade amid the dust, wood, and tools that crowd their small studio space. In the tradition of mid-century furniture, Sandifer uses classic techniques, joining pieces with dovetailing rather than nails, for instance. Why does furniture made decades ago seem to last a lifetime? Ali and Sandifer will readily tell you that it’s precisely because of these fabricating techniques that handmade furniture crafted even today will almost certainly take on an heirloom quality. Custom furniture might indeed cost more, but Ali and Sandifer note that their customers, whatever their budget, tend to realize they’re making an investment in a piece that will withstand the test of time.
Recent Cranbrook graduate Chris Palmer says he’s fascinated by the opportunity to make furniture in the “local vernacular,” using wood remnants from home projects and other castoff materials for pieces made the way craftsmen built furniture during the early 20th century heyday in Detroit. “I hear people so much talking about, ‘What is Detroit?’ And then I try to ask myself with my designs, ‘What does Detroit look like in production?’ ” For Palmer, it’s the “micro” craft factories where much of America’s furniture used to be made. When people buy locally made furniture, he says, they’re largely supporting this old-school crafting style in which fabricators paid attention to every detail in order to construct something with singular style and quality.
Palmer constructed his recent “Loft Series” with castoff hardwood flooring using rivets and other Old World techniques.
Although the growing corps of metro Detroit furniture makers work in a variety of styles, they offer a similar product, one with a made in (and often sourced in) metro Detroit label. Ali and Sandifer are working on an entire kitchen for a new client who originally wanted to buy all the cabinets from a German design company. Now Sandifer is constructing the kitchen himself with the same care he takes with the couple’s stand-alone furniture pieces.
The clients, Ali says, “realized that we would pay the same kind of attention to their kitchen as we do our furniture, and why buy it from a German designer when you can buy it in Detroit?”
Photographs by Josh Scott