The Inside Story of Phloem Studio's Beautiful Handmade Modernist Furniture
Ben Klebba, the 37-year-old founder of Portland's Phloem Studio, talks angles, templates, the importance of music, and the evolution of his brand's Arris line of furniture.
“I was working for a cabinetmaker, which is really where I learned how to run a small business. Like a lot of businesses, it grew too fast during the economic boom. Then, in 2008, it crashed, and everyone got laid off. And at the time, I thought, this is it. This is the time. I have to do this.
“The first year was really rough, but I’ve been lucky enough to grow to the point where I can have a fulltime employee. My dad comes in and works with us sometimes. It’s great.
“Our Arris line started with the Nadine lounge, which we designed for the Show PDX event. The whole point was to go through a process that lead to a cool, sharp profile, with some crazy angles, and come up with something that could be both futuristic and timeless. And ultimately, the idea was to make the process repeatable, so we’re not just making a one-time craft project, but setting a template we can use again. And if you look at the Nadine, you see basically what we do. We make some sides, and then we trap things in between them. It might be slings, or straps, or upholstery. But whatever it is, it’s a repeatable concept. We’ve applied those basic angles, that geometry, across the whole line.
“Everything is to-order. We don’t have a huge pile of chairs just lying around, pre-made. We do a lot of custom work for architects and interior designers, but the furniture lines are the face and the heart and the soul of the company. And we’ve been lucky enough to attract a national audience. I’m about to ship a Laura desk to LA, and we’re getting a Regina lounge ready to go to Brooklyn.
“Having a template frees you more than you would think. You know that everything that belongs to this line has this look, with these parameters. If you nurture that template, you can create an effect that’s somewhat similar—in my mind—to a musician or artist’s body of work. If you look at the whole thing, you see evolution, but you also see consistency and commonality and point of view.
“I’m as inspired by the music I listen to, or a trip to the Oregon Coast, as any furniture.
“My aim is to design for many different kinds of environments. I’ve definitely gotten photos back from clients that show the furniture in really modern rooms, but also in really classic, vintage rooms. I feel like the Peninsula chair could be in a really modernist steel cube of a house, or in an Old Portland.
“I’m a firm believer that, in business or art, if you focus on the short game, you’ll be screwed. There are seeds that I planted at a trade show in New York last year that may grow into a big awesome oak in five years—that’s the way I look at it. A couple who just bought a bedroom set from us has been talking to me for three years. They just placed the order. Furniture is a big investment. This isn’t Ikea. You’re asking a guy to hand-make a thing that is going to be in your house for, potentially, your whole life. It takes people time to make that purchase, and it should.
“For me, that just means that I need to show up and punch in every day, try to keep doing the best work I can, and know that it pays off.”