Motor City Modern

Motor City Modern

Motor City Modern

February/March 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Wood Furniture
Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer

Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer. Photo: Brian Kelly

When Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer design a piece of furniture, they take all aspects into consideration. What problem does it solve? How will people interact with it? How will it be put together, and look? Every detail is important, including the name they give it.

“We talk about the name throughout the process, actually. It’s one of our favorite things to do,” says Ali, 35, who partners with her husband, Sandifer, 41, in their Detroit studio, Ali Sandifer. “Because we spend quite some time prototyping before release, we feel like we know each piece like a character. It’s like waiting to name a baby until he or she is born. You bounce around ideas, but until you meet him or her, you aren’t totally sure.”

Their select portfolio – just a handful of basic designs – includes a credenza called Edith, a refined beauty with hidden depths of cabinet and drawer space. George, an upholstered club chair, is a sturdy fellow possessed of a quiet wit and sophistication. Zaide, a coffee table, is angular and clever, with a three-legged wishbone base and built-in storage all around her sides. Then there’s sleek Sheila, a long, low storage unit, the current bestseller of the bunch. Made to order in your choice of walnut (the most popular), rift white oak, maple, or ash, each piece is a thoughtful composition of boards of different grains, textures, and colors. Instead of staining, Ali and Sandifer achieve their varied palette by using darker, mature wood in combination with younger, lighter sapwood, celebrating the natural beauty of the material, finished with natural oils and waxes.

“We hear the word ‘handsome’ quite a bit,” Ali says of feedback from their customers, who have placed orders from all around the United States, and from as far as Great Britain, France, and Hong Kong. “Honest” is the word she likes best to describe their furniture. “I think there is a certain honesty about the sensibility, because the design is so married to craft, and that is such a part of our prototyping process.”

Both partners were trained as architects. Not surprisingly, they are admirers of that other architect couple who designed furniture, the iconic modernists Charles and Ray Eames.

“They’ve been such an inspiration, in terms of their studio and the life that they had, and how those melded together. It’s a much-loved model among designers,” Ali notes. “It doesn’t hurt that their furniture is gorgeous as well.”

What drew Ali and Sandifer to furniture making was the instant gratification. “You didn’t have to wait years for a project to happen. We could conceive of the idea, work together, design it, figure it out, and instantly test it out in the shop,” Ali says. “Furniture is such a lovely scale for doing that, and that workshop environment is so crucial to the way we work.”

It’s their intensive, months-long collaborative process that gives Ali Sandifer furniture integrity, soul, and great functionality. The two conceive each piece together, starting with conversations and hand sketches. They strive for smart storage solutions for a range of objects and lifestyles. “Andre and I tend to be organized in very different ways, so we’re never producing storage for just one type of thing,” says Ali. Where she might picture a stack of dishes, he’ll see a row of vinyl LPs – so they’ll make a shelf to hold both.

Sandifer, a mostly self-taught woodworker, then builds a full-scale prototype, which might go through three or four iterations as the couple work through their ideas. He uses traditional techniques (hand-routing, dovetailing) to disguise joints and carve out hidden, sculptural details (“the sexier, integrated moments,” Ali calls them), such as a subtle indentation where fingers fit perfectly to open and close a door. For all its complexity, the finished product ends up with their signature clean, simple look. “Actually,” Sandifer says, “the challenge is to get it to the point where someone will say it is simple.”

Finally, the design becomes available for direct purchase from their studio, or through various drop-ship retailers (YLiving and Smart Furniture among them). Sandifer crafts each order himself, which takes eight to 10 weeks for delivery. (He’ll sometimes hire help for a larger custom project, such as kitchen cabinetry or an office conference table.) As a small operation focused on quality control, Ali and Sandifer typically take on a few orders a month, “a comfortable amount that we know we can handle.”

Contemporary as the Ali Sandifer aesthetic is, neither designer was raised in a home with modern furnishings. Sandifer grew up in Grand Rapids, coincidentally not far from the headquarters of leading furniture manufacturers Herman Miller (producer of those classic 1950s Eames designs), Steelcase, and Haworth. Though unaware of that heritage then, he was somehow destined to make furniture anyway.

“My mom still makes fun of me,” he recalls, “because as a kid, I would always try to ‘fix’ our dining room table. I think I just wanted to take it apart.”

He earned a degree in facilities management and architectural technology from Ferris State University, then a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Michigan. There, through making models, he fell in love with woodworking. He also met Ali, a native Detroiter who was earning her undergraduate degree in architecture. (She later went to graduate school at the University of Toronto.)

The couple opened their first shop together in Ann Arbor in 2003. For a while they worked in pre-finished plywood, making rectilinear pieces designed mainly to showcase the surface of that material. By the time they moved to Chicago in 2006, they were eager to experiment with curvature and “get a little more organic,” so they gravitated to domestic hardwoods.

Ali remembers the revelatory visit they made to Pike Lumber, the family-owned company in Indiana that continues to supply their wood. “It’s the best thing we ever did. It really exposed us to the process of tree-to-hardwood board, and gave us a deeper appreciation and understanding of what our piece was before it got to us. That became crucial to the way we evolved.” 

While building up their studio during their formative years in Chicago, they gained experience and perspective from their day jobs. He designed and managed projects for a furniture fabrication company; she designed affordable housing. “Our pieces were relatively higher-end, but it became really important for us to understand efficiency and economy,” she says; “how to make our furniture not just a piece of art, but also something accessible for folks to purchase.”  

Then in 2011, Ali was awarded a Detroit Revitalization Fellowship. They picked up and moved to her home city, where today they operate out of the old Russell Industrial Center, in what Ali describes as “a bare-bones space that allows us to get our work done.”

Just five minutes away is the century-old foursquare-style house they bought in the Boston-Edison historic district. They’re happily learning to adapt their modern tastes to a vintage interior, and it’s a great place for their three sons, who range from a toddler to a 13-year-old. “They have definitely clocked their studio time,” says Ali, who used to create a slumber-party environment in the woodshop, with blankets, cushions, and a TV, so that the kids could hang out while she and Sandifer worked. Now that the boys are older, and with home, work, and school all close by, life is dovetailing neatly. “We meld family and career quite fluidly, because it’s the model we know, as married business partners and co-designers.”

And they’re excited to be putting down roots in Detroit. Despite the city’s well-publicized economic woes, Ali and Sandifer see its other, promising side. As a revitalization fellow, Ali is  connected with a community of colleagues “who are committed to physical and economic change in the city, folks working hard to get things done.” Detroit, she believes, offers creative people “a real opportunity to kind of make your mark, and also see the city evolve. So it’s a very interesting place for designers.”

And it’s the little opportunities along the way – whether for the city or for furniture designers – that can make a big difference.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.