ST. LOUIS • To most people, a tornado means destruction. To Martin Goebel, it means potential.
Last spring, after tornadoes cut through the St. Louis area, Goebel perused the aftermath, looking for felled hardwood trees to turn into coffee tables, chairs and bed frames. Eventually those storm-torn trees helped launch a company: Goebel& Co. Furniture.
Goebel, 30, had recently returned to St. Louis after finishing his master's at the Rhode Island School of Design when the twisters buzzed through, leaving their offerings.
With a degree from a prestigious, demanding program, and years of furniture design under his belt, Goebel had been looking for a job. He was offered one - running operations at Dakota Jackson, one of the country's pre-eminent high-design furniture companies - but he turned down the money, the title and New York City, and came home to St. Louis instead.
"I went to the guy almost in tears and said: I can't do this," Goebel remembers. "My teachers said I'd be crazy not to do it. But I left New York, and it was just a liberating feeling."
Goebel had a plan, though, that had been brewing for a few years and became more fully formed in graduate school. His concept was, and is, to take wood and transform it - partly by hand and partly by sophisticated digitized machinery - into affordable pieces of furniture that last.
"We do batch production of residential furniture that we consider basics," Goebel said, standing in his production space in south St. Louis. "We're just using the technology of the day to produce things at a better price."
Goebel Furniture, in other words, uses a hybrid approach, one unique in the industry. The wood is rough-cut in Goebel's production space, then sent out to other companies to be precision cut, using computer models and digitized routers. Then the pieces come back to Goebel's studio where they are assembled and hand-finished. The end result is a handcrafted piece made of native hardwood that's priced more along the lines of a machine-made piece made of composite or lesser wood.
"He's using technology where it makes sense and making it hand-worked where he can," explained Carl Safe, a longtime professor of furniture design at Washington University, who recently visited Goebel's production space. "These are hand-made pieces in many respects."
Safe, who designs and builds furniture himself, called Goebel's start-up a "heroic effort."
"This is a difficult market to break into," he said. "But I think he has a running start at this."
Goebel believes he's in the right place at the right time.
St. Louis is perfectly positioned in the center of the country to deliver pieces elsewhere. The lower cost of doing business, too, enables Goebel to spend more on material than rent. But, most importantly, St. Louis is surrounded by an abundance of trees - walnut, Siberian elm, sycamore - well suited for the demands of furniture.
"All of these species of hardwood grow in our own backyard," Goebel said. "St. Louis is really unique when it comes to geographical location and resources."
Goebel also uses local producers to mill his pieces, paying them to do the work on machines that his fledgling company could not afford.
"He wanted to tap into our technology," said Brian Berger of Kirkwood Stair and Millwork. "He does the design work and the solid modeling, then sends us the (computer) file, and we figure out a way to run it on our equipment. He picks out the wood, roughs it, and we mill it for him."
"So much of our furniture is coming from overseas," Berger added. "It's great to see someone making furniture locally."
Goebel shops for wood the way a chef shops for the best ingredients - because the ingredients are at the heart of what he does. The furniture is hand-finished and rubbed with Danish oil, but Goebel doesn't add any veneers or color, revealing the character of the wood.
His influences, Goebel says, are varied - with a little Scandinavian, a little arts-and-crafts in the mix. But, importantly, he adheres to the philosophy of the famous cabinetmaker James Krenov, who created pieces that were inspired by the wood itself.
It was that quality, and Goebel's designs, that drew his investors Nick Leidenfrost and Noah Alexander. Leidenfrost and Alexander, who were a class ahead of Goebel at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, backed Goebel after buying pieces of his original work. When he came back to St. Louis, they were impressed with his new vision.
"He learned how to leverage this technology," Leidenfrost said. "That's a big part of it, is the repeatability. With the exception of the character of the wood itself, the pieces we're using are very accurate."
For starters, Goebel Furniture has seven pieces, designed to be staples for anyone starting out furnishing a house. They are not stylistically similar, and instead meant to be stand-alone pieces. Goebel hopes they'll be well-worn heirlooms decades from now.
"The end goal, as sappy as it sounds, is to be in St. Louis - there's nobody doing this here - and to affect the most people I can," Goebel said. "We want to make something that kids are going to fight over."