Pieter VanTuyl Has Artisan Aspirations

September 21, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A trio of local furniture veterans have launched a new furnishings company that uses Furniture City manufacturing capabilities to create a couture marriage of natural and residential environments.

Essentially a furniture response to phylogenetic maladjustment — a behavioral theory that suggests animals are not suited to conditions of life that deviate from those which prevailed in the environment in which the species evolved — the inaugural Pieter VanTuyl collection attempts to convey a closeness to the natural environment rare in modern furniture. The resulting pieces include, among others, a table bench ornamented with molten beeswax, a chalkboard and mirror hand-carved from a tree-branch frame, an embroidered rug with its own felt leaves, and a Vermont slate table with hand-forged legs made from old-growth wood reclaimed from razed 19th century structures.

"This is really a story told through products," explained Tod Babick, Pieter VanTuyl design director. "It's the cycle of life. Trees produce flowers, then fruit and seeds, which then produce more trees. Have you ever wondered why we like flowers? It's because flowers mean fruit is coming, they produce food. … "People feel most at ease and thrive in environments that represent where we evolved: flowers, wood, leaves."

Pieter VanTuyl is the brainchild of Babick, principal of industrial design shop Plow, marketing consultant Gary Petertyl and John VanZee, owner and CEO of the Taylor Co., a precision wood manufacturing operation in Grand Rapids. Babick and Petertyl were both involved in the launch of SpringLake office furniture firm izzydesign in 2001. Babick and VanZee are longtime friends.

"We all have our own idea about products and brands and the way things should be," said Babick. "We just saw this as a great opportunity for the three of us to launch a brand that would express our views of what furniture and objects in the home should be."

The Taylor Co., primarily a supplier of wooden parts and components, will manufacture most of the products and coordinate with vendors for offerings outside of its capabilities. VanZee, who acquired the 35-year-old company in 2002, then known as Taylor Carving, said the launch was not a new direction for his company.

"We're doing the same things we've been doing for many years," he said. "This is just a channel to the market we haven't exploited yet."

Babick designed most of the initial offerings, but he is not the exclusive designer. Sturgis designer Rosemary Mifsud contributed the embroidered rug, which will retail for $7,500.

On top of the natural design influences, the company prides itself on sustainability. The only initial offering that uses any electricity is the illuminated shelf. The manufacturing process is largely craft-based, with a relatively light environmental impact. The materials are both recyclable and recycled, using no forested wood — it is either reclaimed from razed structures or harvested from necessary landscape operations. The stone entry bench is carved from the foundation of a 190-year-old Hudson River valley barn foundation.

"It gives us this richness of history," said Babick. "A lot of the wood is old growth; it's aged with much denser growth rings. We're being very careful to give it the respect it deserves."

The venture also focuses on areas of sustainability commonly overlooked. Virtually all materials are domestically sourced, relieving the environmental pressures of supply transportation, but also supporting the social aspects of sustainability. The venture will create additional jobs for the Taylor Co. and its artisan work force.

"There is a lot of talent left over there from the heyday of Grand Rapids, and we want to keep those people in Grand Rapids and doing fun and interesting work," said Babick.

The company's intended market is strictly couture. Babick's shaker braid broom is listed at $430, the chalkboard and mirror are available for $22,500, and the tables and benches are priced from $8,700 to $9,200.

"Obviously, this is an ultra-premium product and it's going to find a selective market," said Petertyl. "This is for people who are interested in product with a story, products that are genuine and show the process of handcrafting."

The company is currently seeking showrooms in major markets across the country. The name Pieter VanTuyl traces its roots to the early 1600s in the Netherlands, where it was the original name of Petertyl's family.

The inaugural collection is centered on the entryway: pieces designed to be seen and experienced as someone first walks into a home. In the coming year, additional offerings will focus on other areas of the home, and potentially the office and commercial environments.

"I've been involved in a lot of startups, and it's relatively easy for me to design a line of products," said Babick. "The hard part is getting it seen, keeping the momentum going and all of the brand touch points, the things that happen on the exterior of the company."

The company will be exhibiting at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in May. Pieter VanTuyl will also be featured in an upcoming issue of Metropolis Magazine.     

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