GTPulse: Traverse City Man Makes Furniture Inspired By Northern Michigan

Furniture making has been a mild obsession of mine since watching Sex and the City. The iconic 90s’ HBO show had the main protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, endure two loves throughout the series, Mr. Big and Aiden. Mr. Big was representative of the toxic love we’ve all had and struggle to let go of. They were on, they were off and he had big-time commitment issues. Aiden, on the other hand, was gentle, sweet and wanted to build something real with Carrie. Aiden may have failed at building a lasting love with her, but he successfully built furniture by trade and I thought that was admirable and something that takes skill and creativity. It made me think about how important furniture is to our everyday lives. We gather around dining tables to break bread, to talk and to be together. We sit to give our weary backs and feet a rest from a long day. A couple of months ago I was eating dinner with friends at Forrest Food Studio after a cooking class, and the first topic of conversation that came up as we gathered around the dining table was …the dining table. The long, wooden table was split down the middle with a winding river of aquamarine blue epoxy. We marveled at the beauty and craftsmanship before Forrest told us it was a custom piece made for him by local furniture maker Curtis Warnes.

Steel Appeal wasn’t started by Curtis. As a matter of fact, he took the job after moving to Traverse City from Detroit and at the time Steel Appeal was only making rustic home decor.

“I was living in Detroit, working in the communications business. I was traveling all over Michigan and the United States, and when my daughter was born in Traverse City I was still traveling a lot and quickly realized that that’s not how I wanted to raise a family, being gone all the time.”

He took a job at Steel Appeal after working inconsistent manual labor gigs. The company is based just outside of Empire and when Curtis started working there, they only sold home decor to national outlets like Cabellas. They expanded their products after Curtis bought the business.

“I just happened to land a job with a company I now own. I was 25 years old. It was very intimidating. I didn’t have any business operation experience at all.”

Despite not having any personal experience with business, he had grown up with an innate desire to be a business owner, which could have been inspired by his parents who owned a small company of their own. The entrepreneurial spirit is passed down.

“When I had worked for the previous owner, I had made some custom pieces. Being in that environment I would just take time to make more artistic pieces. I would lose myself, lose track of time. Eight hours would go by and it felt like two.”

When he took over the business he had the creative freedom to make any kind of pieces he wanted and extending beyond decor.

“I never really planned on going the custom direction. Keep in mind, back then social media marketing wasn’t a thing. Here I am with this company, literally in the middle of nowhere, in Empire. I don’t have direct foot traffic, I don’t have social media to market so I really just focused on getting my name out there by hitting the pavement.”

Word of mouth has been Curtis’s strongest and most effective form of advertising. He consistently is booked months in advance to make custom dining tables.

“I decided I wanted to get into furniture making only about a couple of years ago. I had found a niche or design style that I really liked.”

Curtis’s designs are inspired by the beauty of the outdoors. Living in Northern Michigan has provided an abundance of inspiration and materials. 

A big demand for Curtis is custom dining tables and he has used local relics like Petoskey stones to embed into his work.

“I’ve had multiple pieces go out of state to people who have ties to Michigan, and understand what the Petoskey stone is. The ironic thing about the Petoskey stone is that it really doesn’t have much traction outside of Michigan. If you’re not from the Great Lakes region you don’t really care about a 350 million-year-old coral.”

He sources all of the furniture materials locally from the wood to the stones and he’s on a fast track to having custom orders booked through the rest of the year. However, a personal goal he has for 2020 is to create time to make more furniture to have for sale in the Steel Appeal showroom. As it stands right now, he has a full plate.

“I have all these new concepts and ideas that I want to create. I want to really expand on what’s possible and create pieces that don’t have a home, they’re just my pieces. It’s a very challenging thing to balance. That’s my next transition.”

Categories: GTPulse