There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright's steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.
So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, "a light bulb went off," Brooks said.
"Mike and I both have a passion for making things," he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. "It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever."
But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.
It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.
Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.
The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.
The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.
With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.
"It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can't," Sparkman said.
Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive "waste" sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.
"In this case, the only waste is the sawdust," Sparkman said.
Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.
"We're just dipping our toe into the potential," Brooks said. "But it's a different kind of business from what our professional services are."
The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm's bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.
But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.
For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school's furniture.
Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They're working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.
They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.
Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky's College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.
"This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials," Brooks said. "If you look at architecture now, it's all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available."