Grain Designs - Artist Study
This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making and doing awesome things in the Midwest.
Grain Designs is the brainchild of Blain Mikkonen, Phil Bruckbauer, and Grant Koenig. Together they design and build beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture out of steel and reclaimed wood. I met up with them in their farmstead shop and sat down to talk with Phil and Grant to chat about what they do.
Zach: Tell me who you are and what you do.
Phil: I’m Phil Bruckbauer. Our company is called Grain Designs and we build custom made furniture out of reclaimed material, wood, and almost all pieces have steel accents of some sort. We’ve been around for about a year and a half.
Grant: I’m Grant Koenig. There are three partners in the company, myself, Blain Mikkonen, and Phil and Pat works with us as well.
Zach: How did Grain Designs start?
Grant: The business plan started as a project. Blain and I were finishing our thesis projects for architecture and we decided to write a business plan as opposed to doing a portfolio. Summer came and we went our separate ways. He eventually came back in the fall and there was an event called the Junk Market and we decided to try our hand at building some pieces for it. We went to a house in South Dakota and just ripped apart as much as we could and built stuff for two weeks out of his apartment garage, set up a tent at this market and the rest is history, I guess.
Phil: We sold our first couple pieces right away, a dining table for what we thought was a really outrageous price but it sold within the first hour. We kind of realized we had the potential to make it into a business.
Zach: Had you done much woodworking before?
Phil: I hadn’t done any at all. Literally nothing.
Grant: I probably had the most experience with wood, maybe. Blain had a lot of experience with wood and steel with living on the farm, that was just kind of second nature to him. We were both familiar with tools and everything but we weren’t really craftsmen by any means.
Zach: Walk me through a typical project.
Grant: It starts usually with an email or message, someone looking for a custom piece. That’s primarily what we do. We’ll usually meet with a client to get a better idea of exactly what they want. We’ll go through samples and from there, we start with wood that’s original surface. Plane it, rip it on the table saw, cut it to length, mark it, biscuit it together, clamp it, sand it, put the frame around it, putty it, sand it again, stain it, and then put the legs on.
Phil: And brand it, we make sure we brand every piece.
Zach: What’s the best part of doing this? Most rewarding part?
Grant: I think the fact that we’re making a living working together is probably the best part, we get to hang out with our friends everyday and basically build whatever we want. We have access to enough tools and equipment that random ideas can come to fruition really quickly. That’s pretty fulfilling. If you have an idea for something, it takes you ten minutes to just try it.
Phil: Being your own boss, having the freedom to just make your own decisions on what you’re gonna build that day. If you have an idea that comes to you overnight and you decide you have a little free time, let’s give a shot and try to build it.
Grant: The same could be said for a hot day, we’ll say, “Screw it, let’s just go golfing. We can wait on that project.”
Zach: Why do you choose to do something where you are creating?
Grant: I think it’s the option or ability to offer somebody something that they can’t get somewhere else or they haven’t seen somewhere else. Bringing something new into somebody’s house that has a story to tell. There’s a meaning behind everything we do. That’s a huge part of it.
Phil: It’s usually Grant’s ideas and designs but it is also partially being able to provide somebody with whatever the design they had in mind is and being able to build and create that for them.
Zach: Most of your wood is reclaimed, is that a conscious decision?
Phil: All of it, yeah. It started because it was the most easily accessible, that we could tear down ourselves and it was free.
Grant: At the same time, with the architecture background between Blain and I, sustainability was preached all the time. It was probably subconscious to some degree in the beginning, Once we started doing it and actually realized it’s meaningful, we kind of never looked back after that. We could go buy new wood now if we wanted to, but it’s just who we’ve become. There are a lot of benefits to using reclaimed wood.
Zach: What’s the most challenging part of running this business?
Grant: A couple things. The first would certainly be the inconsistency and unknown of the material you’re working with. It’s so dependent on the humidity and moisture and cracking. Anything that could go wrong with wood, will at some point in time. It’s such a sensitive thing to work with.
Phil: Just the change from when it started out almost as a hobby to making it a really company and all the things that go into a business that you don’t plan for. It’s not just build a table and get paid for it. All the back end stuff that is a struggle to keep up with and learn.
Zach: Do you think your work has changed since you started?
Phil: Big time. Quality, for sure, has gotten way better. Our skill level has gotten better. Everyday you learn something new, either by mistake or reading.
Grant: The style has changed a lot though too, with the ability to use steel and learning to weld. It opens up avenues that we definitely didn’t have to start with. Even having new tools enables us to do so much more.
Zach: When you’re designing pieces, what influences do you have?
Grant: I think it’s a lot of different things. I’m usually not inspired by other furniture as much as other random objects or buildings or railings. It’s usually like the random things like a weird piece of metal where I’m like, “If I scaled it this way, how could I make it into a piece of furniture.”
Zach: What do you want people to take away from your work?
Grant: Mostly to enjoy it, would be the first thing. And then to continue the story. There’s so much into every piece and the fact that it’s not something you bought at IKEA or was made in China or India. The amount of time that we put into it is probably something you’d want someone to take away from it. The fact that it has a story and we can pass that on. Like this came from a warehouse in Minneapolis, that’s the best part. Everybody has something unique.
Zach: What are you working on right now?
Phil: Mostly dining tables right now? A couple custom ones, a couple that will be for sale.
Grant: We did four putter racks for a friend and he’s doing a bunch of golf-related stuff. Those are the fun stuff where it really challenges you to do something different.
Zach: Describe your workspace.
Grant: Usually a mess, absolute disaster. But it’s kind of controlled chaos.
Phil: It’s an awesome space for us. It’s like six times as big as our last one so we can work multiple projects at once. Being out on a farm is super nice for us. We’re always out shooting guns or playing catch or hitting golf balls when we have a little free time. It’s just quiet and good to be out of the city a little bit.
Zach: What’s on your playlist right now?
Phil: A lot of Amy Winehouse, a lot of Kanye. Dawes.
Grant: Tove Lo, Ed Sheeran, it get’s pretty random through out the day.
Zach: What advice would you give to other people wanting to have a career in a creative field?
Grant: I would definitely say, just don’t hesitate. You really don’t have that much to lose. Yeah, there’s a chance you could fail but if you don’t you could be shooting guns out on a farmstead, hanging out everyday. It’s a risk but it’s worth it.