It’s 11:45 PM in a crowded Bucharest bistro and Grig Mitrea (35) is talking passionately about his role model, James Krenov, sketching wood cabinet shapes on a napkin and jotting down obscure references from recent design history. It might as well be 2:21 AM or 8:17 AM; Grig would probably do the same thing without losing a bit of his audience’s attention. He is passionate and dedicated – the artist and manager behind a one-man-show startup in one of the most exclusive niche markets around: fine cabinetmaking.
I found out about Grig Mitrea’s passion by accident, while reviewing the profiles of the participants in a creativity class. Not that he really needed creativity classes, his website woodrepublic.com being a convincing proof of his skills. I was intrigued and addressed him directly: What exactly is Wood Republic?
“It’s a workshop for woodcraft, a design studio for wooden objects. It has been my passion for the last five years. It’s the confluence of James Krenov’s Scandinavian design, western woodwork techniques, both modern and traditional, and the oriental concept of wabi-sabi” Grig says.
Grig Mitrea: from dentist to cabinetmaker. Photo: Nicoleta Marin
I like this kind of answers, the ones that force you to ask more questions and to take a crash course in history. Here it goes: Krenov along with other solitary and visionary craftsmen like Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter and Tage Fried took the European heritage in wood crafting to the next level, that is to say to the United States. Even though most of their work was completed in garages and quasi-poverty in the 60s, they only became famous in the 80s, where they went from isolation to cult status establishing schools and design dynasties.
Their rocking chairs are now sold in auctions starting from 20.000 euros; enthusiastic scholars from all over the world, fascinated by wood, by its resistance and fragility, are now representing their legacy as ambassadors in the most surprising places. Take Grig’s native Romania for instance, a country where it’s hard to single out more than ten full-time furniture designers, a country without a real mass market in this field, lacking the schools, the interest and the tradition.
From dentist to manager to furniture designer
Still, Grig is a busy man, working together with architects and designers, prototyping for wood workshops and managing a lucrative business. Stubborn and self-taught, he explored at least four jobs and three countries, before settling for this one in Romania. When I asked for a resume in order to keep track of his professional itinerary, he admitted that he does not have one.
“I never needed to get a job like that”. Fair enough. One of the most striking things about Grig Mitrea is his modesty; he does not want to sound important or to flash skills and references. He does play along when needed, accepting the business game and successfully demonstrating that “play hard” is not a consequence of “work hard”, that the two actions can be simultaneous.
Like most designers, he does not really like to talk about business figures but he indulged me. Not that he finds finances trivial but rather irrelevant. “The average price does not help much because the range of objects I produce is very wide and the size of objects ranges from wood rings to walk-in closets. A cabinet could be anywhere from 2.000 euros to 20.000 euros. A chair could be from 1.000 to 5.000 euros. The time invested varies on the type of wood and on the complexity of design. Some projects take a few days, while some can take three or six months”.
Is this enough to make a living out of? “Now it tends to become a full time job that needs my undivided attention. I’m not really making a profit from it for the time being, but I make enough to break even and carry on. Ten years ago I was a dentist at a hospital in Bucharest, then, for about four or five years, I was the manager at a software and customer support company. I’m still a shareholder and administrator at that firm. I did some psychology studies in 2005-2006 and, after that, I attended the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking in Canada”.
One of Grig’s works: a boat-inspired bench. Photo: woodrepublic.comSlow furniture
Another new concept that I stumbled upon while talking to Grig is that of slow furniture – bespoke furniture that takes time to build, but that lasts at least long enough to be inherited by one’s children or grandchildren. “In order to achieve that, the construction and design have to be durable and impregnated with personality” he explains. “It could be a ring from wood and silver, or a case for old love letters, or a desk with secret drawers. Wood Republic is for anyone who needs a wooden object, and who is willing to explore with me what exactly they want.”
Due to the eclectic nature of his work, he uses a wide range of materials. “I prefer hard wood, naturally dried. For example now, for bigger objects I already have plum tree wood from an orchard from Transilvania, oak, ash and beech wood from Moldavia, American walnut wood from an important vendor in Bucharest, yew wood from a friend in Portland Oregon, platane wood from a friend in Vancouver, and recycled oak from a barn. For small objects I have about two dozens of wood essences recovered from my or other people’s old projects. I try to stay clear of plywood or MDF, because they’re not eco friendly. I prefer using natural wood finishing materials like shellac, tung oil, linseed oil, wax.”
The advantage of starting up in Romania
So, how do Romania and the European Union actually fit his field of work? “For now, Romania is perfect because there are very few people who do what I do or maybe none. The size of the market is an unknown to me but I think that niche luxury objects will do OK as long as I can reach the right customers. I haven’t yet explored selling outside of Romania but it will come as I build a conclusive portfolio. Some of the things I want to make will probably only sell in galleries in London or Paris.” concludes Grig confirming my theory that the magical recipe for a successful startup is not necessarily a sophisticated business plan, but the right mixture of obsession with quality, mastering of all the processes involved and a very narrow market. As for the specialised tools, woods and Grig requires for his work, he buys them online from all over Europe.
On a broader level, Romania offers some clear advantages. “I’m organised as a limited liability company, what they here call a micro-enterprise – so I enjoy the 3% tax on income.” Regulations, however, “are a whole different ball game. The accounting on any production activity is a bit complicated. You could call Wood Republic a one-man-show but I do have an accountant and for some of the jobs I collaborate with others especially Atelierele Antim.”
“What’s next?” would be a legitimate question, even if the present economical environment makes it sound like a practical joke. Is this business model functional, can it support his ambitions and plans? Grig has a blueprint for this matter as well. “There are projects lined up for the next six months more or less. I might need to move the workshop next June and I’m thinking of building a modular shipping container based building that will be the shop. Mass production is not my focus now. There might be along the way projects that could spin off into some sort of industrial production. I don’t think I will hire in the near future. Part ofit is because it would be very hard to find a specialised worker. Also, a few friends have asked me to teach them some basic woodworking techniques so there might be some weekend classes next summer. That should be enough for now”. Indeed, it “wood” be nice.