Profile: OHIO Design

No other way to put it: scheduling interviews is a pain.  And of course, the hotter the designer/maker, the more they have going on and the tougher it is. And that’s generally understandable and not about ego: a big production runs with insane deadlines, exhibits and shows, technology glitches, recovery therefrom. It makes everyone a little crazy.

But then, something generally happens to make it all better. Like this e-mail exchange that took place when David Pierce of OHIO Design and I finally got our schedules to mesh.

David wrote to me prior to the interview: “So would you like glazed, chocolate or powdered doughnuts or Little Debbie nutty bars for the meeting? You are coming to OHIO after all. I can do non-hydrogenated vegan granola squares too if you like with a double decaffeinated half caf. latte if you like as well.”

(A good sign. But what’s a Little Debby nutty bar?)

And, on what passed for a cold winter’s morning in South of Market San Francisco, he delivered (on the real goods, thank you very much: glazed, sprinkles, old fashioneds, those big chocolate and maple things–what are they called, anyway?) Plus, of course, milk. Quite fabulous.

Almost, but not quite, as fabulous as furniture from OHIO Design: whistle-clean modernist/organic pieces, all built by hand in San Francisco. As David explains (and I quite agree), “it’s lines of furniture that could easily fit (both quality and design-wise) at DWR but at a price point more like that of Room and Board’s.” That’s all good. But the kicker: much of it is incredibly customizable: from size to color and finishes, including a process that lays a photographic image onto a piece. And as for delivery, we’re talking weeks not months and months….Nice.

Photo: courtesy of OHIO Design
Photo: courtesy of OHIO Design

And this has made OHIO hot–VERY hot. (Let that be an inspiration to others.) It’s all added up to commissions for homes, companies, hotels (Good Hotel, Hotel Vitale), and now, new lines of furniture in the works.

Photo: courtesy of OHIO Design

Situated in a cavernous workshop/warehouse (beautifully–but not in a precious way–restored by David and his team) the OHIO Design crew was having a production meeting (scheduling, planning, organizing) when I arrived. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but as we meandered through the interview, touching on inspiration to business to growth to juggling family and a two-entrepreneur marriage (his wife is a restaurateur) and back to inspiration, it occurred to me that what separates David – and OHIO – from others out there is not just the quality of the work or the purity of the design (both great), but the ability to scale, deliver, grow.

Lots of people in the making world talk about growing, but David’s actually making it happen. And while a great deal of it comes down to the quality and design of the work, a lot really comes down to David: affable, funny, enthusiastic, direct, adventurous, and incredibly generous, as able to motivate his team as he is to sell. What also struck me about him is that while he’s focused on growing his own business, he’s also incredibly supportive of other local merchants, designers, and makers. He believes in the benefits of a rising tide, he gets that communities that support each other have a better chance of thriving. Refreshing.

You’re not actually from Ohio, are you? Absolutely! Mineral Ridge, to be exact, near Youngstown. Dad worked in a steel mill, mom was a nurse. It was an interesting time to be living there, seeing all the changes in the steel industry going on then.

And how did you find your way west? Funny story: I was being recruited to colleges to play basketball, but I wasn’t necessarily loving my options. Then one day, a Navy recruiter called. Really? Really. They got me on a good day. It kind of blew people away. So, I went to Sea College for 2 years. I then ended up going to U.C. Berkeley. And how did you end up in Landscape Architecture? Had you always been into design? Not really. I had no idea of architecture or design growing up. I was exposed though: my father would see things, talk about them in an interesting way, point out small details. It’s funny, my daughter sees things that way too.


And how did you get from landscape architecture into furniture? Well, I had a fellowship in landscape architecture: the McLaren Fellowship. I totally lucked out, got to do work at Kew Gardens, went all over the UK looking at amazing places. I could have stayed, but missed San Francisco. So I came back, and of course, it was at the height of the recession. Getting a job in landscape architecture was tough, so I started working for Garden Club members, and then I ended up doing work for Jim Zack (of Handful of Salt profile Zack | DeVito ) in a furniture studio he owned then.

Did you know a lot about making furniture? (Guffaw.) No! I barely knew a thing about it!  But I’m a quick study. And during that time I really trained my eye and keyed into modernism.

So when did you go out on your own? Pretty quickly. I put together a mini-studio with a welder and a saw, and just put one foot in front of the other. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved building things and building a business. And things just took off from there.

What’s your favorite part about what you do? I love most of it but no one loves ALL of it. I love the designing, getting inspiration, etc. But what really is turning me on these days is the challenge of the business. Figuring out the right processes, what lines to create, how to keep things sustainable and responsible. I love working on getting systems in place, getting things to really flow. (Aha.)

And how do they flow? Well. I think one of the huge advantages of working with us is that we’re good at getting things done. We made beds for Good Hotel: it went from trees to finished beds in 6 weeks. And then for a recent corporate client, we made 45 custom tables in 3-4 weeks. Now I can’t guarantee turnarounds like that for everything, but that’s what we can do. And it’s also one of the advantages of working with a local producer. (That being said, we do ship all over the world though it kills our carbon footprint.)

You’ve brought up sustainability several times. Yeah, it’s important to us, though that’s not where we begin the discussion. The steel we use is mostly recycled, all the woods are FSC-certified. (And the workshop is filled with reclaimed timber, all of it top-quality.)

Manufacturing–even on a small scale–in San Francisco isn’t exactly easy. No it’s not but I’m really a big believer in that adage, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” People said I could never find a shop in San Francisco…but we did. Same with a house in SF. We did. And really, how many idiots in the world open businesses during a recession?  But we’ve made it work. I mean, you have to be smart, know the risks, but it’s important to take them to grow. For me, I just start talking about it, with friends mostly, and then it starts to become real.

What is it about modernism that draws you? It’s just the streamlined simplicity of it. I’d rather see the books than the bookshelf. I’d rather see the flowers and the food than the table. It’s a quieter way of living. When you think about it, Japanese gardens aren’t truly minimalist but they feel visually quiet. Refinement takes more effort, not less. I think the other thing I love about modernism is that it has multiple layers that open up slowly. You see details, because there’s not a lot of other stuff going on. And that’s why you have to have great quality if you have minimalist design.

Photo: courtesy of OHIO Design

Are you the chief designer? Yes, but it’s not just me: we collaborate with our clients a lot (many of our pieces are named after people we’ve worked with) and we’re looking to work with other designers who have a vision. The Bay Area is filled with talent. (And he often collaborates the super-talented DesignCraft heroine Lauren Geremia.)

What inspires? What drives me is seeing products and what we can do to make them better. I don’t look that much at what others do. I love it when Lauren brings something to me and I get introduced to new things. And I love art, the art world. A lot of my friends are in the art and architecture worlds.

And who would play you in the movie of your life? Agh, that question. I’d love to say George Clooney, he’s such a guy’s guy. But I look nothing like him, obviously! OK, maybe Judge Reinhold. No, let me think: probably Bill Murray in the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  (Too funny.)

Best gift you’ve given? I engraved a toaster for a chef. I had wanted a decanter but saw a cool toaster instead. So I got an engraver and engraved it. It was a wedding gift. (Aha, an idea to steal.)

Best gift received? Oh my first sail boat….that got me into sailing, got me into the beauty of the ocean. Connecting with sailing…that was huge. (Oh and by the way, in addition to the sea, he’s now on his way to mastering the skies and taking flying lessons!)

Five things that define you? It’s not about things, though it’s not as if I don’t find objects and great design fascinating. I love to pick up things at the Flea Market (Alemany) all the time. (The fruits of those journeys are beautifully scattered throughout the workshop.) But I’d have to say….

My quality of life is so incredibly cool, but it takes conscious effort to make that happen!

Also, my philosophy that if you want to do something, you can do it. Sounds bullshit and self help-y but…it works for me.

I love being comfortable and happy where I am but excited about next steps.

And you know: it’s about taking some time to breathe. As business gets more and more busy, it gets hard, but you have to do it. If you work hard, those moments you take for yourself are even sweeter.

Thanks for the inspiration, David. Thanks for great work.


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