The following is an e-mail interview with Brandon Morrison. Brandon is the owner of Whyr’Hymer Furniture in Hollywood, California. This started as friendly banter via e-mail and I thought picking Brandon’s brain might be interesting to other aspiring professionals. So here’s some wisdom from a modern artisan who’s been making it for 4 years.
What do you think differentiates a hobbyist from a professional woodworker?
Preparation, pressure, stress, responsibility, and most importantly…. design ability.
If you are not trying to make a living, I think it’s hard to have the perspective of these elements present in your woodworking life as a hobbyist. Someone is giving you several thousand dollars to make something that is supposed to last a long time. That’s a lot of responsibility to honor when you are the boss. A person needs to be motivated and willing to hold themselves to the fire. I hold myself to a high standard, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything as good as can be. I am very fortunate to be able to handle stress really well, but it takes a lot of effort to not feel overwhelmed by the task of generating you own future work while you are creating your current work.
Are there specific things you do to keep yourself motivated or things you do to handle the stress?
I have a very beautiful wonderful wife who never gives me a hard time about my work or money. That makes an enormous difference! I love thought provoking music, so I listen to a lot of tunes throughout the day. Most of all I keep things in perspective. Have you ever thought about the fact that we live in the middle of space on a ball of rock that has no solid support. All that separates us from the hostility of space are air molecules. Not much seems to be all that important when I realize that what I do is easily forgotten in the scheme of things. I take my life and work very serious, but I know my place in the world and what I should be expecting from it. I would suggest that anyone who wants to do something for a living that they are responsible for making a success inside and out, should want to do whatever it is in their free time as well. There are leaders and followers in the world, both are just as relevant in their respective roles. I am a leader and that brings more responsibility, but I don’t have any resentment about that place in life because I understand how to live happily no matter what. Human perspective on life is precious to me, and I don’t want to waste it following rules or ideas of others.
How would you describe your personal woodworking style?
As far as my style, I would say it’s whatever comes to mind. You will no doubt see a lot of influence from one piece to the next. But sometimes I just get ideas out of nowhere and they turn into a whole new direction for a series. I like to create, so whatever feels right and I think has the potential to sell then I will move forward with that.
If we were to put your style in a category, would you call it “Contemporary”?
Contemporary would work for me. Although I don’t like to categorize anything that isn’t a direct copy of some other existing style of whatever the medium may be.
What styles or makers or designers have been a big influence for you?
I appreciate Sam Maloof the most. I have always been more interested in how he built his career, than his designs. I find it hard not pick up on his design sense with chairs. I used to struggle with how to build chairs that wouldn’t be compared to him (because my natural sense is to have things flow) , but then a friend gave me a book called “Chairs” by George Nelson and I was surprised to find none of Sam’s pieces in there. But I saw a lot of chairs that could have been thought of as his “style”. Most of these chairs pre-dated Sam’s career.
My point being that it is inherent that we all influence each other in some way. There are plenty of people who copy and do it well, but they are not designing. Take Sam’s signature hard and soft line details. Look at most automobiles from the 40’s on and you with see the same transitions. These design elements are everywhere in society because they are natural to our sensibilities. They don’t belong to any one person. I don’t at all mean to take away from Sam’s validity, because I think people like him, myself and plenty others are doing what feels right to them and these other examples are in our sub-conscience and therefore have a small but relevant influence on what comes from us.
What is it about Sam’s career that strikes you?
I pay attention to Sam’s business career. He was in a showroom like McGuire (where Brandon is represented) early in his career that exposed him to a lot of designers. He was in a major market (LA), and there is a lot to be learned about how to make a living as a craftsman from him. He knows he’s accomplished at what he does, but he’s not an idiot about it and he doesn’t abuse the position and I find that much more interesting than anything else aside from his business story.
Do you think there’s a West Coast style among contemporary furniture artisans?
I have not really noticed anything specific about West Coast designers. I have seen some pretty cool stuff from people on the East Coast. If I pay attention to anything about other people it’s their business path. I have plenty of ideas. I need to get paid to get them all out in the open. So that’s what I pay the most attention to.
Working “green” is clearly important to you. How important do you think it is for woodworkers in general?
Being green is what we should be doing. It’s really simple from a woodworking perspective. I use Hard Oil finish, non- toxic glue, renewable, reclaimed, FSC hardwoods, and recycled glass. I personally don’t think we should see it as green, but as being responsible about what we are taking and how we use it. If being green equates to being more resourceful, less wasteful, more innovative, and more aware, how is it that that could ever be negative no matter what the state of the environment.
Do you find it easy these days to locate the more responsible/less toxic materials?
Titebond is non-toxic. Hard-Oil by BioShield Paints is low voc, and a brilliantly easy finish to work with. Walnut is now available with FSC certification. So yes, I find it quite easy to be a conscientious designer/builder.
Do you find that it matters to your clients?
Some clients specifically ask, and others get into it when I point it out. It will be the norm down the road. I feel very strongly it’s the responsible action to take in any facet of life.
How important has your website been to your business?
The website is vital. I can be on the phone looking at images with someone in real time explaining whatever to them. That happens a lot. It’s always open for business, the Internet never closes! I have 150 different links to my site from other people who have mentioned or tagged me in some way. Those links are cross referenced by other people and so forth. If you are already established in some way, a website may not be as vital, but even if that’s the case there is no way it can hurt you. I don’t see how anyone could make a compelling argument that a website would be a waste of time.
There are plenty of people who can build furniture more precisely than me and so forth who have awful websites. I have an incredible website. I have built the entire thing from start to finish. I taught myself how to use all the programs and I am fortunate to have met a guy who ended up being a close friend that lights my furniture so I can take the images that I want. I now know how to do it myself, because one day I will not live near him.
My point here is that I get so many compliments on the photography and the look of my site. Which in turn puts my work in a very favorable light, that will make the difference between a call or no call. This is analogous to having the most beautiful engine inside of a jalopy. Eventually you will raise the hood and show people if you can hold their attention. There are too many great websites out there to have one that is not top notch if you can help that. It’s your first impression to potential clients who are not exposed to you in any other medium. I would never have been able to afford what I have if I didn’t have the natural talent to see other examples to draw from and innovate my own ideas to come up with what you see. I don’t mean to put myself in a flattering light. I am pointing this out for the reason of investment capital. If I were to have paid someone to build and design my site, take my pictures, shoot and edit my video, I would have spent at least $10,000.00 over the past few years just to get the look I have now. Then from here you have to decide how to get people to notice you. This equals more money. This is why being an accomplished designer is key, because you want that to be the strongest part of your picture in the beginning. If you want to build in a specific style, then you may have an easier time of making a living in the beginning and from then on. I didn’t want to copy other peoples styles, so I have taken my own path, and there is more risk within the scope of your overall appeal to ingrained styles that exposes you to the risk of not being able to make ends meet while building an identity.
Do you track sales that come through the web versus other means?
I have a service embedded in my site called Sitemeter. I can see how long someone stays on each page. I am able to see what holds attention and what doesn’t. It’s helpful, but not vital.
How important do you think it is to create a “product line”?
I have lines or series because one idea breeds another and that’s one more piece that someone can admire and commission. I will only build pieces that make sense to me and my overall collection though. I won’t build shit just to have another piece to showcase. I have made plenty of pieces for clients that were of their “design” and would never take the time to photograph. But I have done and occasionally do those jobs because they provide me with debt free capital to keep developing my own style and ideas. Overall, as far as “Whyr’hymer” pieces I build what I will enjoy making and seeing down the road.
What factors led to your taking the plunge into being a professional woodworker?
I moved to LA to be an actor and decided I didn’t want that once I was here and had been making a living as a handyman in Beverly Hills/Bel Air. I kept getting more requests to make bookcases and such and then I started to make things for myself and people would see these pieces and make comments. From there I started to investigate it as a living and just kept blindly going forward. Los Angeles is a hard place to make a living as a “woodworker”. There are so many cheap furniture places here, and lots of people don’t have the perspective that East Coast residents have about artisan furniture. The one’s that do are the ones you have to look for. They don’t look for you here that often.
Would we have seen you in anything?
You would have seen my on three episodes of 7th Heaven. I had a few commercial bits. Nothing major. You can go from nothing to uncomfortable attention very quickly here, and I didn’t want that opportunity when I was having my life changing moment, so I bowed out.
How long did that transition take from actor to handyman to full-time artisan?
I made my first piece in 2000. I went through a brief but peaceful divorce and decided to quit acting for the time and plunged myself into something new. My wife at the time hated LA and I loved it. We moved from a very small town called Olla in Louisiana. We realized we were not the right people for each other. I wanted to clear my mind, so I stated making pieces for my house as I worked as a handyman. I would get jobs that challenged my skills and continued to get better and in 2005 I was able to make my living out of my shop full time—So, roughly five years. I still learn all the time.
I know you do some of your marketing through Galleries and Shows. What’s it like working in those venues on the West Coast?
I have only worked with a few galleries so far. I couldn’t operate with the 50/50 split price point. Then get paid within 60 days of the sale. That’s bullshit business acumen. I was very fortunate to get in McGuire Furniture in San Francisco and New York next Spring. They put me in on consignment. They rep my lighting only in the showroom and the rest of my collection by catalog. When someone purchases through them, they send me the check directly for the full amount. I then make the piece and give McGuire their share and the customer pays for shipping. Every designer knows of McGuire so it gives me instant credibility. I was at the right place at the right time and had my ducks in a row and was able to capitalize on an amazing opportunity. Galleries are vital. Just make sure you are getting a fair shake. I have felt at times that they know you don’t have a lot of options and they take advantage of that. But there are always people out there who will be your angels. You just have to expose yourself and look under every rock.
One final question, where does the name “Whyr’Hymer” come from?
A guy from back home is so redneck that it’s embarrassing, and he couldn’t pronounce the name Weimerainer. This is a breed of dog, and I had one at the time. He said what sounded like Whyrhymer and I thought that was better than any generic name you can think of. It has worked out well, because everyone remembers it, because they can’t pronounce it. It’s called being “sticky”. You should read a book called ”The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. A must read for anyone wanting to own and operate a business.