Handmade furniture from a factory in the woods
Jaffrey, N.H. — Until recently doing business with Up Country Enterprise meant that two energetic, hammer-wielding women would come out to your house to repair the roof , paint the kitchen, shovel snow, panel the living room, or do whatever else needed to be done.
Now those who call on Margaret Way or Elizabeth Foulke find that Up Country Enterprise has evolved into a thriving young corporation that produces high-quality handmade furniture for such clients as the Smithsonian Museum and Old Sturbridge Village. Ms. Way and Ms. Foulke, who once left white-collar teaching jobs to become blue-collar handywomen and cabinetmakers, are back in white collars again.
The growth to corporate status happened last spring when the women found the demand for their custom furniture had grown beyond what they could produce themselves in a small workshop.Figuring they could use about 3,000 square feet of work space, they found themselves renting an 11,000-suare-foot factory instead.
Situated in a secluded corner of a wooded industrial park, the factory hums with the sound of maple, cherry, and mahogany being sawed and planed by a dozen or so woodworkers who clearly take pride in producing small quantities of carefully done work. Mr. Way and Ms. Foulke, who design and oversee much of what Up Country Enterprise produces, are most involved these days with guiding their rapidly growing business.
"Last spring we couldn't have guessed that we'd actually be needing all of this space. In fact we planned to rent most of it out," says Ms. Foulke, who is both president of the new company and vice-president in charge of sales. "We told out plant manager that he could have a staff of only three during the first year. We simply had no idea there was that much business out there."
That business has flowed in from a variety of sources, among them individuals wanting custom work, museum gift shops, and retail stores. Up Country's mixture of providing both custom items and small production runs has found a steady market.
"We seem to have opened shop at just the right time," says Margaret Way, who is both company treasurer and vice-president in charge of production. "People are turning away from plastics and going back to wood." It's partly because plastic is no longer cheap and partly because people want furniture that will hold up in both durability and value. In fact, some of our customers say they are buying our furniture as an investment."
she also attributes the company's success to its willingness to do both individual custom work and small quantities of production line items. "We seem to fit into a slot where there isn't anyone else. Few companies can be bothered to produce just a dozen of one item, but that's what we love doing.We hope we will always be involved with producing a lot of small runs."
If a customer brings in a piece of antique furniture to be reproduced, Up Country Enterprise will take on the job. One such is a mahogany customhouse desk that is being reproduced for the Smithsonian catalog down to the last pigeonhole. "But there are limits to how far we will carry reproduction." Ms. Foulke says. "We will finish a piece and do all the moldings by hand, but anyone who wants the whole thing carved out exactly by 18th-century methods had better go elsewhere. We don't go looking for old wood."
What Up Country prefers to produce are adaptations of early American designs rather than reproductions. For instance, their handsome sideboard, replete with satinwood inlay and fluted legs, may look like one produced in the 1760s, but it is actually a good deal smaller.
"Most people no longer live in houses with 18-foot ceilings, and therefore have no use for a large antique sideboard that would look ludicrous in a small apartment," says Ms. Way. "We've found that scaled-down traditional furniture can look very good and fit in with contemporary living."
Many of their adaptations, including a hanhsome Sheraton bookcase, a classic four-poster bed with canopy, and an oak blanket chest, are available from retailers such as Shinera, which has stores in Boston and Washington. Others, such as a dovetailed box, miniature grandfather clock, and primitive rocking horse, are available from Old Sturbridge Village. Most furniture adaptations cost between $400 and $700, while custom reproductions cost much more.
Far from limited to antique designs, Up Country also produces a line of wood-crafted home office furniture that has found favor with customers desiring an alternative to metal desks and filing cabinets. Other work has been for the New York firm POP/eye, which specializes in copies of small, everyday objects done 12 times larger than life. After studying children's building blocks, Up Country presented them with carved and painted outsize blocks that can function as storage chests and children's benches.
Along with producing unusual items, Ms. Foulke and Ms. Way have organized their company in a rather unusual way. Instead of each woodworker being responsible for just part of an item, he or she works on the entire production. "The kind of employees we've hired are doing this kind of work because they enjoy it and care about quality," Ms. Foulke says. "They don't want to stand in an assembly line and do the same thing all day."
If the women are sensitive to the needs of their employees, it may be because they have gone to great lengths to be happy in their own work. Part of that involved the unlikely process of giving up distinguished academic careers to work with a hammer and shovel.
Ms. Foulke, who has degrees from Bryn Mawr and the University of Pennsylvania , and Ms. Way, who has an MA from Cambridge, arrived in southwestern New Hampshire after several years of teaching in prestigious prep schools. After doing extensive restoration on an 18th-century house owned by Ms. Foulke's mother, they found they preferred work such as that. In 1968 they formed Up Country Enterprise, a partnership specializing in restoring old houses, gardening, and odd jobs.
"We were completely self-taught," Ms. Foulke recalls. "We found a great book called 'The American Family Handyman' and used it for everything we needed to know, starting with a job repairing window cords. A lot of women think that men are born knowing how to swing a hammer, but it's really something anyone can learn."
"In fact, as far as learning to run a business is concerned, I think women even have a special advantage," she adds. "They have always had to adapt themselves to situations and to go around problems rather than confront them head-on like a bull with horns. The countless small disasters that women have confronted in running homes are completely analogous to those in the business world."
As their own business evolved, Ms. Foulke and Ms. Way added woodworking to their long list of skills. Making paneling and molded bookcases proved to be less exhausting and more lucrative than shoveling snow and scraping floors.
"We had known from the beginning that the odd jobs were a temporary thing, and that we wanted them to lead into something else," Ms. Way says. "We finally knew it was time to move on when we were doing a roofing job that carried over into late November. In fact, I think I can pinpoint the precise moment being when I discovered that my jeans had frozen onto the roof."