A newly opened furniture store in downtown Palo Alto wants to take that to the next level: by selling furniture mostly made locally, by hand and with repurposed materials.
At Inhabiture, across from City Hall, much of store manager Matt Maddox's job consists of seeking out independent designers. "A lot of furniture makers who are making unique pieces don't promote themselves very well. They're focused on the artistic aspect. It's hard to find those people," Maddox said.
Hanging in a small hallway is a cage-like light fixture, "made from the track of an old assembly line. It was done in Carpinteria (not far from Santa Barbara) by a little group of three: a mother and her two sons. We fitted it out with LED lightings, and brought it here, just 250 miles away. It's a custom piece," said Inhabiture CEO Forrest Linebarger.
In another corner of the store stands a narrow workbench, complete with a monkey-wrench mechanic to bear down on wood for the cutting. It was made in France in the 1940s.
Beyond these independent designers, Maddox counts four designer/owner/builder companies among its clients, all based in California. Cisco Brothers in Southern California provides the store's line of upholstery goods, made without fire retardants or toxic chemicals.
Noir provides larger pieces of furniture: Jarboe ($3,500) is a bookcase that doubles as a room divider. It is made from timbers and flooring salvaged from industrial buildings torn down in Los Angeles.
Much of Inhabiture's furniture pieces seem to carry one-of-a-kind stories of origin rather than a shared construction process.
Linebarger shared part of the company's philosophy: "Most of our products are made here in California; we're looking at keeping jobs local. We offer reclaimed materials. Most of our things are organic, reclaimed or salvaged. We're happy to see the other furniture stores here, because we offer something a little different, one-of-a-kind pieces, things you do not find in chains."
Linebarger recently moved his business, previously called VOX Design, from Mountain View to Palo Alto, adding the furniture store to his architectural design and green-building company. The expansion is motivated by the idea that "we can not only design and build a green home, but furnish it as well," Maddox said.
"The people that are here, our customer base, they tend to be thinking along the lines of sustainability. They're the right demographic for us. They care about the same things we care about," Linebarger said.
Encasing the store's steel signage is one of Inhabiture's "living walls," fitted with pockets of soil and succulent plants to fill them. Similarly, the rest of the downtown store serves as a showcase for Inhabiture's design and construction services.
Growing demand and competition have made sustainability — in construction and furniture both — more affordable, according to Inhabiture's vice president of sustainability, Ken Arends.
"People think that green costs more. Our motto is: It is of no additional cost to you at all. Zero. Because of competitive markets now, it's so much easier to achieve a green standard in building at no additional cost," Arends said.
A few blocks away, West Elm took over and renovated the 11,000-square-foot corner location at 180 University Ave. Owned by Williams-Sonoma, the store sells modern furniture and houseware.
West Elm also provides a small platform for products from Etsy, an online retailer carrying the work of independent artists. On a table right by the checkout counters sits some of the website's ceramic tableware, specifically drawn from an artist based in Oakland and another in Palo Alto.
"We're the only corporation that's allowed to work directly with Etsy. They've tried to keep it very small, local and artist-focused. We reached out to them to let them know what our mission statement is, to be a launchpad for some of their artists," said Caleb Anderson, the assistant store manager.
Seeking the unusual, West Elm doesn't focus only on local artists.
"It's been a quickly evolving brand in the last couple of years. It used to include very clean lines, whereas now we're starting to collaborate more with up-and-coming artists," Anderson said.
In their travels and research for a recent collection on South African culture, West Elm's design team encountered an artist selling wire, beaded birds, he said.
The birds are just under 10 inches in height, and handmade with wire and glass beads of black and white.
"He was selling them out of the trunk of his car. He had a handful of them in there. In order for us to be able to fill that order, he had to employ 12 people to help him hand-make all of these birds. So it helped him launch his brand within his community. West Elm is not just about what we do here, but what we do on a global scale."
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