How do you take the passion and skill of a solo artisan and scale it up to grow a business? That’s the challenge being taken on by artist and furniture maker Greta de Parry and her business associate Tom Rickmeyer at Chicago-based Greta de Parry Design.
Creating Furniture with Soul in the City of Broad Shoulders
De Parry studied sculpture and woodworking at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which allows its MFA students to create their own program of study. “I just naturally made functional sculptures,” de Parry says — an area of interest that stayed with her from a woodworking course in her first semester through a two-year postgraduate artist’s residency at a farm affiliated with the school.
During that time, she began working alongside master woodworker Mike Jarvi, with whom she still shares a wood shop, and began to build up her portfolio of finished work. She says that many of the pieces on her site today have been in the works for the past decade. For instance, she started designing her popular bar stools seven years ago because “There was such a lack of anything I would want” on the market.
De Parry founded her company in 2012 to broaden her work beyond custom commissions. From the beginning, her goal has been to create “furniture with soul” that’s built to last, built locally, and created with minimal waste or environmental impact.
Freeing Artisans from Repetitious, Grueling Work
Although de Parry’s holistic approach means that she never wants to force the growth of her business, she did find herself running into roadblocks. For instance, during the years that it was a one-person operation, the business would grind to a halt anytime de Parry got sick or wanted to take a break. And when it came to repetitive tasks — such as fabricating the metal bases for her bar stools — the work was tedious and “extremely labor-intensive.” It was difficult to grow the business simply because the work was so time-consuming.
When her friend Rickmeyer got involved in the business, he drew on his engineering and software background to find ways to lighten de Parry’s load. “It definitely started out with the goal of taking some of the work off of her plate,” he says.
Finding the Right Software Solution
During his college years, Rickmeyer had used various design software packages including SolidWorks, SketchUp, and AutoCAD. But when he conducted a software evaluation for Greta de Parry Design from late 2013 to early 2014, he was drawn to Fusion 360.
As he looked at the latest version of programs such as SolidWorks, he found that “the barriers to entry are so high in terms of cost” for a small business. By contrast, Fusion 360’s price point was much easier to bear. He also found that the support and enthusiasm of the Fusion 360 development team and community made it “kind of contagious” to use.
Back then, Fusion 360 was a new product. But Rickmeyer says that “It just made me happy to use the product, even though it was still in its growth stages.”
Building a Better Process around 3D Design
Since adopting Fusion 360, Rickmeyer has reverse-engineered those time-consuming pieces that de Parry used to make by hand. With the designs translated into 3D software files, the company now works with local wire and sheet-metal fabricators to produce them in greater volume.
Rickmeyer says that “We now have a full process we go through in developing each product,” one that includes making a full 3D model before the design ever goes outside the company. They have found that fabricators love working with them, because every product design they share can actually be manufactured as-is. Rickmeyer adds that starting with a full 3D design “has such immense value with today’s manufacturing capabilities, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything in two dimensions.”
Recently, a company they had done business with referred them to a new fabricator for precision steel bending located just three miles from the office. “That’s all possible because we are now so familiar with Fusion 360,” Rickmeyer says.
Better ROI and More Freedom to Create
Greta de Parry Design’s new process saves them time, money, and design cycles. They can prototype new products much faster and then produce them at greater scale. Meanwhile, they free de Parry herself from doing the same grueling tasks over and over, which leaves her more time and energy to create new work.
For example, for a recent run of the company’s popular Coleman stool, a local fabricator produced 100 frames in two days. Although it took Rickmeyer a week to refine the Coleman model within Fusion 360, it ultimately saved de Parry four weeks of shop time that would have been tied up in making 100 frames by hand.
Meanwhile, the company’s processes continue to get even better as Rickmeyer builds script libraries and uses the Fusion 360 API to make precision steel bending easier and easier to replicate. “It’s an extremely pragmatic tool for us,” he adds.
That practicality goes beyond product design. Like many high-end furniture makers, the company’s biggest target market is “the trade,” which includes interior designers, architects, construction firms, and the like. These firms are typically very concerned about how products arrive on site: how much they weigh, how much they cost to ship, how many can fit on one pallet. Rickmeyer used Fusion 360 for interference analysis and worked with a local box maker to optimize the way that Coleman stool frames are stacked within a single box that remains small enough to avoid the higher rates for oversize shipping.
Growing at the Right Pace While Pursuing an Artistic Vision
How fast will the company grow? So far, Rickmeyer says, “We’ve kind of kept it slow and agile.” With the exception of a few contractors, it remains a two-person outfit, which suits both of them just fine.
De Parry says that she “would like to keep creating lasting and beautiful design pieces that people can live with — that are minimal and timeless.” The new approach enabled by Fusion 360 allows her to focus on making new designs that will hold up across the years while Rickmeyer focuses on scaling the business efficiently.
All of that fits de Parry’s vision: “I want to keep creating beautiful pieces and bringing it to a wider audience.”