I love discovering a gem, but I am not talking about jewelry here.
Gemology tells us that a rough rock can be polished into beauty. Well, so can a tree. I’m reminded of this every time I work with Aronson Woodworks. If you follow design but don’t know that name, trust me, you will.
About 15 miles south of Des Moines sits the young furniture company’s headquarters and workshop. I turn to them for pieces that have the fresh contemporary aesthetic of a newly designed furniture form with the craftsmanship of a masterful artisan.
Not only does Aronson Woodworks top the style quotient, they solve a tragic environmental challenge: the loss of ash trees. This furniture is definitely a better-looking alternative than mulch made from emerald ash borer-affected ash trees.
Clay Aronson’s vision has landed his furniture on A-list playgrounds from Beverly Hills to Aspen to the Hamptons. Leading designers are leaning on his environmental forethought to provide clients with heirloom-quality stunners.
Clay told me all about how his Iowa upbringing and surroundings have influenced his business.
Sustainability plays a major role in your product. You repurpose torn-down ash trees. Not only are you upcycling with new material, the pieces are intended to last for generations. When did your passion for sustainability begin?
It’s not just about furniture or design to me. I want to preserve history. I grew up on a farm and have watched my small hometown decline almost to the point of extinction. I want to keep that rural way of life alive in a world where rural communities seem to be evaporating.
The “local” story of merchandise has become so important as the Makers Movement competes with the big-box retail scene. How has your local community helped your business thrive?
We developed great relationships with a handful of local designers before we went national. The feedback was about the quality of our furniture and how it stacked up against the familiar brand names. Iowa was our incubator. We have an insulated bubble here. We didn’t travel to the trade shows. Instead, we relied on our local design partnerships to determine whether what we were doing was new and patent-worthy.
Your “Claize” finish now boasts a patent. Congratulations. As a creator, what’s the next patent on your agenda? And don’t worry, we won’t tell a soul.
I dream about a way to crate our furniture. We rely on a company that doesn’t necessarily understand the contents inside the crate. If I could come up with something new and inventive, it would be to develop a safe way to crate furniture. I want to revolutionize the process so goods don’t have to be so vulnerable as they are transported.
Your furniture doesn’t only live in Iowa. You are in some of the country’s most coveted ZIP codes: The Hamptons, Aspen, Los Angeles, and I hear you’ve got a little project brewing (pun intended) in Hawaii. What draws these A-list destinations to your furniture?
There is so much competition in big cities. It can be a challenge for designers to find unknown, small-batch pieces. When a designer specifies our furniture for a project, there’s a great chance that it’s not been seen before. Nobody knows where it came from, and it’s special. We give designers validation for their research because we are a discovery. The design community in the luxury market is so hungry for pieces that haven’t been brought to the mass market.
And the project that’s brewing in Hawaii?
We were connected with the team at Wolfgang Puck and are building furniture for his new restaurant. And yes, we are on cloud nine!
It seems that you’ve catapulted forward over the past two years. How have you been able to spread your story?
The past two years have been pivotal for us. It started with our first national press at the end of 2017. Our tables were featured among the biggest names in furniture. A profile on Aronson Woodworks followed. 2018 was good to us with additional press at the national level and a handful of key designers on the coasts who trusted us to construct product for their clients. Through press and Instagram, we’ve connected with a design community that would have taken us years to build otherwise.
Big cities are seemingly exciting. But you’ve managed to compete in a community that can be all about glitz and glam with a story that wouldn’t necessarily be considered a sexy one. Iowa. Why is it so special to you, and how are you making sure that it’s a presence in the lives of others?
The idea of making heirloom-quality furniture at the end of a gravel road in rural Iowa is such a unique slant for designers on the coasts. We were the only vendor from Iowa at ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) last year. That was our first and only trade show to date. All the other vendors were from the coasts or a different country. For us, our rural beginnings really add to the appeal for designers who want to deliver something that has a story. Our product is handcrafted with a soul. The fact that we operate in the heartland thousands of miles from them adds to the romance of it all. It’s a surprise.
Aronson Woodworks’ heirloom-quality furniture packs a wow factor that I can’t get enough of. I know when I turn to them, the finished custom furniture will be exactly what my client needs: function wrapped in a beautiful package.
I love a good gem. And it looks like I’ve found one.