Woodworker turns hobby into business after job loss

Gustafson Design Co. produces handcrafted statement furnishings out of Grand Rapids home-based studio.
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Kristian Woods lost his job to COVID-19, which prompted him to take the leap and open Gustafson Design Co., named in honor of his great-grandfather. Courtesy Bryan Esler Photo

After losing his job due to the pandemic, Kristian Woods decided it was time to turn his longtime passion into a serious business.

Woods, formerly a recruiter for the engineering consulting firm DISHER in Zeeland, launched Gustafson Design Co. last month, a business that sells handmade wood furnishings with a sculptural aesthetic out of his home-based studio in Grand Rapids.

The company is named in honor of his great-grandfather, George Gustafson, whom Woods admired for his tenacity as a Swedish immigrant and survivor of World War I who had to reinvent himself more than once after adversity.

“He came over to the U.S. when he was only 19, and shortly after arriving, he was drafted into World War I, and so he was sent back to Europe. He was a runner, and he would run from trench to trench and go out through no-man’s land, which was the most dangerous place to be. It sounds crazy, almost too ridiculous to even believe, but he was shot by a German sniper through the head — the bullet entered behind his right ear, and it popped out his left eye. He never lost consciousness and was able to drag himself to safety. He moved to the U.S. with big plans and ideas, and just like with the pandemic that’s happening now, all of these big plans and ideas were put on pause when he got sent to war, and then had to reinvent himself coming back home,” Woods said.

“I was thinking about that grit and determination to survive and to make things work (when I chose my business name).”

Woods’ wife, Jaenell Woods, found out she was being furloughed from her role as senior communications manager at ArtPrize less than 24 hours after Woods lost his job at DISHER.

The couple, who have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, said they went through a period of job-hunting and soul-searching “like millions of other Americans” and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t feasible for both of them to return to working full-time jobs when they didn’t feel safe having their kids back in daycare amid a health crisis.

Instead, they decided it was a good time for Woods to turn his passion for woodworking into a job he could do from home in the early morning and late at night while helping to care for the kids during the day as his wife freelances and looks for more permanent work.

“It’s been a grind, but it definitely allows us the flexibility to do that, as opposed to like trying to go out and find a full-time job and then be like, ‘Oh, by the way, I have these two kids and I need to work crazy, ridiculous hours.’ This was a logical choice for us as a family,” Woods said.

Woods is primarily a self-taught artisan who was inspired by his father to begin handmaking furniture. When he was growing up, his dad made the family’s dining room table from scratch.

“The idea of building and making things yourself, rather than going out and buying them, stuck with me,” he said. “When we bought our first house about five years ago, I knew that I wanted to try and build as much of the furniture as possible, so that when we eventually did have kids, they would be heirloom pieces of furniture that I could hand down to them.”

After amassing the necessary tools and creating a shop in his garage, Woods taught himself how to do the work using trade magazines and YouTube videos, spurred on by gifts and encouragement from his wife’s grandfather, also an avid woodworker. The result was that Woods built the couple’s dining room table, bed frame, entertainment center, office desk, outdoor address sign and other furnishings and knickknacks throughout the house.

“You can watch a million videos, but really, you just need to get out there and do it,” he said.

Now, through his business, he turns walnut hardwood into handcrafted pieces for others. He launched the business with a wine rack collection — a nod to so many people spending more time at home watching Netflix movies and drinking — and he is working on building a line of furniture, including chairs and side tables, that will be made from hardwoods such as walnut, oak and white ash.

Currently, Woods is a one-man builder, with his wife running the website, social media and handling some orders. Their 2-year-old likes to hang out in his dad’s shop after naptime — with the “Frozen” soundtrack on repeat — and even helped Woods pour the concrete stands used in their product display photography.

“I tell him, ‘Buddy, I can pay you in ‘Frozen,’” Woods said, laughing.

After working at a nine-to-five desk job for years, Woods said the opportunity to make things full time has been refreshing.

“One of the reasons why I got into woodworking as a hobby before this was that I would spend all day staring at a computer screen, and I needed some sort of way to express my creativity and get my hands dirty. Being able to do it on a daily basis has been a really awesome and great experience for me.”

While it’s impossible to say what the future holds in the new COVID reality, Woods said he would like to grow the business to the point of it being a full-time, sustainable source of income for himself and his family, and then keep it growing after COVID.

He said he’s channeling his great-grandfather’s determination and perseverance every day in his new endeavor.

“It’s weird to think, if the weather was different or if he had stepped an inch to the left, my whole family and everybody I know wouldn’t be here. It’s just wild to think about (how) if he would have given up in that foxhole and wouldn’t have crawled back to safety or tried to get back — (we wouldn’t exist). It’s really inspired me.”

Gustafson’s online shop, as well as more information on the business, can be found at gustafson-design.com.

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