2Modern Interview: Ben Copeland of Copeland Furniture
Furniture & Lighting
For the venerable Vermont-based furniture company, Copeland Furniture, the concepts of environmental stewardship and sustainability, far from being buzzwords, are intrinsic to the company ethos. A recipient of the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) Sage Award for environmental excellence, Copeland’s longstanding commitment to exceptional design and manufacturing standards is reflected in a collection of furnishings both thoughtfully crafted and visually timeless—built as ‘furniture for the generations.’
In light of 2Modern’s recent addition of Copeland Furniture to our range of offerings, we talked to Ben Copeland, head of Copeland Sales and Marketing, about the New England values that inform his family’s business, and asked him to weigh in on the contemporary design scene.
2Modern: You’ve noted that Scandinavian and Mid-Century aesthetics have informed Copeland. Besides locally sourced materials, how does your furniture belie its Vermont roots.
Ben: Interesting question; culturally speaking, the state of Vermont can be viewed as an odd pairing of political progressivism expressed within the context of old New England, traditional values. This manifests in ways such as forward looking environmental regulation that was enacted decades ahead of similar legislation in other states despite Vermont always having been one of the most non-industrialized states in the nation. Who we are and the kind of product we make emanates naturally from that cultural context in that we are known for contemporary and modern designs executed within the medium of solid wood construction and traditional joinery techniques.
2Modern: Environmental stewardship is a core value at Copeland; how do you reconcile profit making with a worldview that’s admirable, but antithetical to quick turnaround times and moving product quickly? In other words, are there necessary compromises?
Ben: To an extent, I have to challenge the notion that they are antithetical. If we wanted to be the industry leader in the highly generic, low-end segment of the market then the need for rapid turnaround (known as rip it and ship it in the furniture manufacturing industry) would limit the kind of deliberation and workmanship that goes into our product—but that’s not who we are. While our customers can’t be pigeonholed into any particular demographic or ideological group, what I can say is that our line tends to appeal to people who think through their decisions carefully and make highly informed purchases. This consumer, by their intrinsic nature, doesn’t mind waiting a little extra time to get the exact product they want.
2Modern: Iconic designers, like Eames and Aalto, were interested in material experimentation, but had an almost modest utilitarian view of beauty—they weren’t particularly showy. Have any specific designers influenced Copeland, both from an aesthetic and philosophical perspective?
Ben: Having enjoyed a seven year collaboration with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, I think everyone at Copeland Furniture probably puts FLW at the top of their list. His philosophy of organic architecture—a term he often used but whose meaning has to be gleaned from the full body of his writings—is something we recognize in our approach to product design. George Nelson is someone I admire, not only for his own design work, but for his many years of design leadership. In terms of pure aesthetic merit, I think Eero Saarinen is as good a designer as we’ve ever seen.
2Modern: A great may contemporary furniture designers are fascinated with innovative new materials, like injection mold plastic. Wood is your mainstay, but are there contemporary designers working in new materials whose work you admire?
Ben: Well, I may be a bit of a curmudgeon in this sense but I’m a stickler about the principle that any new product ought to have a strong reason to exist, i.e. it should serve a particular aesthetic or functional need that’s not being met by the current marketplace. I don’t claim that we’re perfect in this regard, but it is a strong motivating value. If you were to look at many contemporary furniture designs and ask of the designer/manufacturer, ‘why?’ the reason you might get is ‘to express myself.’ The close correlate to that sentiment is ‘because I can.’ To me, this is not good design and many works in new materials fall short in this regard.
One new material that does intrigue me, however, is carbon fiber. Because of its extraordinary strength to weight ratio, carbon fiber opens avenues of aesthetic expression that are not attainable in any other material appropriate for use furniture manufacturing. An Italian firm called Mast Elements has done a lot of interesting work in this arena as has a British designer named Terrence Woodgate.
2Modern: If you had to describe Copeland’s furniture in three incisive words, what would they be?
Ben: Authentic, Principled, Quality.