Dumbledore of Furniture
Greg McGeough is the man behind Ireland’s Barrell & Gunn. A furniture company that has created its own niche using 17th century Japanese technology and American industrial vintage. As difficult as it is to imagine, it was just four years ago that Greg was sitting in front of a computer wearing a tailored suit. It is almost equally difficult to come to terms with the fact that it would require a break-in for the entrepreneur in him to be cut loose.
It is a Wednesday evening in February. Greg McGeough is standing in his workshop and fastening his heavy leather apron over his many layers of work clothing. As he exhales into the chill air in the room, each breath seems to be almost billowing out of his mouth. He lights the welding tool and approaches a pile of heavy salvage timber that is about to undergo a transformation with the help of a technology over 300 years old.
How did it begin?
“I studied as an exchange student - and then later returned to live in - Kyoto, Japan. I went to the Hi-matsuri (fire festival) in one of the small traditional villages in the foothills of the mountains and asked a Japanese friend why the houses were black. That was the first time I’d ever even heard of Yaki Sugi and, in those days, my Japanese was still pretty rough so translating the explanation was nearly as difficult as learning the technique.
The wood is partially charred over an open flame, then scoured, brushed, oiled and roughly polished until it has a beautifully smooth, satin black finish. Aside from giving the wood a stunning appearance, the process provides a natural fire-break, waterproofing and protects from insects. Beautiful, functional and natural. The whole package!"
It was there and then that you decided to start manufacturing your own furniture?
“Not at all! I was still in toeing (or trying to toe) the family line back then – go to college, get a job (preferably somewhere warm and clean), get a mortgage etc etc. My father is a tradesman and provided extremely well for us but, even though he always made sure we knew how to use our hands, there was always a lean towards academia and away from overalls! I started in Japan as an exchange student, but went back because I was a little burnt out by academia and at the honeymoon phase of life as a young foreigner abroad.
While studying/working, I’d also become a partner in an Irish pub in Kyoto’s Geisha district. It was actually there that I ended up meeting my first Japanese craftsmen and other artists. Unsurprisingly, the mixture of pints of Guinness and talk of the trade meant it wasn’t long before I fell head over heels in love for all things traditionally Japanese – arts, crafts and theatre.”
In what way did this new love manifest itself?
“I worked with Geisha and travelled with a traditional Japanese theatre company on a European tour and thought ‘This is it! This is my thing!’. The reality of life as an ex-pat was starting to settle in, and the novelty of working as the stereotypical, freckled Irish bartender was starting to wear off (and I was drinking WAY too much!) so I moved back to Ireland and started a production company.
My timing couldn’t have been worse, since it wasn’t too long before the recession hit and I quickly realised that my company would not survive. At the same time, I had a break-in, where the thieves took everything of value. With no business, no money and a wedding on the horizon, I had to improvise. Quick!”
“I’d always been good with my hands (credit: My Dad!) and working with him for the family business, working with the craftsmen in Japan, as well as building theatre sets meant I had a strong foundation to build on. Between the old theatre sets and my own garage (I’m totally a hoarder), I had a lot of old wood and steel (Barrell and Gunn!), and I reckoned I could turn them into something worthwhile.
As I said, I already had a solid foundation of skills and Google filled in the gaps! It’s actually quite heartening to see the sheer volume of people who post instructional videos to Youtube – particularly the Americans. There’s quite a strong culture and advanced level of DIY in the US, with plenty of generous men and women willing to advise you on anything they haven’t already posted about in detail.
Also, the Vintage Industrial aesthetic (or at least the version that has been recently popularised) actually originated in the US. From there, Barrell & Gunn evolved pretty quickly – blending what the Japanese had taught me about Yaki Sugi, what the Americans had taught me about woodwork/welding, and what my Dad had taught me about almost everything else.
Sounds like something completely new by Irish standards?
“Yeah, it was certainly new and probably a bit reckless! In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking in setting up a furniture business six minutes’ drive away from Europe’s most successful IKEA store!”
But how did you find customers, basically over night?
“I started to sell what I had made via Done Deal, one of Ireland’s largest classified ad websites. It worked better than expected, but I felt fairly quickly that I needed a more personal forum. A showroom on Dublin high street would have been nice, but I hadn’t (and still haven’t!) the small fortune it would take to rent a shopfront in Dublin. The same for traditional advertising: From my theatre days I remembered how expensive it was to advertise, 1,500 euros for a small newspaper ad which often sold an extra ten tickets. I’d noticed how more and more businesses were marketing through Facebook and I liked the idea of a ‘live’ dialogue with clients. Direct contact with a market that has absolutely no idea who you are or exactly what you’re selling was, I felt, important and – even more importantly – it was cheap!
Facebook also lets you speak honestly with the market – no sterile, whitewashed ‘voiceless’ language. I’ve gotten into trouble a few times with the Facebook marketing team for swearing in some of my advertisements but I think we’re coming to an understanding now and the results are there as proof – lots of people need to buy who you are before they’ll buy what you’re selling!
So what was the outcome?
“Today I have 15,000 followers, a lot of whom are repeat customers. A year ago I had 1,000, so the circle is growing rapidly… and I owe Mark Zuckerberg a hug.”
You’ve gone all in, 100%, on unique furniture, built especially for the individual customer, without any permanent product range.
How does this work in practical terms when placing an order?
“The majority of customers prefer to come here to the workshop, though I think that’s just to make sure I’m a real person with a real workshop and not a con artist ripping people off from their computer screen! They bring with them anything from a moodboard or concept picture to a finished drawing. For me, it doesn’t matter. At the risk of sounding arrogant – I can build whatever they want. As long as what they want is furniture – I’m not so hot on building prosthetic limbs or airplanes! ”
And you don't get stressed that it doesn't look like a showroom here?
“No, not at all. On the contrary, I think part of the appeal when people come here is the roughness, the lubricating oil and the general mess. This is the way it is all the time, and that kind of grubby authenticity tends to give clients a kind of confidence that we’re the real deal here. Anyway, how much fun is it to stand in line in a sterile and sweaty store only to pay for a piece of furniture that everyone else has?”
Would you say that your furniture is expensive?
“The prices are undoubtedly set at a higher level. Not because the materials are expensive but because of the time that is put into each and every piece of furniture. We, me and my small crew, rarely finish work for the day before nine o’clock at night. But, on the other hand, we’re not trying to be all things to all men. The people who look closer at what we do have already gone down the road of mass-produced furniture. They’ve realised that they get a great standard for a relatively small outlay, but that their neighbours are sitting on exactly the same sofa. The clients we get are most often looking for something specifically bespoke and unique.”
Describe your typical customer.
“There’s no ‘typical customer’ really. The majority of my clients are women, but I think that’s because women are generally more proactive and make better project managers so they’re usually the ones who take the initiative to develop a concept and make contact. It was quite surprising actually, when I first noticed trends developing in the marketing analytics. I probably had some gender-biased preconceptions, but I expected Vintage Industrial furniture to be very much a man’s thing – steel and wood, man caves, bachelor pads etc. – but I’ve learned since that the vast, VAST majority of my favourite online design inspirations have been blends created by women. Don’t get me wrong, men are a hugely important part of my target market, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how enthusiastic women are for Vintage Industrial design.
So how was your own interest in materials and techniques born?
“I usually say that it came with the mother’s milk. Or that it runs in my blood. My mother has eight siblings. Five of them work with furniture in one way or another. So when I grew up I was surrounded by all sorts of discussions about furniture and textiles. I tried early on to get my dad to invest in sturdy work clothes in his business, which deals with machinery for waste management. But those efforts were met with a firm no and even what you might call a snort of derision.”
“My dad was (and still is to some extent) old school. Work clothes for him consisted of an overall. Full stop. For him the very idea of investing money in work clothes is ridiculous and referring to any work clothing as ‘designer’ was laughable. I had no such strong beliefs. What I did have, was sore knees, a wet arse and a cold everything else. I bought my first pair of Snickers Workwear trousers a week after they launched here in Dublin. The following week, I went down on payday and bought a long-sleeved top and a fleece. The week after that it was a hat and gloves. I genuinely live in fear that my wife finds out how much money I’ve spent on Snickers Workwear workwear over the years – my only regret is that I can’t buy the whole catalogue! Seriously, when you work with your hands your clothes are your office. If your cold, wet and miserable the work suffers. They’re functional, comfortable, and in my opinion, they add something to the image you present to the customer – something you wouldn’t get from wearing an old pair of jeans and a few layered, tattered sweaters! The thermal base layer is, I swear, one of my best friends.”
Your colleagues call you a Snickers Workwear fanatic. Do you agree?
“Yep. Snickers Workwear and Star Trek – the two great loves of my life. You can absolutely tell that Snickers Workwear’ workwear is designed by professionals for professionals. By that I mean that you get the feeling that thedesigners themselves have worn and tested the clothes. Stretch fabric is put in just the right places, there is protection where it is really needed and all the clever features I would have chosen myself. And last but not least – superb ventilation. I work with fire a lot and I’m never drenched with sweat and freezing once the wood-burning is done. Also, in the interests of my marriage surviving this interview, I’d like to revise my earlier statement to ‘the three great loves of my life – my wife, Snickers Workwear and Star Trek”.
I see that you are wearing Snickers Workwear from head to toe. What are you wearing?
“OK, if we start from the bottom, I’ve got on Solid Gear phoenix GTX boots, their thermal socks and thermal underwear. I also have on my favourite trousers, a belt, a neck warmer, gloves, thermal t-shirt, shirt, body mapping microfleece jacket, all topped off with a soft shell jacket.”
Do you think there is anything lacking from their product range?
“Given that I stand burning wood or welding several hours a week, I would appreciate a range designed for welding. Today I tie on my leather apron, with the risk that a hot spark could still damage my Snickers Workwear. I threw a tantrum yesterday because I burned a small hole in my jacket sleeve. Seriously – a full-on, infantile, roaring tantrum…there may or may not have been tears involved.” While we’re on the topic of sustainability and durability, your furniture looks like it would last forever. And much of the wood you are using is reclaimed.
Is your artistic style partly driven by a conscious consideration of sustainability?
“I’d love to answer that question with a yes, but the eco-friendly aspect of what I do is honestly more by accident than by design. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that Barrell & Gunn is as environmentally-friendly as possible and I now consciously try to keep it that way, but in the beginning it was just a matter of aesthetics and finding my own niche in the market.”
And, on the idea of a legacy, are you building a business for your children?
“No. I don’t believe legacy should be wrapped around a business or a thing. I’d prefer that my legacy was that my happy, healthy children become happy, healthy adults of value. I couldn’t care less how they do it as long as it doesn’t involve heroine or terrorism. However, I absolutely retain the right to rant at them about how I started Barrell & Gunn in my freezing cold home garage with a only a few second-hand tools and as much Snickers Workwear as I could afford!”