Designing Woman

Carolyn Shaw’s furniture magic

By Cynthia Adams

“My dad designed a collection called Great Hill Road for Riverside Furniture, which they sold for over 20 years,” Carolyn Shaw recalls proudly. That was back when the furniture industry was going great guns, before profit margins got trimmed. “Our Dad bought two new Mercedes in the same day,” Shaw grins.

But today the family business, Otto & Moore, would be unrecognizable to its founders, Shaw’s grandfather, William Dudley Moore Sr., and his partners, who established the company in High Point in 1960.

The family, though, is no newcomer to the furniture industry. William Sr. had trained with the famed furniture designer Gordon Perlmutter in New Jersey before striking out on his own. His father, James D. Moore, had founded Home Chair Company in North Wilkesboro.  Moore Sr. possessed a talent for passing on his design skills to others, including his granddaughter, Carolyn, and her father, William Dudley Moore Jr., who took over the company last year when Moore Sr. died.

The company remains a close-knit family affair. Grandchildren Liz Moore, and William (Will) Dudley Moore III, are also furniture designers working in cubicles within a spit-ball throw of one another. But it’s a completely different animal from William Sr.’s and William Jr.’s heyday.

“I think people are surprised by how technical my work is — staring at a computer 80 percent of the day,” Shaw says. She stresses that, in addition to needing a design eye, the work today requires spot-on engineering and high-tech skills, because the new manufacturing processes are so computer-integrated.

Furniture manufacturing has also shifted overseas, erasing wiggle room for design flaws that could be fixed with a quick trip to the factory. (Client Vaughan-Bassett is still manufactured in Galax, Virginia. This means design changes for them can be tiger-fast, as there is no time delay as with offshore manufacturing.)

Design today is engineered to precise standards. The proof of a workable (and profitable) design concept is exactitude as well as commercial appeal. A centimeter of error can be a multimillion dollar error.

Shaw likes the synergy of collaboration and seems to thrive in the high-octane world of pressing market deadlines and has little time for office tomfoolery. She is a fine artist (and a 1984 Chapel Hill graduate) who decided to become a furniture designer at the urging of her father.   

“In our firm, four designers are women, and three are males.” Shaw isn’t an engineer. The company has four on staff who handle the heavy lifting of turning what is, after all, an artistic vision into something that can be mass produced.

Still, Shaw emphasized, “It’s technical.” She did take some engineering classes in order to better master the job skills. “I learned to paint at Carolina,” she says, but had to go back to school to understand the manufacturing side of things. After graduation, she landed a job in architectural illustration in Dallas, which was her initial ambition. Her grandfather constantly wheedled to get her to return to Otto & Moore.

Shaw finally relented after several years. “I moved back here,” she laughs, “because I was tired of being poor.” She also missed her family.

The bulk of Shaw’s hours are spent using AutoCAD (computer-aided design) software. In May, she is creating designs that will manifest in furniture shown months later in the fall market. The spring market is deeply affected by the fact that their manufacturers close down for Chinese New Year in February. Spring furniture designs must be completed by January. Manufacturers must have final details months in advance. The time between pre-market and market “tends to be a difficult time.” 

Perhaps the client loves a bedroom group design as a whole but hates the bed; this means, Shaw explains, they have a month to get designs, specifications, samples, etc. turned around.

Container ships are not fast.

The turnaround happens because Otto & Moore is “a collaborative firm,” Shaw says, pointing to the congenial mix of family closeness and intense work deadlines.

Despite being family-intensive, there is no fudging on the workload. After sending designs to the client, once approved, a sample can be produced in Asia within a week.

The downside? The furniture sample may be at sea for a month in transit. Changes are extremely expensive. If the product has to arrive sooner, it means costly air freight. 

Don’t, however, picture Shaw designing only living room and bedroom suites. At the moment, she is working on color renderings — believe it or not — for Brunswick Billiards of pool hall fame. Brunswick is an old Otto & Moore customer. In their case, Shaw creates color renderings which they approve before she and the engineers develop the final plans. Not all clients request color renderings. “We just do the casing. It’s complex to design a pool table. You have to have multiple internal floor levelers, just to get them flat.” 

Shaw brings a pool table she designed up on her computer screen: “This is one more contemporary design that I did.”  It is a surprise: streamlined, Art Deco in its sleekness. 

Having worked with Brunswick for years, Shaw anticipates their tastes, but also dedicates time during the furniture market to do a walk through with officials, sharing influences and trends to better understand the company’s target customer.  She did so again during the April market. “There are only so many who can afford pool tables. They tend to be older people who have more traditional leanings.”

And yet, she describes how vital it is that she can communicate with a great product developer, her liaison to clients. Product developers give Shaw assignments. An example is “to build a short bedroom” by which Shaw means, a small line that can expand if it does well. She discusses cost containment, proportions, finishes, hardware, and all the things that can affect a designer’s work.

If they are compatible, if they allow creative license, Shaw is jubilant. “A day like that can end in a celebration at Blue Zucchini,” which is among her favorite restaurants in High Point.

That’s about the only time for fun in games, in this intensive day and age. With buying being more segmented, the majority of Otto & Moore’s income is royalty-based, and Shaw says, “We work a lot harder now.  They used to take a break and go outside and pitch pennies at lunch.”

No more. Shaw’s brother is in China six to eight times a year with accounts. 

The majority of Otto & Moore’s company accounts are middle to high end names:  Century, Riverside Furniture, Barnhardt, Universal, FFDM, Vaughan-Bassett, Lexington, Lane, Hooker, Brunswick Billiards and others. For two weeks each year, during spring and fall, the High Point Market is a daze of client activity and interaction, and “throwing sketches down for the next market,” says Shaw. 

The intensity is such that Shaw describes the “post market assignments” — juggling the next generation of new designs immediately after market.

“I like to go to market one day, and let the creativity wash over me.” If Shaw can go alone, just to experience the sheer creative force of the event, “that’s a great day.”

Shaw, who is surrounded by furniture, insists, “I’m still not indifferent to furniture!” In an interview with Furniture Today, she once described how she uses the “mood board.” The mood board tells the story of a design. By pulling tear sheets from magazines and going online to sites such as 1stdibs, an online antique marketplace, Tumblr or Pinterest, Shaw finds inspiration and direction. The global reach of the internet and the personal perspective gained from social media helps her better understand where things are trending but also helps her with “clues and ideas.”

That said, though, Shaw gets a faraway look in her eyes and grins, tucking away a stray hair, and sighs, “I would love to go back to a drawing board!”  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

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