Exclusive Interview: Jacob Marks of Skram

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Sleek lines, honest materials and—dare we say it—sexy curves, abound in the designs of today’s exclusive interview subject’s work. We sit down with the founder and lead designer of Skram Furniture, Jacob Marks, who talks with us about what inspires him, how he got into the furniture making business and what books are by his nightstand. 

Skram is really unique in the way in which they approach design, and have a distinctive look that speaks to the new American craft aesthetic movement.The pictures accompanying this podcast only do these great furniture pieces half justice; please be sure to visit the Skram website for more information and detailed photos of the items. You can even check out more information in several of Skram’s online catalogs.

Our podcast music is “Dropping out of School” by Brad Sucks, licensed for use under
Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Thankfully, your fingers don’t have to click far to find Skram furniture pieces: they’re available on 2Modern!

Rather read Jacob’s interview? We’ve got the transcript right here:
2M: We’re talking with Jacob Marks, who’s behind Skram Furniture, a really innovative company in Hillsborough, North Carolina, that designs beautiful modern furniture for residential, commercial and hospitality spaces. Thanks for being here Jacob!
JM: Sure. Thanks for having me.

2M: So I know Skram Furniture manufactures gorgeous furniture, but why don’t you tell us in your own words what your company is all about?
JM: Mostly what we’re all about is the intersection of craft—American craft—and modern design. And I think what we like to explore, or what I like to explore as a designer, is that intersection—to try to make a [piece] better and give it a distinctive voice.

2M: Are there a lot of modern furniture makers where you are in North Carolina? How did you end up starting your business there?
JM: Yeah we’re not tied in at all, locally, from a selling standpoint, but we are seriously tied in from a supplier standpoint and in terms of drawing on a relatively experienced labor force and this huge network of suppliers who in the last few years have really taken a hit from the traditional North Carolina furniture industry, which is all but gone. That’s maybe an overstatement, but it’s seriously taken a big hit. So yeah, I ended up in North Carolina for personal reasons and it ended up being a good fit for growing this business. At this point we’re really sort of attached to and proud of being one of the only companies—one of the few furniture companies in North Carolina—that’s kind of trying to reinvent the furniture industry in North Carolina. Obviously we are much, much smaller than a lot of those bigger companies, but still I do feel connected to at least the tradition of furniture making in North Carolina and want there to be—well, let me just say—I want there to be a domestic furniture design industry and I want that to be based on good design, extraordinary craftsmanship and all the things we go for at Skram.

2M: How many people work at Skram? Are you the main designer and only designer or do you have others?
JM: Yeah so it’s my company, and I started it in 2001. At that point it was just me, and now there are six guys other than myself who work full time and one other person in the office, so that’s six guys out in the shop and one other person in the office and me. And I still do all the design work and will continue to do all the design work I think, at least as far as I can see. I also still build stuff, too; it just depends on what we’ve got going on and what needs to be fabricated. Some of the pieces, particularly all the chairs, I do myself, aside from some of the sanding and finishing and the what not.

2M: Wow that’s really interesting…that’s a lot of work.
JM: Yeah, there’s a lot to be done.

2M: Did I read correctly that you’re a self-taught furniture maker? How did you teach yourself to do such high-quality designs like that?
JM: Yeah, I don’t really know. I studied history in college, actually. And I think the writing of history kind of informed the mission of what Skram is today—they’re connected. There’s this really interesting requirement in writing history to sort of blend precision and creativity in order to write history well and do something that’s engaging. And it’s really kind of the same thing—at least with our brand of modernism. It’s that blend of creativity and innovation with painstaking precision and accuracy. So anyway, I graduated from college and thought about pursuing a doctorate in history and teaching, which probably would have been a disaster—so I’m glad I didn’t. But anyway, I lived in San Francisco for a few years after college, or lived in Brazil and then San Francisco. And it was in San Francisco where I started to take some jobs where I was working in sort of high-end cabinetry and I would use the facilities and use my off time and the weekends and the what not to begin to build things. And it sort of just evolved from there. I was in San Francisco for a few years and then after about three years moved to North Carolina with the intention of starting my business, and that’s what happened.

2M: That’s a great story. I think sometimes those are even the better ones, than the ones who go through design school the whole time. I feel like you have a unique perspective on [design].
JM: Well it’s certainly different. And there were times, especially in the beginning, when design school would have been nice. And I sort of longed for that, because I had friends at RISD and at other schools. To have that time to explore without the need to make money was at times something I really wanted or would have liked. Even still, I never did have that time where you could simply design and explore a material completely without thinking about the practical side of things. But there have been times, even recently, when the business has grown and I have been able to do that more. A good example of that is the new leather—I’m actually not sure if it’s up on the 2modern site yet—but there are these leather stools we hand stitched and they’re a brand new design. And to be able to work in leather, which is something I’ve always been interested in—and these are a really heavy, dense saddle leather—but that was really the first time in several years where I’ve been able to explore a new material and then apply it to something functional and met all of our requirements for a viable product.

2M: What’s exciting you in the design world right now? Either in furniture design, in your field, or in architecture or interior design…do you follow anything that’s going on?
JM: I mean I think that—and this might be a little on the obvious side—but I think that—and it may be a little self-involved or self-interested—but something I think we’re a small, small part of is a sort of reemerging American voice in design. What I see when I look around at companies like ours and other smaller companies is people doing work that is high, high quality design—this element of craft that is distinctly American. That isn’t aspiring to be European. That is really refreshing…and that is exciting me.

2M: So as a smaller company, what are some of the challenges that you face?
JM: Well the company is always evolving. It’s always growing, slowly and steadily, and that means that there’s access to larger projects and larger markets that then feed this cycle of growth. And, there are thresholds that you need to cross when you’re at this stage or there are thresholds that you need to cross when you’re at the stage that our company is, where you’re starting to get into more volume and you need to figure out—and this is kind of an age-old story—but you have to figure out how to maintain that one-off kind of custom quality with slightly higher volume and you need to keep the guys on the floor happy doing volume and express to them that the elements of doing multiples are just as stimulating as doing one-of-a-kind work even though it can be repetitive. That there’s sort of a joy in efficiency and productivity and it’s sort of a reset in terms of the mentality of the guys who have been working for me for years now. But that’s a challenge I would say, this stepping into a little more volume and maintaining that level of quality for which we are known. And it’s good, you know? We’re sort of uncompromising; nothing really leaves here that hasn’t be thoroughly scrutinized,so it works out. But I would definitely say that’s a challenge for where we are right now.

2M: Yeah for sure. So is being able to work on custom pieces the most rewarding thing about being a furniture designer or is it seeing your company do so well? Or is it getting to work and have more volume like that?
JM: To me it’s all—it’s literally all kinds of interesting and fascinating. I love doing an order of a small batch of chairs myself or doing interesting custom jobs still, and I don’t ever want to not do that work. But like I was saying a minute ago, I think there’s a beauty in efficiency, and I really like figuring out how to accomplish something with the least amount of expenditure of calories or energy. I mean I love dealing with clients; I like every aspect of this aside from the recession last year or when things are slow or complicated. That’s not so fun. But other than that, it’s pretty much 95% exactly what I like to be doing.

2M: That’s pretty good! That’s doing pretty good for yourself. Last question: what book is on your nightstand?
JM: Excellent question. Two books, okay, well, there are two books, one of which my wife reads mostly. We’re supposed to read out loud to each other but she ends up doing most of the reading, and that book is a Bolaño, 2666. And that’s a fantastic book, I highly recommend it. And my personal book right now is called Distant Mirror…it’s nonfiction, and it’s about the plague years in Europe, specifically in France and Britain, and it’s sort of set in the 14th century.

2M: I’ll have to check those out for sure. Thank you so much for talking with us today, I really enjoyed that.
JM: Sure, me too. It’s a pleasure.

2M: For more information about Jacob and Skram furniture, you can visit skramfurniture.com. You’ve been listening to a 2Modern designer interview. For more fun podcasts, inspiring design posts and design advice, check out the blog at 2modern.com

If you’d rather have an MP3 of Jacob’s interview:
Jacob Marks 2Modern Interview

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1 Comment

  1. Jim Perkins

    Nov 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Coming from a wanna-be woodshop guy, I am blown away by Skram. I only dream of being able to make stuff like this some day. Wow. He should write a ‘how to’ book.

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