Magazine

Better Late Than Never


Sawdust clings to Craig Marcus' shirt as he glues together pieces of a table. The 48-year-old furniture maker, who runs Marcus Studio in Pittsburgh, is hard at work on his third career. He started out as a painter -- "I didn't know where I wanted to go with my painting," says Marcus, "but I sure wasn't getting there." Then he spent 11 years as a computer programmer before becoming an entrepreneur. He opened his woodworking shop six years ago, taking a 60% pay cut. He hasn't written a line of code since.

The First Table

In 1991, a year after starting my computer programming job at Carnegie Mellon University, my wife and I bought a house. We needed furniture, and the furniture we liked, we couldn't afford.

We had a carriage house in the back, and one day the light bulb went off. I just knew I could make a dining room table, and that the carriage house could be my workshop. I had no idea, though, how to make good quality furniture, so I read a lot of books, and bought a lot of tools -- and then I made a dining room table.

I realized I must have done a good job when someone at Carnegie Mellon who had seen it asked me to make him a dining room table, which I did. It was a massive Arts and Crafts-style table, and I think I sold it for $1,500.

I kept working at CMU for seven years. For most of that time, I'd do about six hours of woodworking in the morning, go to CMU at noon, and work there until about 8:30 p.m.

The furniture did well. I had almost a 100% sales rate. If I could get someone into my gallery on the second floor of the carriage house, I usually sold them something.

The Leap

One day I realized I was spending more time drawing furniture at my desk than I was writing programs. My friends Max and Bill, both woodworkers, were sharing a cooperative woodworking shop on the North Side, and it had an opening. Max wondered if I wanted to make the leap. I knew I could learn a lot just by being around these guys. I still had no idea how "real" woodworkers made things. I thought I should see how it's done.

So I quit CMU and moved into the co-op's space for a year. I felt fine about it, but then again, I'm used to doing irrational things. My wife, Lu, and my family were very supportive. (As my main motivation is to irritate my family, that didn't pan out.)

My family lent me money to open my own shop. It was actually difficult to keep them from lending too much. I have a very nice family.

Truth is, though, furniture making is a hard way to make a living. What we do is high quality and low volume. That's pretty inefficient. I took about a 60% pay cut from CMU my first year. But I love the work. There's no other reason to do this.

And the one great thing about being in business for yourself is the flexibility it offers. I've had to spend an enormous amount of time out of the shop this year because my father has been ill, but I'm able to do that.

I had a conversation with a woodworker who might rent space with us, and he was moaning and groaning about whether to keep going. Financially, it is hard sometimes. He asked me if I still love my work, and I do.

In painting, computer programming, and furniture making, I'm basically writing a composition that has to adhere to form and function. There are criteria that determine whether it works, and there's an aesthetic to all three that determines whether it's beautiful. The common theme is design.

Craig Marcus' furniture can be seen at www.designspacepittsburgh.com.


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