If you haven’t yet heard of OHIO, it’s time. Founded by David Pierce, the San Francisco-based design studio is turning out some of the most stunning, innovative and diverse modern furnishings anywhere. From a starkly minimalist steel and wood bench to a printed bedframe so seductive it was too sexy for an SF magazine’s sex issue, David Pierce tries everything. And succeeds.

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david pierce, ohio design, green design, eco design, san francisco designers, green furniture, eco furniture, sustainable furniture, sara rich

Early in his career, David worked as a landscape architect and crafted outdoor furniture for clients on the side. Enamored with the potential of steel, he taught himself to weld and began creating simple pieces, which he sold from a storefront alongside a friend’s handbags. He soon partnered with designer Lian Ng of Publique Living to grow his business, which is now on Fillmore Street in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood.

OHIO made a big splash at ICFF in New York in years passed, with the debut of a collection of photo-printed wood pieces. Our Editor-in-Chief, Jill, covered these soon after the event, and was as captivated as I was, not only by the designs themselves, which are subtle, enigmatic and alive, but also by the rarity of stumbling upon something truly new. When I commented to David that I hadn’t seen much of this, he enthusiastically corrected me: “You haven’t seen it at all!” And it’s true. He’s landed on a fresh, untapped technique, and the results are breathtaking.

I had the pleasure of sharing a long dialogue with David, which I’ve distilled below. Read on for the details on how minimalist roots grew into the inspired fruits of OHIO.

david pierce, ohio design, green design, eco design, san francisco designers, green furniture, eco furniture, sustainable furniture, sara rich

SR: How did you get started personally, and how did you get OHIO started?

DP: It was a pretty simple start. I worked as a landscape architect in London; I won a fellowship after I’d gone to school for architecture and landscape architecture at Berkeley. I stayed there after the fellowship and worked for a landscape architect and I just realized that I wanted to come back to the Bay Area, that this is where my career was going to be.

So I came back, worked as a landscape architect, and that was somewhat rewarding financially, but not so much aesthetically or creatively. I started working with this architect named Jim Zack; he had a furniture component to his company. So I was doing my landscape thing three days a week, and doing the Jim Zack thing three days a week, and then just knew I wanted to be in business for myself.

I bought a welder and a saw, and I decided to start a little furniture company. I started it doing outdoor furniture; that was kind of a mix of landscape architecture and furniture manufacturing.

SR: What year was that?

DP: That was in ’97 or ’98. Jim threw me a couple of jobs and it was off to the races. It was by word of mouth for years. The first part of the business was really about learning manufacturing, because I had just learned welding when I started. So I really kind of delved into furniture manufacturing, history of furniture, looking at all the manufacturers that are out there, all the designers. And then started this store, I guess in the first iteration about a year and three months ago. Then about four months ago, I teamed up with Lian of Publique Living, to do One36, and we kind of rebranded it.

SR: And was it in this space the whole time? (136 Fillmore st., SF)

DP: Yeah, it was in this space the whole time. Lian and I had worked together before; we?d initially shared a booth at the furniture fair in New York two years ago. So that?s kind of how I got into it.

Now it’s really about the business; it’s not so much designing. All the things that we’ve done to this point have been very simple, kind of reference the history of furniture, minimal, simple modern kind of thing, Donald Judd-inspired. And now it’s about adding value to that furniture, so whether it’s print furniture, or we’re starting to do some powder-coating of types of woods, natural shade powder-coating; we’re doing some more intricate folds for the sheet metal lines’still working on those, we’re going to probably release those in our fall collection. So that’s kind of where we are now. It’s less about design, in some regards, and more about business, which is interesting, it’s a whole other level, how to make a business flourish. Certainly I could keep it going as a small shop, but we want to grow it somehow. The store is one obvious direction. We will also be releasing six wholesale products for our Spring/Summer 2006 line.

SR: So you and Lian don’t design the same things, right?

DP: That’s correct. I do all the furniture that’s here, and Lian designs more tabletop items: placemats, trays bowls, he does some artwork. We do represent some other people here: Citizen, Adrift Mobiles, EIEIO, which is the wrapping paper. But my stuff is only sold in this store.

SR: Why do you call it OHIO?

DP: Well, I was trying to figure out a name for the company. I didn’t want to name it David Pierce Studios, though now there’s an element to people wanting to connect with a name, so I’m trying to think if David Pierce should be back in the title somehow, just because people connect with it. I don’t like the egocentrism of naming your company after yourself, and there’s a level that, you know, if it does grow to a certain point, you have to sell your name, essentially, and your name goes away. Jill Sanders, a perfect example; Martha Stewart went to prison. I’m not Martha Stewart, but, Martha Stewart went to prison, and her company took a big hit, now she’s back on track for sure, but?

OHIO was simple; it’s where I’m from, basically, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the logo, but there’s also kind of a graphic element to OHIO it’s very simple in form: two round things, two square things, and then it has an added element in that it spells OHIO in all directions, and backwards. So it has an element of flexibility to it, which is something that kind of works with my furniture, too. That’s the basic explanation for OHIO. I wanted it to be something more than me.

SR: So you told me you started with outdoor furniture; what were some of your first pieces like?

DP: Well, really simple, kind of like the Brooks chair, which you can see online, very simple tube steel type things; and you know, now the market is flooded with that kind of stuff, but when I started doing it, it wasn’t out there as much. Certainly it had happened in the 50s, but it wasn’t in the modern market. Now it’s everywhere, which is fine, but that was also a good kind of technique to learn welding. It’s a good technique to perfect, essentially.

SR: Where did you learn to weld?

DP: Well, much of it was self-taught, after I started the company. But, I first started learning at Jim Zack. I had the entr?e into the shop, so I spent nights and weekends just making furniture. It’s so amazing, I mean really steel is absolutely amazing. It’s the most recycled material in the world. You could chew on a piece of steel or pound on it all year, and you could never do the same thing as I could do in two seconds, and then you weld it back together and make it look seamless again. It’s absolutely brilliant, I mean there’s not many materials you can do that to. And it’s super strong, it comes in sheet form, bar stock, tube, round tube, square tube, rectangular tube, I mean, it’s incredible. And aluminum is a close second, for sure, just because it’s a little bit lighter, I like the lightness of it. But, yeah, I fell in love with steel, just fell in love with the material. And, you know now, I know people love wood and I love the richness of wood, but I use it less, I use it relatively sparingly. Especially when you can do a base from steel, I’d rather use steel ? a little bit lighter.

SR: So where do you source your wood from?

DP: It comes mostly from local vendors, I mean we get some trees that are felled from people’s backyards. So that goes to the timber mill, and we cut it up and we’ll send it back to the people as a table, or sell it back to them, sometimes that happens.

SR: So they kind of commission you?

DP: Yeah, they can commission tables that way, just depending on what kind of wood it is, and how difficult the tree is to get, what condition the tree is in. That’s a very, very small part of the business and I think there’s a limited growth potential for that side. We source wood from two places here in San Francisco. Everything that we use is FSC-certified, so it’s all sustainably grown and ecologically harvested. Some wood, like the wood blocks, are recycled products, so those are cast-off, they are basically waste which we take and clean up. And you know, essentially these [slab benches] are, too; those would end up as wood chips or firewood, so we make furniture from them.

Have you seen that before? That’s an example of the print furniture. (Referring to a wood headboard with a printed photo of a naked woman?s silhouette) We did that for the 7×7 sex issue, but then they said it was too sexy. You know, when there’s pillows, it’s hard to make it out, but, I don’t know.

SR: Is that a transfer?

DP: No, it’s printed. We print on the wood with an inkjet printer. That’s what we got a lot of play with in New York at ICFF. That was the front page of The Times and then it’s been getting a lot of magazine coverage. And we’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg with that, because once you start using graphics and photographs, the possibilities are endless.

SR: Who does the art?

DP: That piece is from a friend of mine, James Chaing. He’s a fashion photographer here in San Francisco. Very well-regarded, does a lot of good work. We started at ICFF; we worked with a company called One & Co. owned by Jonah Becker, they’re an industrial design company, but they have a really firm hold on graphics, so they started helping us with graphics. I worked with them, but basically they did the output. And then Mona Kuhn, the whole process started with Mona Kuhn, she’s a good friend and we tried to figure out for a couple of years how to work together. I went through all these different tests basically, and found this process that worked the best.

So that’s where we start to get to this point where we’re moving away from the very simple, kind of modernist aesthetic, and start to add value. So the trick with this design, what I like most, is taking things that haven’t been mixed before, and those always seem to get the most play. You know, the Ghost Chair, Louis XIV chair plastic and a 17th century chair?you?ve never seen those together, but once you put them together, you’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s incredible!” That’s one of the things that I’ve historically done with fur. I used to collect taxidermy. And in a modern environment that contrast makes both things stand out a little bit more.

SR: So most of those [photos] are just samples, then, and you could put them on anything?

DP: Oh, you can put them on any of our case designs, we have a whole line of case goods. Anything up to 1.5′ thick, we can print on. Headboards, we’re doing a table right now, a coffee table. These clients went to Africa for a month and a half and brought back all these amazing photographs, so we kind of abstracted one of the images of a Kingfisher bird, and we?’ll print it on their table. It’s just kind of a way to have some pop-y element, which is relevant to what the piece is, or where it is in their house, specifically. The termite (photo) is a reference; you know, a termite on a piece of wood furniture; and then the taxonomic description was the other one we showed at ICFF. It’s that contrast, it catches your eye, makes it interesting.

SR: It’s cool that you can do custom, also, I mean it gives each piece a lot more meaning for the client.

DP: Yeah, and the idea there is also corporate branding. W Hotels, we talked to them briefly; you know, people can come in and say ?Oh, we want to make this chest of drawers for the bathroom,? and we can print water on it with a little ?W? and it makes sense for everybody.

SR: Yeah, that?s really cool. I haven?t seen that very much.

DP: You haven’t seen it at all! You know, it’s really strange, we hit on something at ICFF, that’s why we’re still trying to figure out how to communicate this to people, because I think people still don’t quite understand what it is. And we have yet to put it out where I feel completely 100% about it. The stuff at ICFF was great, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think once I have a chance to talk to people about it, then they start to see it and say, “Oh, wow, that’s amazing.” We can print a whole photograph and wrap it around a piece of furniture. I like the form of my furniture; it’s very simple and straightforward, but it does have to have some kind of element, you know? I like the quiet aspect of it, but there is something nice about making it stand out, too, and that quiet element is kind of like a blank slate for something pop-y.

And just as an aside, I think one of the things that’s interesting, you know, after ICFF I was completely expecting that other people would start to do this, and figure out this process, but the one thing that I feel comfortable about is that we have our own aesthetic. So our aesthetic will always be our own, and I think for big companies maybe smaller companies can compete with us?but I think big companies don’t have the wherewithal to do it the way that we do it. We can actually turn on a dime, and we have small production runs so we can offer a lot of different things really quickly, whereas bigger companies are manufacturing overseas.

One of the issues that we have is that our prices are pretty reasonable, so you have to communicate the quality to people, and kind of educate them about why these pieces are inexpensive: you’re buying direct from the manufacturer, there’s no middlemen, there’s no catalogs going out, all that marketing expense. So that’s a challenge; thinking of the business side of it is challenging.

david pierce, ohio design, green design, eco design, san francisco designers, green furniture, eco furniture, sustainable furniture, sara rich

SR: What percent of your customers are local?

DP: That’s a good question. We’ve been getting a lot of press from, well, we were just in Azure last month, so we’ve been getting lots of requests from Canada. New York, Boston — still primarily it’s local, 70-80% local, 20-30% outside.

SR: Is everything by local designers here?

DP: Yes. Oh, actually, the bowls, I’m not sure who’s designing those bowls, but Lian’s selling them. He might be designing them, he might be getting them in Asia.

We’re going to redesign. I’m going to build some big cubes, kind of fetishize everything by putting it in cases or kind of enclosing it, because I want the feeling of the store to be, when people come in I don’t want them to say, “Oh, you have nice products,” I want them to feel like they want to live here or they want a part of it. And then they can see all the products for sure, but it?s not about having a stack of placemats. I’d rather have two placemats out, and have a stack somewhere else where people can see them. The goal is to be the most beautiful store in San Francisco. And I think we can do it, it’s just a matter of making a good effort at it, a conscious effort. Before we had handbags and furniture and that was much more sparse. So now it’s perfect, Lian?s stuff is perfect, it really complements the furniture, makes it feel like it’s more of a home, not just a showroom. We will be opening a store in the spring of 2006 that?s 1,000-sq-ft, 1,500-sq-ft, So I always saw this space that we have now as a stepping stone.

SR: From my perspective, and a lot of what I look at is on the internet, the aesthetic that you have resembles a lot more of what’s going on in Brooklyn. There are a lot of designers doing small, unique pieces, modernist, lots of mixing wood and metal, a lot of scrap wood.

DP: Yeah, that’s the thing, the trick is you want to offer a lot of different things, but then there’s also this element that you have to have volume to really make it. And where do you get that volume? Can you do volume through a lot of different products in one store or a couple of stores, or do you have to do that one thing that’s going to flood the marketplace?

SR: It’s definitely a hotbed.

DP: When I was in Brooklyn, I started seeing lots of stores. Futureperfect is probably the best example repping a lot of local designers. But it seems like there are little stores popping up, too. I’m trying to figure out if they are manufacturers that make stuff and then open a store, too, or if they’re just kind of little boutique-type stores that really like design, like Futureperfect or Propeller, but don’t really make anything. And that’s where I wonder “Does that set us apart or not?” I think in some regards it does, like when I’m here I can talk to the customers. I can make them realize that, “Oh, I don’t have to just buy what I see, there are more possibilities here and I can talk to the designer about it right here.”

SR: Well I think that concept in all areas of design, not just furniture, is really the thing right now, being able to design your own piece. Like modular houses ? the whole idea is you can have it as big, as small, as tall, as wide, glass walls, built-in fireplace, everything. Same with t-shirts. You can customize them. You have to realize that there are no limits to the options you have to make something truly unique, and it’s hard to have a customer understand that when they look at what?s on the showroom floor and they believe that?s all there is.

DP: Well that’s a good point, and this goes back to a bigger, deep-seated problem in our world. I was working with a bunch of other architects teaching kids about architecture at Zeum. And you know the kids would come in and they’d make these models and we’d talk to them about model making and building and all that stuff, kids 3-years-old to say 15. And their parents would come in, and they would be bored and they’d start making things, too. And we’d ask the kids, “So what?s this thing here doing?” and they’d say, “Oh that’s a secret slot that comes out of the back door and that’s where I keep all my costumes.” And then we’d ask the parents and they’d say, “Well, I’m not really sure why I did that, I just kind of threw that on there.”

It’s like we’re too caught up in the idea that somebody’s going to judge us because there are all these professional aesthetes out there that are trained in it. But it’s all relative. I mean, there’s not a good and a bad. There’s certainly principles of design that can be followed that may make things better, but you see all the stuff that’s sold out in the world, and there’s no doubt that people should be trying their hand at designing more. I just heard a thing on the radio today about a guy who?s an artist, and he was going into classrooms and saw these kindergarteners, and he says to them, “I feel really at home here with all this art on the walls. Who here is an artist?” And all the kids are raising their hands and wiggling their fingers; and it correlated as he went up through the grades that less and less students identified as being artists, or as being creative. You know, as you get older, you stop identifying with that.

There’s a guy who came in who wanted a headboard with the sun and the moon. And right off the bat, to me, that seems kind of hokey. You know, I’m not sure how to weave that in, but there’s some way; maybe take it out of focus or maybe make it black and white, or a really different sun and moon, or close-ups of the sun and moon could be interesting – texture more so. But that idea, getting an idea from someone and abstracting it, you know, and helping people feel confident. Because that’s what fashion is in a lot of ways. Anything you wear, if you wear it with confidence, you are in fashion. Look at haute couture. I mean art history is based on perception; people write volumes about personal perception. It’s all relative. There is technique to furniture or graphics, but it’s very relative.

A lot of my stuff is — I mean it should be pretty obvious that it can be customizable. The size, the color; I mean, we won’t build a 17th century overstuffed chair, but we can do variations on a theme. People don’t realize what’s available. Like we just did a whole architect’s office for less than it would have cost them to have Room & Board. And it was custom! It was exactly the size they wanted. And nobody else has those tables that they have. Communicating that to people is a challenge. Sure, you might have to wait 4-6 weeks, sometimes 2-4; there’s a little more back and forth, you don’t just go in and order something, but it’s not super long. I’m convinced that we have something. We just have to keep paying the bills till it clicks, you know?

SR: Well anything that’s hot now had a time when people said, “Oh that’s never going to catch on.” I feel like the customizing thing grew out of the over-saturation of sameness.

DP: You get an idea and you keep to it; you know it’s going to happen. I’m starting to feel that way with some of my stuff. Like these natural pieces. To powder-coat or plastic wrap it in a high-gloss red or blue takes a natural shape and makes it man-made. Those, or the printed stuff , that gets to a point where you feel like it’s going to happen; I’m excited about it, it’s just a matter of getting it to that point.

It’s hard to keep a business going. The challenge of the day-to-day is significant, and to find the wherewithal to do it is hard. You get bogged down with shipping, organization. The good thing about having a store is you get direct feedback. I mean certainly with retailers you get feedback, but they get a little piece of us in some ways, because they represent our stuff, and they hear the feedback from the customers. I do need feedback.