Modern furniture from Minnesota

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2013 - 8:43 AM

If you’re shopping for furniture, check out these small companies — the state’s newest purveyors of a modern design tradition.

Local companies such as Blu Dot and Room & Board established Minnesota’s reputation for modern furniture design. Now some smaller, newer businesses are helping sustain that tradition. We profile three of the state’s most stylish:

Eastvold Furniture

Room & Board was a big inspiration for Matt Eastvold. The son of a welder, Eastvold grew up in tiny Hartland, Minn. For kicks he would often spend weekends gathering up the extras from the floor of his father’s shop. “Then I would take all his scraps and put a coffee table on top of it — just like Room & Board,” said Eastvold.

Decades later, Eastvold returns the favor by designing his own line of inspiring furniture. Based in Dennison — another Minnesota small town — Eastvold Furniture specializes in ultramodern tables and credenzas, sold mostly to design-lovers on the coasts. “I’m sort of sick of saying [the furniture] is midcentury inspired but I can’t deny that,” said Eastvold. Founded in 2008, his one-man company creates simple, almost bare-bones wooden furniture with splashes of vibrant accent colors.

Eastvold’s is the typical lemons-lemonade story: His custom cabinetry business went bust in 2008, an early casualty of the Great Recession (“600 and some cabinet shops closed in 2008 and 2009 in Minnesota alone,” he said).

On the upside, a furniture business swiftly grew from the ashes of the old cabinet shop. This allowed Eastvold to focus on product design and marketing, aspects of the business he most enjoys. “I really like building the company, getting the customers,” he said.

“I don’t really care to be in the shop,” confessed Eastvold. He grew up working in his dad’s welding shop. He later spent interminable workdays—“sometimes 14 hours”—manning his own cabinet shop. He’s burned out on shops. So he contracts with a local woodworker, also based out of Dennison, who constructs the entire Eastvold line by hand. “I’m trying to hit a larger market without sacrificing quality,” said explained. “All the furniture is handmade — that will never change.”

Proving himself a capable businessman, Eastvold was quick to secure contracts with upscale boutique retailers in New York and Los Angeles as well as Dallas, Miami and Portland. “Over half of my stuff goes into Manhattan and Brooklyn,” explained Eastvold. “My other big market is California. People living in those areas really like modern design.”

Until recently, in fact, shoppers in Eastvold’s home state couldn’t even find his furniture in the local stores. That changed last fall with the opening of Forage Modern Workshop, a new showroom in Minneapolis. Eastvold has a special relationship with this retailer. Look for Eastvold’s special line of office furniture made from sustainable Wood from the Hood, designed specifically for Forage Modern Workshop. Also look for deals on scratch-and-dent returns from the coasts. Eastvold repairs these pieces and sells them exclusively at Forage. “Sometimes they’re half price,” said Eastvold.

Eastvold Furniture, 12980 Dennison Blvd., Dennison; 651-210-2294; www.eastvoldfurniture.com

Loll Furniture

Greg Benson’s mother was “more contemporary” in her tastes. Case in point: The showpiece of the family’s Bloomington home was a 1970s-era Danish teak dining set, complete with matching credenza.

A woman of discernment, Benson’s mom also favored a certain Minnesota-based retail chain: “She shopped at Room & Board,” said Benson, raising his voice with excitement. “It was right down the street!”

Today, that very store, located in nearby Edina, is a top seller of Benson’s own furniture collection, a stylish line of outdoor chairs and tables made entirely from recycled plastics. Visitors to the Edina showroom “either know about us, or they find out Loll’s from Duluth — and they love that!” said Benson, the co-founder, co-owner and CEO of Duluth-based Loll Designs.

Loll has an unusual back-story: A former employee of Rollerblade, Benson was a pioneering designer and builder of skate parks. In 1992 he co-founded a company called TrueRide, which was always searching for stronger, longer-lasting materials to populate these outdoor destinations. TrueRide eventually took to using a certain kind of recycled plastic on the exterior of their skate parks — “almost like siding,” said Benson. Made from recycled milk jugs, the material proved “durable and good for the outdoors,” said Benson. He and his two business partners knew they could do more with this low-maintenance material. So they founded Loll in 2006.

“I would never do what we’re doing with virgin plastic,” stressed Benson, showing the business’s considerable green roots. “It just doesn’t make sense to be generating new plastic when there’s so much out there.” According to Benson, the company has recycled “26 million milk jugs” since its inception.

Thanks to Benson’s mother, who instilled a love for furniture design, he gets to focus his energies on Loll. Benson’s business partners are more interested in food, so they concentrate on Loll’s sister company Epicurean, a designer and manufacturer of cutting surfaces and kitchen utensils, also made from recycled materials. The two companies employ 50 people in Duluth, where all products are also manufactured.

Loll’s attractive designs are quickly catching on with modern design lovers everywhere. Look for Loll’s signature lounger (a crisp take on the traditional Adirondack chair) not only at Room & Board, but also at Design Within Reach. Benson is also making inroads with the global market. Loll furnishings are now available in Australia, The Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.

Commercial design projects for private businesses and public spaces comprise about half of Loll’s business. Twin Citians can admire the company’s loungers at Theodore Wirth Park and at the Hennepin County Library in Maple Grove.

And if you ever make it to Seattle, check out Loll’s power-washable chairs, tables and benches inside the Seattle Public Library, a landmark modern building designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The building has been newly outfitted with “a few hundred pieces” of Loll furniture, said Benson. “Obviously that’s a big feather in my cap.”

Loll Designs, 1325 N. 59th Av. W., Duluth; 877-740-3387; www.lolldesigns.com

Rapson-Inc.

Rapson-Inc. makes and sells furniture designed by Ralph Rapson, the great modernist architect and beloved University of Minnesota professor. The company was launched by Toby Rapson shortly following the 2008 death of his famous father and operates separately from the family-owned architecture firm, also based in Minneapolis.

“I’ve always thought of what we’re doing as an extension of what Ralph was doing with furniture at the end of his life,” said Chris Reedy, president of Rapson-Inc. “It was very exciting to him that modernism was alive and well and there were people here in Minnesota at the forefront of bringing it back,” explained Reedy.

Rapson, for example, admired the affordable modern designs coming out of Blu Dot, which was launched locally in 1997. He ended up partnering with the company to design a playful steel-mesh lounger. Blu Dot continues to sell this chair, known as the Dwell/Rapson Lounge, and it continues to be popular. “I know Ralph had a great experience working with Blu Dot,” said Reedy, a veteran marketing consultant who got involved when he purchased a Rapson-designed house.

Here’s the coolest thing about Rapson-Inc.: Not only is the company recreating Rapson classics like the Greenbelt Rocker and the Greenbelt Lounger, originally released as the Rapson Line for Knoll in 1945; it’s also preparing to produce new pieces based on the drawings Ralph left behind. Because Toby is also an architect, he is able to resolve any practical matters that crop up, such as tweaking the joinery for the company’s high-end manufacturers in North Carolina and upstate New York.

“Ralph drew a lot of designs that never entered production,” explained Reedy. “For example, a lot of people bought the Ralph Rapid Rocker,” which was released by Ralph’s firm before his death. “We’re getting ready to come out with the ottoman for that, based on Ralph’s sketches before he passed away.”

Rapson’s designs have always enjoyed global fanfare. The company was quick to secure agreements with retailers in Germany and Australia, but “we’re selling mostly in the U.S.,” said Reedy. “The Greenbelt line with its natural wood seems to be a great fit for the California market.”

Not surprisingly, Minnesota is also one of Rapson-Inc.’s hottest markets. You can find Rapson rockers and loungers at Forage Modern Workshop and Danish Teak Classics, which has also helped prototype some of the unrealized drawings. “Ralph built such a wellspring of goodwill,” said Reedy. “I think that’s one of the reasons people here have been so supportive.”

Rapson-Inc.; 612-276-3500; www.rapson-inc.com

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754

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