Jong Design, Toronto, Ont.

Wong likes to combine disparate materials in his designs, bringing the various characteristics into sharp relief.

Design or bust

Jong Design brings an immovable commitment to creative design to custom furniture-making

Lawrence Wong is an artist first. He grew up in Hong Kong watching his grandfather, a furniture-maker, and his father, a woodworking instructor, build furniture by hand in his father’s workshop, chiseling out mortises by hand. But he never felt any ambition to be a woodworker himself, feeling drawn instead to visual arts, graphic design and sculpture. Time, the realities of business and maybe even a touch of fate have brought Wong full circle back to the family business. Today, at the age of 46, Wong owns Jong Design, a tiny custom furniture shop in Toronto, where he faces all the day-to-day stresses of finding enough work for himself and his employee in a market dominated by the diverse designs of the big retailers. Though he sometimes has to take on contract finishing work to keep the shop busy, Wong will not take the business in the direction of mass production or cheaper product, preferring instead to work with his contacts in the architecture and design community to look for the next project where he can spread his wings creatively.
Wong knew by the time he graduated from his post-secondary electronic engineering program in Hong Kong that he did not want to work in that field. He did graphic design for a few years until his brother, who was already living in Boston, convinced him to come to the U.S. and pursue his dreams of making art for a living. Wong moved to Boston in 1992 and studied fine arts, graduating with a masters from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Even then, his focus was mainly on ceramics and sculpture until he encountered an influential professor, Stephen Whittlesey, early into his master’s program. Wong wanted to work with him, so he transferred to the wood department. “They called it the wood department because people were using wood as a material for sculpture and art,” Wong remembers. “We weren’t really building furniture. I didn’t make any furniture when I was there.” Even after he graduated and went into partnership with a classmate, Jon Schackmuth, to form Jong Design in New Bedford, Mass., he was still not focused on making custom furniture. “Jon was the furniture builder, and I guess I was kind of hoping that side of the business could support my art projects,” Wong says. He soon found out that running a custom furniture business leaves little room for anything else.
The partners’ original plan was to make one-of-a-kind art pieces and sell them through galleries in the Boston area. “It was tough to get any kind of steady income,” Wong says. “The galleries will do a show maybe once every two or three years unless you are really popular, and then they will do a show for you every year. So you are waiting a year or two to get in and then, when you do, you better sell. Also, if you have a gallery in Boston, they do not want you to sell to another gallery in Boston. So you have to go find galleries in Philadelphia and New York.” Wong learned about the perils of stagnant inventory. “When you sell something through the galleries, it is almost on consignment,” he says, “because you spend all the money to build it and bring it to the gallery up front, then you have to hope it sells.” After a year of struggling with this business model, Jong started to look at alternatives. “We went into limited production, making 10 or 15 copies instead of just one,” he says. “We also started to work more with architects and designers on projects or to build their designs.”
Wong keeps one full time worker on staff to free himself up to design and look for new business.
Shifting to a project-driven business model meant Jong had to have more exposure to the Boston design community, so the partners opened a small showroom in the Boston Design Centre. “All the major designers are in the downtown area,” Wong remembers, “and they were not willing to drive an hour to come out and talk to us about a piece. It is really expensive to set up shop in Boston, so we opened a tiny little showroom.” The showroom attracted a lot of interest in Jong’s designs, but brought with it some new challenges. “It was tough for me and Jon because one guy had to go to open the showroom and the other had to stay at the shop,” Wong says. “We sort of alternated.” Schackmuth had enough in 2001 and sold out to Wong, leaving the business at a crossroads. After some soul searching, he decided to move Jong Design to Toronto.
Wong found it quite easy to set up business in Toronto. “You can get your business running within a week or two,” Wong says. The paperwork was minimal and there was plenty of inexpensive industrial space to choose from. He has found the Toronto condominium market much more accepting of contemporary and transitional designs compared to the conservative New England buyers. “Partly, it is the age of the city,” he says of Boston’s conservative tastes. “The people who have money often have really traditional homes, and they feel like modern furniture would clash. I would like to combine styles that way, but people think you cannot place different styles together.”
Toronto offered one significant challenge relative to Boston: access to credit. “When we started the business in Boston, we were both fresh out of university so we did not have any money,” Wong says. “But we did have credit cards. It is so easy to apply for a credit card in the U.S. So we used the credit cards to start the business.” He says the experience in Toronto was completely different, with banks refusing to give him even a low-limit card at first.
Jong’s shop has enough room for a router, a wide belt sander, a table saw and not much else.
Wong supported the new shop in Toronto at first with a steady flow of orders from old clients in Boston. But the eroding spread between the Canadian and American dollars has eaten into those margins. Also, increased border security since 9/11 has made it more and more expensive and paperwork-intensive to ship to the U.S., and Wong has seen sharp hikes in the costs of trucking in the last few years. He responded by increasing his profile in the local market, including exhibiting at Toronto’s Interior Design Show in 2004 and 2005. Wong found the show brought lots of interest and a few good leads, but still was not as effective as word-of-mouth referrals from happy clients and fellow woodworkers. He is also feels that smaller exhibitors are being overshadowed by such larger manufacturers as Ikea that have started exhibiting there recently.

The past year has been difficult for Jong Design. “When times are good, an architect or designer will include some custom furniture in a project in order to pull the whole room together,” Wong says. “When the budget gets smaller and choices have to be made, custom furniture is the first thing to go. If the economy continues the way it has for another year, a lot of smaller shops will not survive.” Wong has reacted to the slowdown by taking in some subcontract finishing work for other shops. He says he feels the pressure to keep a steady flow of business now that he has a full-time employee. He thinks the key to survival will be diversifying into other areas; his wife is a ceramic designer and he is discussing a collaboration with her that might yield some interesting pieces combining tile and wood. As far as Wong is concerned, there is only one way forward for Jong: the creative road less travelled.


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