The Good Mod's Cool, Hands-On Approach to Modern Furniture

The treasure hunts, rebuilds, and curatorial whimsy behind a budding mid-century empire.

By Cari Johnson November 26, 2013 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

When Spencer Staley started selling vintage finds out of his garage ten years ago, his eye for design became more profitable than he anticipated. The 33-year-old now runs The Good Mod, from overseeing the 20,000-square-foot showroom and workshop to hunting down mid-century treasures.

Last year, Staley transformed the fourth floor of the historic Ford building on West Burnside. A kid's micro-scooter leans against an unfinished chair. “Yeah, that’s how we get around the warehouse,” Staley remarks with a chuckle. The Good Mod refinishes mid-century furniture and home goods, with a (mostly) modernist approach to design. The local store has received attention from the design community, with an impressive client list from Wieden & Kennedy to Nike. “We don’t do La-Z Boys or overstuffed couches,” says Staley. “People who come here want a clean line.”

On a brisk November morning, Staley and I sat down at The Good Mod (I selected a gorgeous red leather couch to sit on) to talk modernist design and his growing empire of refinished pieces.

How has the vision changed since you first began? We try to keep innovating. The curation is what separates us from other businesses. It’s the eye, it’s what we choose. I don’t want to do what’s safe; I’m pushing what I think is cool. And I’m not perfect. Sometimes I buy things and my employees are like, “What is that? That was a mistake.” So I try to keep improving what I’m doing.

In other interviews you have said, “I buy what I like.” Are there specific design elements that you gravitate towards? It’s just the good design – the simple design. I was just talking to a friend about Dieter Rams and Apple. Apple pulled a lot from Rams. They didn’t add things that were unnecessary and they used a simple, clean construction. For some reason, I’m in tune with that.

What's the frequency for finding pieces? It varies. We probably get 10 to 20 new pieces a week. Sometimes we will get a large load in and sometimes its just one. Sometimes I’ll go to other countries and bring a load back, like from Italy or France.

Are there designers you particularly like? There are the classic designer like Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl. A lot of the Danish designers from the '60s are really great. Oh, and Italian and French designers. After World War II, design totally changed. Before, design was very ornate. But then advancements in industry happened. The thought process behind design changed too. Like, “how could we make something more efficiently, and cleaner?”

Which do you prefer – aesthetics or utility? I’d say aesthetics, but it depends on the situation. I like fun things. It kind of contradicts what I just said but sometimes I like things that are over-the-top and flamboyant.  Sometimes this clean, modern stuff – it can be – well, I don’t want to say boring! But sometimes it’s nice to make something that will make you laugh. I don’t want to take good design too seriously, where it’s so sleek that it’s sterile.

What are your favorite mediums to work with right now? I feel like right now I’m studying plywood and steel. In the short future, I will be ready to study a new set of materials. I’m really interested in concrete, marble and stone. And glass, eventually.

Does The Good Mod offer pieces that are completely different that what they originally looked like? Oh yeah! A lot of the time we completely change the tone of the piece. Maybe a table will be white and we’ll stain it black. Some people might say “well you ruined that table” but I don’t think that’s true. I just didn’t like it “blonde”. In the 50s, there was a lot of “blonde” furniture. Sometimes I like to ebonize things, just to give them a new fresh look.

Sometimes we’ll take a cabinet and fabricate new legs for it. We definitely adapt things a lot.

Do you have a particular color palette that you’re drawn to? That’s a good question. I haven’t tried to stain wood neon green or anything. With the wood, I’m surrounded by so many earth tones. I have this urge to put intense colors on the furniture. I just built a table and we made the bottom neon green, so it’s kind of glowing! I feel like there’s going to be a huge shift to really bright things. [Local design] may always have its roots in the Oregon lumberjack thing, but I feel like many people are ready for something more vivid.

So I’m curious – how is your own home decorated? It’s pretty simple. I live in a micro-apartment with my girlfriend and dog. It’s very utilitarian. We have a nice Danish leather couch and a table that I built. That’s pretty much all we have room for.

How does Portland fit your needs as a designer? I’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s easy for designers and artists to get by with low overhead, cost of living, etc. There are a lot of great resources here. Sometimes it feels a little small. So it’s nice to travel. I try to travel to other cities like Tokyo or New York, and I will bring things back that aren’t “here” in terms of aesthetics and flavor.

What is it that you enjoy that most about the business? There’s the treasure-hunting aspect: when you find something that’s valuable amongst a sea of things that are garbage. The world is producing tons of stuff and nobody wants it after a while. It has to be thrown away. So it’s great to find something and know that it’s special. Getting it back here and restoring it to its original form is another bonus. And then connecting someone who is looking for a special piece – it makes me feel so good when they buy that because I know that their money is well spent. These pieces, its like buying stock. They aren’t going to lower in value.

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