Seventeen years ago, when he was producing mirrored furniture for a local furniture company, Jesse Schneider's future was reflected in his work.
Today, Mr. Schneider runs Today's Geometrically Inclined Furniture (TGIF), a custom design shop in the Savage Mill, making futuristic furniture for people looking for something different.
Mr. Schneider has created curved tables for a Saudi princess's palace and furniture for a hotel in the Virgin Islands. His work is on display at the Design Centers in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas, and his beehive lamp can even be seen in Arnie Becker's office on TV's "L.A. Law."
Unlike the production work he did with the mirrored furniture, most of Mr. Schneider's work now consists of one-of-a-kind pieces made to customer specifications. His showroom displays scooped-out, yin/yang shaped coffee tables, rounded tables resembling thick pince-nez glasses on stilts, gently curving kidney shapes and sharp points on tables that look something like the chest communicators worn on "Star Trek."
Science fiction influences appear repeatedly. One pink wedge table resembles a gladiator arena in a Star Trek episode. Another table takes its surface design from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Mr. Schneider started up his business in 1977 with $3,000 borrowed from his father to buy an air compressor and a table saw. TGIF has grown to gross annual receipts of more than $100,000 and keeps Mr. Schneider and one full-time employee busy creating wall units, dining room tables, bedroom furniture, backgammon tables and lamps for upscale clients.
The company began as "Geometrically Inclined," but Mr. Schneider later added "furniture" to make it more specific. Once Mr. Schneider realized a "T" was a logical addition to the existing "GIF," he considered "tomorrow" before settling on "today."
"Today forces me to keep current," he said.
Like many small businessmen, Mr. Schneider wears several hats. His work includes sales as well as hands-on work. When customers enter the showroom, Mr. Schneider emerges from the workroom to greet them. That is his system -- one-on-one design.
"My customers are looking for something special that they can't find in a furniture store," he said. "They're looking for something they see at [TGIF] or in their mind."
During a conversation with a prospective client, Mr. Schneider draws rough sketches, his favorite part of the design process. If the customer wants to pursue the project, he takes measurements at the home or office, makes more detailed drawings and works up an estimate.
Many customers know what they're looking for when they walk in, but everyone has the opportunity to see how Mr. Schneider produces his work. The workroom's open door and windows encourage his practice of educating consumers before they buy.
"I can always tell the woodworking customers, because they walk into the workshop to see the equipment and work in progress," he said.
Familiarizing the customer with the design process also demonstrates what a customer is paying for.
"A typical wall unit has 1,000 pieces with the hardware and
laminate," said Mr. Schneider. "In the end, the customer only sees five parts."
The final bedroom set created for Wendy Ochsman of Potomac consisted of one piece of furniture incorporating a bed, built-in shelves and dresser drawers. Ms. Ochsman and Mr. Schneider spent several hours modifying an idea she brought in from a magazine photo and customizing the unit with square pastel inlays and matching drawers. She later commissioned him to build a computer desk, a chair and a counter top.
"It took me three years to find the right person to do the work," Ms. Ochsman says. "He's not just a craftsman, he's an artist whose field is working with laminates."
"I like to break up the boxy look and still be functional," he said. One of the bedrooms he designed features a headboard wedge placing the bed in a corner coming into the room at a 45-degree angle.
Part of the appeal of the Savage Mill location is its proximity to other artisans. After 14 years in a Beltsville warehouse that Mr. Schneider describes as "a garage with windows," he relocated to the Savage Mill, occupying a 625-square-foot showroom and an 1,800-square-foot shop near those of weavers, potters and oil painters. Besides the advantage of steady walk-in customers, Mr. Schneider was attracted by the mill's vision of itself as a "want-it-mall," rather than the typical suburban "need-it-mall."
Woodworking is a family tradition, passed down from Mr. Schneider's grandfather, a bridge builder in Europe, and his father, a woodworking hobbyist, now retired and making Queen Anne-style desks and grandfather clocks. Mr. Schneider knew at age 16 that he wanted to pursue woodworking as a career, after years of model building.
"Custom furniture is a lot like model making, except that you don't get the parts in a box," said Mr. Schneider. "You have to make the parts, too."
He gets parts from both suppliers and found objects. One 66-inch-diameter piece of cypress, discovered on a stretch of California coastline, became a wall-hanging after Mr. Schneider worked with it and spent 100 hours sanding it.
One of the bigger projects TGIF has taken on was renovating eight Koons Ford dealerships in Northern Virginia and Maryland, producing everything from desks, and counter tops to literature holders.
After 17 years of turning customers' ideas into reality, Mr. Schneider has a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't. Although his lamps are sold in Marlo furniture stores, Mr. Schneider is content to keep the business small.
"I have no interest in making 40 or 100 of the same pieces," he said. "A lot of businesses are run by people trying to get somewhere. I'm a person coming from somewhere, and I want to help people beautify their homes and workplaces."