Furniture Designs to Go
Shoppers in Green Design Furniture'sgallery-like space admire the dining tables, chests, chairs, computer desks, beds, and bookcases made from rich, lustrous wood. The lines of the pieces look contemporary, yet somehow appealingly familiar. None of the showroom's visitors, though, realize from their first encounter that most of the furniture before them easily disassembles to lie flat in a box for shipping or moving. Until they're informed, they see nothing of the line's unique, patented, fastenerless joinery system that makes quick take down and assembly possible. But to Doug Green, the innovative woodworker who created the pieces and their means of joinery, that's the mark of good design.
From woodworker to industrial design: a path of creativity
"I realized only fairly recently that before I was ever a woodworker, I was an inventor," says Doug Green, the founder and head of Green Design Furniture. As a kid in Scarsdale, New York, he regularly took things apart and reassembled them in different form. At age 10, he was inspired to rewire his room so that switches on his bed's headboard controlled lights and music. He was born a tinkerer.
"I went to college right here in Maine," Doug continues, "then I taught preschool. But I got caught up in the handcrafts movement of the late 1970s. And as a hobby, I began woodworking—in a small way—with a Dremel tablesaw and a Dremel router to make little boxes."
After two years of teaching, Doug got completely hooked on woodworking, bought a full line of tools, quit teaching, and opened a little shop in Topsham, Maine. "I was doing custom furniture and repairs, and did it for two or three years before getting a job as a cabinetmaker with Thos. Moser," recalls Doug. "At that time he had six cabinetmakers, up in the old Grange Hall in New Glouster. Each cabinetmaker was completely responsible for a piece of furniture—a great learning experience for me."
Doug worked for Moser for a year, and during that time followed his natural inclination to find better ways to do something by designing jigs that sped up a process or refined it. "It was fun, finding more efficient ways of doing things," he says. "The foreman once called me over to say that I was the most productive cabinetmaker in the shop. But he couldn't figure it out because I didn't, and still don't, move fast. However, I do think about efficiency. For instance, I built a jointer jig to cut octagonal tapers on bedposts. That allowed me to make 10 pencil-post beds in the time it used to take to make two."
This phase of Doug's career would soon end, though. "I was talking to a lady at a party," he remembers, "and she said, 'Oh, you're an industrial designer.' 'What's that?', I thought. I had never heard of one. No career counselor had ever mentioned it. The title was new to me, although it did conjure an image of designing boilers for factories."
With that image in mind, the young woodworker set out to do some research. The result: enrollment in the graduate program for industrial design at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
A look at the world through designing eyes
Doug believes that his new direction was partly due to boredom. "I think I had reached the level of competence as a craftsperson that the challenge was no longer there," he says. "I knew when I started a piece just how long it was going to take—it was completely predictable and no longer an exciting journey. I had started to look at design, too, and didn't see anything really new and interesting coming out of the crafts movement."
Pratt Institute's industrial design program was nuts and bolts, according to Doug. It blended current manufacturing technology with creativity to arrive at a product. It was about materials and processes, and how things were made in the world—and conceptual problem-solving.
"As an industrial designer, you have to have the freedom to think about things," Doug explains. "Sometimes, when you become too expert in a field of knowledge, your expertise limits your ability to ask questions and to innovate. At Pratt, I was taught to become a generalist."
After graduate school, the fledgling industrial designer worked for a lighting company. Doug stayed with them for about a year, then went on his own as a consultant. "A year later, the company I had worked for hired me to design a fixture for them, a modular fixture with interchangeable, locking reflectors," says Doug, "That fixture's connecting device later became Green Design Furniture's logo."
Easy-to-assemble furniture goes to the patent office
In the late 1980s Doug began sketching an idea for a take-apart sofa made of the fewest possible components. It also had to be lightweight and easily assembled and disassembled. In 1989, he started prototyping his idea, but in chair form.
"When I left Maine, I stored my woodworking equipment in the shop of a woodworking friend," says Doug. "So I used to come up to Maine to prototype, and in 1989–1990, I came at least twice for a week or so at a time. In New York, I'd make models of foam core [a cardboard-like material], then turn them into scale wooden ones in the Maine shop."
Doug experimented with many types of joinery, and finally decided on the sliding dovetail as the key. "It took me a long time to figure out how to do the long, tapered dovetails that enable the parts of a piece of furniture to interlock," he says. "When I finally got the chair done, it was a creaky and unattractive piece of furniture with Baltic-birch plywood sides, seat, and back. Everybody who saw it thought that it was a very strange-looking piece of furniture, and it was. Yet, the joinery technique worked."
Driven with the idea, Doug rented larger work space in Yarmouth, Maine, and went to work making furniture with the dovetail joinery. He made everything—tables, case pieces, and desks. By the time Doug was finished, he had 15 pieces of furniture.
"I'd also started working with a brilliant patent lawyer, Abbot Spear, a then 87-year-old Maine attorney. He came out of retirement to work on the project," Doug comments.
"He filed a patent for me in 1992 that had 30 plans for creating different structures using the sliding dovetail as interlocking joinery, and it was awarded in 1995. The reason that it is a patentable idea was that during the patent search, we found out that the field of self-assembling, or fastener-free, furniture was all tab-and-slot, puzzle-type furniture. Mine was the first where joinery was part of the furniture, and it wasn't visible when the piece was assembled. The patent involved the order in which the pieces went together, too. So it's not the sliding dovetail that's patented, it's how you create the structures.
"My idea was to get a patent on the process, then license it to a big furniture manufacturer and get a royalty from every piece of furniture of my design that they sold," Doug continues. "My patent-applied-for furniture and I got a lot of attention in 1993. Then, I painfully realized that the furniture industry as a whole isn't real progressive in terms of design. As a result, I had this great idea, and no one seemed to want it because it would involve restructuring how they make furniture. One CEO told me that they couldn't keep their machinery accurate enough to produce the precision needed in my furniture, and they doubted that they could train their workers either."
The birth of a business: Green Design Furniture
Doug did have offers from large furniture companies to buy his design outright, but after working on it for three years, he wasn't about to give it away. So Green Design Furniture was born. "Looking back on what's happened, it's like this idea had a will—a mind of its own," says Doug. "This space [the former pottery factory] became the company's first store. The furniture I built with the help of one other guy in a little shop in Brunswick, Maine. That was in 1994. Now I have nine people in production and a second store in Freeport."
Green Design sells furniture through its website or by phone, (207) 775-4234. Advertisements also have appeared in The New Yorker magazine and The Wall Street Journal. "A typical first-time order is one piece," Doug says, "but we have people who order $10,000 to $12,000 worth of furniture at a time. A lot of that happens on the second or third order."
There's a definite customer service aspect to this type of business, too, according to Doug. "Because our furniture is shipped knock-down, it can go by FedEx faster and at a reasonable cost to the customer. For example, we got a call this morning from a woman in Chicago who ordered an eight-drawer dresser. We can put that on the FedEx truck today, and it will get to her two days from now. And with conventional furniture and freight, there's a 24% chance that it will be damaged before it gets to the customer.
"We have less than 1% damage. And the furniture doesn't seem to be bothered by humidity changes. I don't know whether it's the built-in tolerances, the cherry wood that all moves at the same rate, or the joinery, but we don't have trouble."
And because the customers handle each component in assembly, there's nowhere to hide anything less than the best, even to the inside of a drawer. That's why the craftsmen at Green Design Furniture must keep the quality level high, from the wood, to the joinery, to the finish. Doug explains: "We're such a microdot on the radar screen nationally, our reputation for quality and customer satisfaction is of major importance."
Inside the shop, furniture components travel on wheels
Although Doug's furniture prototypes were done in ash, maple, cherry, and white oak, Green Design Furniture now produces—except by special order—only in cherry.
Unlike any shop that builds furniture in batches, at Green Design you'll never see it—except for straightbacked chairs—being assembled until just prior to shipping. Because Doug has designed the furniture to assemble without fasteners, the components, such as table-leg assemblies and tops, can be shaped, joined, sanded, and finished individually. And the parts travel from workstation to workstation on carts. At shipping time, workers test-fit a furniture piece's components, make any necessary corrections, then disassemble them and wrap for shipment.
"When we set up for a production run, we do the setup for each pattern. When we get the fit, we then can run all the pieces," says Doug. "Making furniture this way combines traditional woodworking with this machining process. The first part of each production run is building components: ripping, planing, jointing, edge-joining— getting them to uniform dimensions. When the components are done, we start the machining of mortises and tenons, and routing the dovetails."
It's the dovetails that prove critical. "The engineering for the sliding dovetail is difficult because it's tapered," Doug says. "That means that it's wider at the front and narrower at the back, so that it locks when fully joined. We cut the female dovetail, which opens five thousandths of an inch—little more than a hair—at an inverted pin router to match the male tapered dovetail. I have designed three different router tables to make the male dovetails with accuracy. What we're using is the third generation.
"Basically, it's a pattern router with a linear motion bearing," he adds. "It's a precursor to a CNC [computer numerical control] machine that we'll design someday to do the male dovetail with perfect accuracy. Until then, we've been able to closely simulate CNC technology manually."
There's little doubt that Doug Green will in the future have a CNC machine of his design. With childhood heroes like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, it's little wonder that his greatest pride comes from his furniture's patent credit. That reads, "Doug Green, Inventor."
Interested in seeing the Green Design collection?
Visit greendesigns.com. For a colorful brochure of Green Design Furniture's complete line, contact Green Design Furniture, 267 Commercial St., Portland, ME 04101.