Sustainability on a Small Scale
It’s 6:30 in the morning. Though it’s still dark out, Brian and Melanie Boggs have their first business meetings of the day in between stretching and showers, even before coffee. Long after coming home for dinner, they’ll still be strategizing about Brian Boggs Chairmakers, the Asheville-based furniture studio that they cofounded after meeting through Match.com.
Brian has been a chairmaker for 31 years. Ever since he taught himself from a copy of John D. Alexander’s “Make a Chair from a Tree,” demand has been constant. As soon as you see one of Brian’s chairs, you know why. Light gleams on the polished hardwoods, across timeless construction and lovingly shaped details. Popular Woodworking magazine’s Matthew Teague recently called these “arguably the most comfortable wooden chairs ever made.” At their gallery in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, an audible sigh escapes each lucky visitor who sits in a Boggs chair for the first time.
Furniture this well-made is the exception rather than the rule in an age of mass-produced goods. Brian has kept the historic craft of chairmaking alive in his attention to comfort, quality and detail – honing his art over a lifetime. Even among fine woodworkers, the many intricacies of chairmaking make it a trying and rare specialization. As a result, many of the nation’s best cabinet and table builders sit down for dinner in a Boggs chair.
Melanie, whose background is in organizational development consulting, helps Brian run the business. While the chairmaker prototypes the fine details on his next design, she helps him keep track of the view from 40,000 feet up: production calendars, market trends, client bases. That help is needed now more than ever: times have been tough on the furniture industry in North Carolina, once nicknamed the “Furniture Capital of the World”. That industry once employed 90,000 people in the state, but global competition and outsourcing have led to devastating downsizing. Local makers can’t compete with mass-produced, low cost furniture shipped from China, so many employers have moved their operations overseas to lower their own costs.
Brian and Melanie dream of a better built, more durable future and the return of “Made in North Carolina”. That’s no easy dream, but they stay optimistic. On a shoestring budget, they create new product lines, streamline production processes and cook up marketing strategies. After all that, they still have to actually run the business. Chairs have to be made, workers trained, bills paid. That’s how small business owners end up strategizing after and before work, somewhere between hopefulness and passion.
In mass-produced goods, the lifespan of a furniture design on the shelves is about one year. In contrast, Brian’s best known design is the classic ladderback chair, which he first created 25 years ago to evoke timeless and distinctly American traditions. Each of his chairs is built to last for generations, which to Brian is the only sensible approach. “I want all of our furniture to last long enough for the next generation of trees to grow,” he says. “That’s not too much to ask.”
He brings that same environmental awareness to Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s ecological impact. 80% of the wood in their furniture comes from urban-felled timber. That is, they rescue logs that have been cut down within the city around homes or power lines, minimizing fuel costs and repurposing beautiful wood that would otherwise be left to rot or become firewood. They also minimize waste output. Each week, scrap wood is picked up by Farm & Sparrow, local bakers who barter with extra loaves. Sawdust and woodchips go to local hatcheries, who give eggs in return. Some of the sawdust even goes to folks who operate composting toilets, though as Brian jokes, “We don’t trade with them.”
This mindfulness isn’t just local in scale – it’s global. In 1993, he joined Curtis Buchanan and Scott Landis on an artisan training venture in support of sustainable rainforest management, training artisans among the Pech people in Santa Maria del Carbon, Honduras. This effort led to the cofounding of Greenwood, an organization that continues these efforts in sustainable development, along with a sister organization in Honduras named Madera Verde.
Through Madera Verde, Brian developed a relationship with a trio of Honduran sawyers’ co-operatives who harvest mahogany sustainably. These sawyers cut down monstrous 5-foot diameter trees that are so mature their stumps are beginning to decay. They ride in on 20 mules, each of which hauls out 2 boards at a time, so there’s very little disturbance to the rainforest ecosystem. Their efforts make sustainable forestry profitable for their small communities.
At first it seems counterintuitive that harvesting the trees is the best way to save them, but without a profitable market for this timber, much of Honduras’ rainforest has already been slashed and burned to create pasture for the more lucrative cattle industry. To make matters worse, this kind of logging is often performed illegally by armed thieves who sell off the most easily moved timber, leaving legal loggers at a great disadvantage, in danger and in need of a market. The sawyers’ cooperatives affiliated with Madera Verde are already working with Taylor Guitar Co. to supply mahogany guitar necks, but Taylor can only use very particular, sound-quality parts of each tree.
This is where Brian and Melanie come in. Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s newest product lines, the Sonus Musician’s Chair and Sunniva Outdoor line, work beautifully in Honduran mahogany. Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s can pay fair prices for this wood, allowing the loggers to be productive and support their families. Much like similar efforts in chocolate and coffee production, fair trade helps ecology and economy work hand in hand toward better trading conditions and increased interest in sustainability. Melanie, who spent much of her childhood in Latin America as a diplomat’s daughter, has always wanted to make a difference for that part of the world, though she admits “I never thought it would be through chairs!”
To make such a positive impact, Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s has to keep their clients informed and promote connoisseurship. It has always been necessary to point out the fine craftsmanship that adds value and durability to Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s pieces, but it’s important now too that customers know they’re supporting loggers who risk their lives to sustain a viable forest economy and ecology. As Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s grows, so does their impact and ability to prove the viability of sustainably minded furniture production.
Brian relates this gradual transition to the eventual boom of organic and fair trade products after many years spent increasing consumer awareness. “People aren’t yet asking for that same level of environmental intentionality when it comes to furniture,” he says, “but everything has an environmental impact. The more we know, the more we can direct our economic decisions toward a more wholesome, sustainable society.”
Brian and Melanie believe that like a healthy ecosystem, a healthy business adapts to everything around it. Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s takes a fully integrated approach to sustainability by supporting craftsmen, preserving forests and recognizing the integrity of their clients, all while bringing the world the finest furniture their hearts and hands can produce. As Brian sums it up, “This is what we do at Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s because it just makes sense. And it’s fun!”
Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s
8 London Rd
Asheville, N.C. 28803
To experience the comfort and beauty of Brian Boggs Chairmaker’s furniture, contact Brian and Melanie through their website or by calling (828) 398-9701.