Sasha Plotitsa wasn't one of those business titans who climbed steadily up the corporate ladder. He worked in construction, ran a cannabis dispensary, invented a meal tote for weightlifters, created Braille signs and styled interiors. Now, at age 50, he's taken bits of every job and baked them into Formr, a small San Francisco furniture company.
The name of the one-year-old company starts with the word "form" and relates to the formerly incarcerated individuals hired to produce the pieces from formerly used (repurposed) wood. The minimalist, playful lap desks, candleholders, floating end tables and wine racks (there are 12 designs) come in quirky colors and have offbeat names like the "HANGover" coat rack and the "SHELFish" shelf. Priced from $89 to $619, they are handmade in a former car repair shop in San Francisco's Hayes Valley.
Plotitsa's earlier pursuits focused on being successful financially and making a profit. But he's always found time to give back to causes he believed in. A few years ago, he decided to direct more of his attention on that kind of work.
"I wanted to find a way to do something that I am passionate about, and that is designing, and combine it with a social mission," he said.
His little company is getting noticed. In June, West Elm added Formr to its Local online program, which showcases handcrafted and artisan-made products from 150 small businesses, bringing the designs of underserved communities to a national audience. "We loved Sasha's business sense and his storytelling," says Larysa Polansky-Hayes, head of the West Elm program.
Plotitsa was 7 when he left Odessa with his parents and came to the U.S. He said he also has always been "a curious person who enjoys experimenting."
After college at San Jose State, he joined an acquaintance on a venture to import night-vision binoculars from Russia. "I was the entire art department," he said. He spent some time in the sign business and at his father's construction company, helping with interiors, specifying tile and finishes, and sourcing green building materials. At work sites, he said, he was "blown away" by all the wood scraps and other material that ended up at the dump.
From 2008 to 2018, he worked in the cannabis dispensary business, which was closed down by the federal government. But while he was running it he encountered many people who had been imprisoned after being caught with marijuana. "It opened my eyes to the concept that people like this needed a fresh start," he said.
In 2018 Plotitsa realized that prisoners often had access to woodworking programs. And his idea took shape.
After more than two years of planning, designing and prototyping, Formr was ready to begin hiring. Finding former prisoners who had carpentry skills proved challenging. A small core of workers has been nurtured to handle the job. Cris Wolf is one of Plotitsa's three part-time employees. Wolf, 46, moved around when he was a child. But one thing that stayed with him was the time he spent with his grandfather in Vallejo, Calif.
"My grandfather ... was Osage so he taught me about working with natural material," he said. Wolf graduated from high school and served in the Army, but he had a history of trauma and mental illness. He was incarcerated for 19 years, he says, "for taking someone's life."
"I was released on a conditional program which helps me with monitoring my mental illness," Wolf said. He saw a posting on a jobs website for a woodworker and noted that the company hired people who had been incarcerated.
"If anyone will give me a shot, then it's this guy," he said.
Dmitry Shapiro, 47, a project manager at CB Construction, said he was at first skeptical of his plan to use formerly incarcerated workers. "It felt a bit risky to me," he said. But he signed on to help with finding recycling construction debris.
Plotitsa set a launch date of March 11, 2020, just as the world started shutting down because of the coronavirus. But he had at least two things going for him: He was making small-scale furniture suitable for people working at home, and it was sold online.
"Within a week of opening, I thought of closing," he said. But after some starts and stops, he reopened June 17, 2020, and has operated continuously since then.
"Lots of customers have been excited about the mission and have bought furniture because they feel positive about making that purchase," he adds. "It's just as much a priority as the design itself."