My Aim is True
Words Emma O’Kelly
Photographs Josh Olins
BDDW’s Tyler Hays gave up on selling polymers and plastics to designers to make things out of wood for a ‘crazy ass client list’ of rock stars, celebrities and presidents, with archery evenings that have been compared to Warhol’s Factory. His business model? If something sells out, then make more. By hand. With your own tools…
Trapping raccoons, making cannons, bombs and guns with his brother and sewing his own clothes were all part of growing up for American designer Tyler Hays. His childhood, spent running free in the tiny village of Joseph, Oregon, has influenced everything the 47-year-old has made ever since, be they knives from old bandsaws, leather tool belts for kids or credenzas in polished maple.
‘We weren’t dirt poor, but there was a self reliance that comes from living somewhere remote,’ he explains from his showroom in Milan, a 5,000sq m space in a cobbled street a stone’s throw from the Duomo. ‘If I needed a suit for the prom, my mum made it; we would chop the wood from our land for the fire; I knitted my own sweaters and cut patterns for my pants,’ he says, pointing to a shelf of wizened old lady faces wearing hand-knitted bobble hats. These are ‘apple dolls’, made by his mother from dried apples and as wholesomely traditional as pumpkin carving and quilting. Next to them hangs a handpainted unisex coat and baggy men’s jeans with an oversized pocket, designed to hold tools. Hays couldn’t find any that were the right cut so, as is his way, he made his own. They come in a walnut box inscribed with the words ‘raw selvedge denim; BDDW furniture maker’s pant.’
When he opened his BDDW showroom in Milan in 2014 (the first was in New York’s Bowery in 1998) Hays nearly bought himself a red blazer. This is an incongruous vision; the bear-like bearded designer, denim clad and beanie wearing, is generally portrayed as a rugged urban woodsman, someone more likely to be found rolling up his sleeves in his workshop in Philadelphia, or tending his barley fields in Oregon than acting all Milanese flâneur. ‘I’m inspired differently in Italy,’ he explains. ‘I look at details from a different angle. My work is pretty rough-hewn; here objects are more refined. It’s a different way of thinking – and dressing,’ he laughs, fiddling with the buttons of the flannel shirt he’s wearing (today and almost every other day). Attention to detail is something he obsesses over, whether it be the horsehair clasps found on his jackets, the cross stitching on his leather-bound desks or the carved wooden buttons he uses on coats. He has recently bought a machine that’s usually used to make coins in order to fashion metal buttons. It’s one of many state of the art pieces of machinery Hays has in his 150,000 sq ft production facility in Philadelphia. Almost everything, from wood veneers to screw heads, is made here, by a team of 100 that includes stonecutters, ceramicists, graphic artists and sculptors.
When Hays first moved to New York in 1994, it was in a vast warehouse in Greenpoint with no heating or water. He was carpenter, electrician and plumber, doing the place up, making a living along the way. He could, he says, build a house, a car or even a plane from scratch if he wanted to (his brother built a drone back in high school), but art and furniture were his passions. He started dabbling in furniture using felt and corrugated metal, gels, silicones and resins, and became the go-to shop in Brooklyn for architects wanting lacquers and polymers.
‘Craft has always been awesome but it was definitely not cool. making craft cool became my mission’
‘I did it for a while and then I grew tired of plastic. I turned to wood, and that was that. Nothing beats the feeling of untreated polished wood, and no one was making minimal furniture with it. Nor was anyone else using weird, unsung trees such as holly, osage, scrappy maple and other ‘garbage’ wood, and combining it with leather, steel and bronze. Craft has always been awesome, but when I was a kid, it was definitely not cool. It was the sort of thing Grandpa would do in his garage, while we all went to the shops to buy mass-produced stuff without knowing how or where it was made. Making craft cool became my mission.’
He set up BDDW ‘around the time the internet started’ and named it in full: ‘BDDW – an old media company’. ‘I’m all about low-fi, longevity, making things that last,’ he says. These days, he only creates a couple of new pieces of furniture a year, preferring instead to refine or tweak existing designs. ‘Some are 10 or 12 years old, and people still like them. I try to make stuff that isn’t going to be trendy.’ We’re sitting on an L-shaped sofa with delightful tweed upholstery. It’s stuffed with organic wool and horsehair, with hand-tied springs and a wooden base that makes it three times heavier than a regular sofa, and 10 times more likely to last. ‘Solid wood bases were popular in the 1700s and last much longer than the commonly used burlap, which gives out after 100 years,’ explains Hays. Clever zips in the fabric mean the walnut arms can be slotted out and replaced if they break.
His business model? If something sells out, then make more. By hand. With your own tools. ‘I would get off the school bus and sit on the hill near our house for hours, or tear apart my dad’s lawn mower for something to do.’ Before he finished high school, Hays ran away. ‘The alternative was working in the mill and becoming a jerk. I would have killed myself if I had had to stay.’ Eventually, after a stint playing in grunge bands in the slipstream of Nirvana, he wound up at the University of Oregon in Port-land studying computer science and physics and started painting on the side. He sold close to $30,000 in paintings in his senior year of college and had a gallerist, but realised it was ‘too easy. Art is the best thing in the world, but I didn’t want to just be a painter. I was a kid from the country and needed to go to New York, to hang out with architects, musicians and upper level creative people.’
In his evolution from rural wild child to an ‘upper leveller’ himself (he has a ‘crazy ass client list of rock stars, celebs, even presidents’), Hays has injected the tedium of his childhood with romance and nostalgia, casting himself as a 21st-century Huckleberry Finn along the way. Roaming unfettered in the wild and playing unsupervised with farm machinery seems like borderline juvenile delinquent behaviour in today’s hyper-connected, risk averse times, but hemmed-in urbanites can’t get enough of Hays’ free-wheeling, back-to-nature narrative. Until recently, his New York archery evenings were the hottest ticket in town. A carefully selected crowd would eat, drink and shoot some arrows while sporting heirloom tweeds, Brooks Brothers jackets and leather gauntlets. Such was the fervour around the event – and Hays himself – one observer compared it to Andy Warhol’s gatherings at The Factory.
‘I’m all about low-fi, longevity. I try to make things that aren’t going to be trendy’
He now spends less time in New York, preferring Philadelphia where he lives with his son, second wife and two stepchildren. He wakes up at 4am and sketches on his iPad, in bed, with a coffee. He then sends ideas to Grace who’s working on the clothing, or Gareth the woodworker, or someone else on his team, depending on what he wants to do that day. ‘I get up and decide that day what I want to do and then I run around doing it [painting is a current passion] because I can. I have the resources to do it.’
It’s an enviable state of being. But showrooms in Milan and Manhattan, and two new stores under his new brand M. Crow (more of which later) do not run on creative energy alone. Beneath the laid-back lumbersexual persona is a business-savvy entrepreneur who worked out long ago that making it all yourself makes you money.
‘I have a really good knack for business,’ he says. ‘I have always paid attention to numbers. I actually think that running a business is more creative than painting. Really. You’re bringing together clients, commodities, people. It’s fascinating. I’ve made every single mistake, with employees [more than 1,000 people have worked for Hays over the past 15 years] and products. If you make some-thing ugly, it’s ugly. Forget it. You can work on something forever and it can be dumb, dumb. All you can do is paint over it and start again.’
In 2014, an opportunity presented itself back home in Lostine, Oregon. M. Crow & Co, a 107-year-old hardware store that serviced three villages including the one where Hays’ great-great grandparents had their homestead, was closing down. Hays bought it, spruced it up with new tiling and floors of maple marquetry and refilled the beer and cigarette counters with covetable ceramics, clothing, hand-reared beef and organic produce. His vision is for M. Crow to become a 3D version of the 19th-century Sears Roebuck & Co catalogue, where you could buy everything from a go-cart to socks to ear trumpets to opium. (He’ll skip the opium and stock it with around 200 of his own products instead).
At the back of M. Crow, Hays has built a ceramic studio where quaint pickle jars, butter dishes and beer bottles are made from local clay, and a microbrewery, the result of a collaboration with an old farmer pal, making M. Crow beer from a long-lost local barley seed. The pair grow the barley on their own land, malt it on site using a 300-year-old process involving a waterwheel combined with modern technology, and run the brewery off the waste. ‘It’s really local, almost like an art project,’ says Hays. So far, they’ve made around 100 bottles that are sold in a limited edition ‘growler’. The Hays philosophy – making local products with a high value, using local people – will, he hopes, transform Lostine’s fortunes… at least a little bit.
Transplanting a 19th-century hardware store to the streets of Manhattan, something Hays did in December when he opened a second M. Crow on Howard Street, shows how far he has succeeded in his mission to drag craft out of rural backwaters and into the laps of keen consumers. Does it bother him, how hip handmade has become?‘The farm-to-table thing gets a bit tiring, but ultimately if people care about how things are made and where their food comes from, it’s got to be a good thing.’ And besides, if he can encourage and nurture that sense of care, it’s another string to his bow..