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Making It

A Luxury Furniture Designer's Latest Project: Reviving His Rural Hometown

Tyler Hays plans to use his new high-end SoHo boutique to create jobs in his hometown in Wallowa County, Oregon.

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"Some of it's silly," the furniture designer Tyler Hays, known for his high-end, handmade furniture brand BDDW, tells me over the phone. "Nobody needs a $200 butter dish, who even uses butter dishes? However, that’s one of our best sellers."

Hays is talking me through his line of exquisitely crafted, wonderfully diverse, and completely bizarre wares for sale at his recently opened M. Crow boutique in SoHo. Just like in his furniture showroom nearby, everything in the shop is handmade, and evokes more the feeling of rustic American West than the luxury lifestyles of its chic downtown Manhattan clientele. And since it's his side project, Hays basically designs whatever comes to mind, as evident by his wide ranging inventory. Also for sale are a kid's cotton one-piece swimsuit ($225), high-end weenie roasting sticks ($55), a hand-sewn kids' leather tool belt ($110) and sculptures of shriveled faces carved from apples by Hays's mom ($125).

Hays, who has made a name for himself with hyperlocal, hand-crafted furniture that costs up to $100,000, named the new line for a century-old general store in his hometown of Wallowa, Oregon (population: 200). In 2012, after hearing that the store was closing, Hays bought the place. Now the general store sells local meat, a selection of Hays's ceramics and other wares, and beer that's brewed in the back room, soon to be a full-fledge microbrewery. Its brand new New York outpost offers a permanent home for the line he has been selling online since 2015. The store's New York location came about because, as Hays puts it, the 200 residents of Wallowa County aren't exactly the target market for $1,000 sweatshirts.

The idea, he says, came from his childhood dream to create an entire lifestyle from things made by hand. "I’ve always had a million hobbies," says Hays. "Now I have this giant workshop and miniature garment studio, and I have a brewery and I have a ceramics studio. I spent my adult life building a business where I can literally make everything myself."

For now, all of the wares in his shop are made in his BDDW studio in Philadelphia, where he oversees a team of over 100 employees. But Hays plans to move over much of M. Crow's production to a growing workshop in Wallowa County. For Hays, the new endeavor is more than just a way for him to turn a profit making whatever products he dreams up—he also wants to benefit his hometown by creating jobs and putting money back into the small rural community.

"In a way, it bridges the very large gap between how I grew up and my heritage and being a fancy designer guy in New York," says Hays, who attributes his love of making to a childhood sewing and canning with his mom, and tanning mink and raccoon fir with his brother. "I'm building a larger brand with all my hobbies and helping economic development in my hometown, knowing that I can use one to help the other."

Though Wallowa County once had a strong logging and farming industry, both had begun to fall apart when Hays was a kid. Hays describes his hometown as the kind of small rural community that's so removed from the rest of the world can be hard to imagine getting out. "Having grown up there, I’m very in tune to what it takes for a guy to get out and make it in the world," he says. The difference between his high profile life in New York and his childhood there (his mom and brother still live there and help run the general store) has made him hyper-aware of the discrepancy between the wealth of urban life and the hardship of remote urban communities.

M. Crow is his attempt to make a dent in the landscape of American manufacturing. Right now, he has only three employees in Oregon, who dig clay for M. Crow's rustic ceramics or forage for herbs for products like hair product made with homemade beeswax and hand-expelled oils. (One employee runs the general store, but Hays says that mostly involves coming by whenever is convenient and frying up eggs from the chickens they keep out back.) Most people in town right now have jobs or are retired, but as the business grows and the younger generation in town get older, Hays hopes to grow that number to "50 or even 100 employees" in the next 10 years.

The idea is to bring more to the community than just another export product. "We're bringing something besides just cutting down trees and shipping it out," says Hays. "We’re going to cut down trees and make something and ship it out. The guy that I grow up with is a barley farmer. Instead of just cutting the barley and shipping it out, we’re going to make a really nice artisanal beer with it and then ship that out. It's the idea of value added; fixing the leaky drains of our rural communities. It’s all just been bled entirely by Walmart—our culture, our intellect, everything."

Hays admits that some of his products seem improbable, even as they prove popular (recall the $200 butter dish). But it's the flexibility of not having to answer to retail buyers and customer demand that makes opening his own retail outpost so appealing. With his make-everything-yourself business model, he has the freedom to make what he wants and the added benefit of quality control.

"I do have my own store, my own workshop, my own everything really," he says. "I make my own buttons for my clothes, right here. I design and engineer them, we make the lights for our showroom, we made the tiles for the entry way. We do all our own photography and ad copy. It’s not so much being a control freak, it’s important to maintain a vision. I think that takes a singular person."

When asked if that singular vision comes at the cost of profit margins, Hays admits that M. Crow isn't exactly a cash cow. As the company is just getting off the ground, it's being funded by the money he makes from BDDW. At the end of this year, Hays says he'll happy to make 10% profit or even break even.

For now, he's content with the interest the shop has drummed up and the emails he's gotten from industry friends and high-end clients who are excited about the store's breadth and variety. "The fact that you’re calling me because I’m doing it is an upside," he says. "And having control over everything and knowing that the story is true and real, and is something that I believe in and my employees believe in—even if it doesn’t really work we’ll keep doing it on a certain scale because it’s so much fun."

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