Furniture you put together in a snap

Heirloom-quality pieces are shipped for you to assemble

On a typical Sunday afternoon, Doug Green can be found sanding furniture in his workshop, a few blocks from his spacious showroom near Portland's waterfront.

A few years ago, Mr. Green packed up his bags, locked up his New York City apartment, and opened Green Design here. He had an idea: Make high-end wooden furniture that snapped together like jigsaw puzzles and could be shipped via Federal Express to the young modern on the go.

His idea worked. Today, Green ships out Arts and Crafts mission-style tables, computer desks, beds, bookcases, and sofas that can be assembled and dissembled in a matter of minutes.

"I want people to see furniture as an investment," says Green, who slightly resembles a younger Richard Gere. "I also want them to be able to keep a piece forever - an heirloom. Furniture isn't made like that much anymore."

Indeed, most modern furniture has screws, nuts, bolts, and glue that can weaken as years pass. It's hard for one person to pack it up and move it from coast to coast.

But not Green's designs. He patented a method of manufacturing that utilizes the strength of the wood to hold the piece together. This system of interlocking joinery allows parts to slide and lock into each other. They can be packed flat and shipped almost as easily as an airline ticket.

Ten years ago, he was living in New York, using his bed as a couch. An industrial designer with a penchant for woodworking, he wondered if there was a way to make a couch that saved space and was easy to transport.

That's when he began experimenting with prototypes that had sliding dovetail joints. One day, after many tries, he succeeded.

"My designs worked, but I knew that to start a business I didn't need to be in New York," says Green.

He headed to Maine, where he had worked as a cabinetmaker years earlier. He chose Portland because of its history and attitude.

"This harsh climate has attracted gritty nonconformists for years," says Green. "I knew I could get a good pool of people to work here. There's a creative freedom here for people who want to do their own things."

He opened his business on the waterfront, which was shabby and run-down just six years ago. Today, the area surrounding Green's showroom hosts funky antique shops, eclectic bistros, and designer boutiques.

In his showroom office, Green designs all of the furniture. Each piece is then handmade from Pennsylvania cherry wood. A perfectionist, he hires people with little woodworking experience because he wants to train them in his own methods.

He employs about 20 people; the average employee is 24 and has a college degree. In the workshop, associates - as Green likes to call his employees - listen to punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees, jazz great Charlie Parker, and Irish band U2 while turning cherry wood into quality works of art for customers across the country.

Fifty percent of Green's business comes from the West Coast. More than 47 percent of his customers are repeat buyers. And at least 85 percent of purchasers buy the furniture from the catalog or Web site (www.greendesigns.com).

This fall, Green will unveil two new dining-room tables. He expects them to be popular, but no piece, he says, can compare to the best-selling computer desk.

"If you are going to sit at a desk all day, and sometimes all night, you better like that piece of furniture," says Green.

His computer desk is clean in design and functional. It features a 45-inch sliding tray for keyboard, mouse, and papers. Computer cables run through precision-cut openings in the top. It, too, boxes up and can be shipped overnight.

This Japanese-influenced furniture isn't cheap. The desk costs about $2,500 before shipping. A king-size bed runs $2,775, plus $300 for Fed Ex delivery. A solid cherry bench is $875.

When Green started producing his "jigsaw-puzzle furniture," he also began to design and fine-tune the manufacturing process. For the past six years, he and his crew have invented, fabricated, and perfected their own machines and production patterns.

The technique works. Last year, Green Designs was a million-dollar business.

"Our business has caught on," he says. "We now have a rhythm going, and it doesn't hurt that we have a great track record with customers."

Green signs the first 100 pieces of a line. His keen attention to detail and precision has earned him several prestigious design awards.

In 1993, he was selected one of the top designers of the year by The New York Times. In 1997, his designs received an award for "value and versatility" at the Philadelphia Fine Furniture Show.

And Green's work isn't just in homes. A Green hall table greets visitors in the Portland Museum of Art, which was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei.

A senior partner at a Washington law firm noticed a small sketch of a table in the catalog. He called Green and asked if he could adapt the design into a 23 foot-long conference table. Green said yes and designed and delivered the table.

Buyers quickly recognize the quality of their purchases.

"The customer puts it together, so he will see every aspect of the furniture from the inside and outside," says Green, who has been known to toss aside a piece that isn't working.

"There's no fudging here. Every piece has to be perfect."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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