For a man with an art history, science and I.T. background, perhaps it's not surprising that Pete Raho, founder and craftsman of Gowanus Furniture Co., combined these elements into the one spectacular product that launched his business. What's interesting about his story is the randomness, and yet near inevitability, of events that led Pete to where he is now. New York States of Mind met Pete at Makeville Studio, the Gowanus workshop he shares with woodworking artists of all varieties.
Pete is a ringer for Ben Affleck, though younger and funkier. His work uniform consists of a black T-shirt, jeans, gray apron and Brooklyn-appropriate footwear: Dr. Marten's boots one day, Converse Chuck Taylors another. His ready laugh and quick wit have no doubt sealed many a deal with customers initially attracted to the products at his Brooklyn Flea stand.
The improbable inception of Gowanus Furniture Co. began years ago when Pete was working in the American Paintings Department of a leading New York auction house. There, Pete encountered the work of Samuel F. B. Morse, the painter-turned-inventor of the eponymous Code and telegraph. As Pete's curiosity about Morse developed, he was simultaneously completing his MBA at NYU and yearning to break out on his own into the business side of art. The brutal realization of the unavoidable inefficiency, sycophancy and monotony of the art market spurred Pete to move in a different direction entirely.
As he says, one day he resolved, "All right, screw that. I'll just make stuff instead." The quest for what "stuff" to make had a high learning curve. With roof access at his then-apartment, some random hand tools, zero woodworking knowledge ("I come from a family of accountants, mostly"), Pete went to town in a makeshift workshop. His first successful product was a lamp for his living room — the electrical wiring is somewhat dubious — and a cutting board for his kitchen was next in line.
Like other scientists-cum-artists, or vice versa, Pete is part of an artistic wave that celebrates "nerd overlap" (his term), a logical intersection for a former Fordham Biology and Art History double-major. "I wanted something personalized, something that has meaning, something with my initials in it somehow. I was thinking binary, or ASCII, or a natural barcode." Since a barcode tableau might require a several-feet-long surface, Pete moved on to Morse Code as a solution. As Pete says, "[Morse Code] makes sense for so many reasons because it's designed for humans. It's not digital. It's graphically interesting, and normally isn't thought of as a graphical medium, but it is compelling graphically."
The multifaceted, interconnected brilliance of this idea quickly revealed itself: "You think about dinner, inviting your friends over, it's all about ideas, connecting people and sharing conversation, and information, and that's what the telegraph did in the first half of the 19th century. We look at iPhones coming out new every single year, but Morse Code is never gonna go away. It's still there. It's medium-agnostic." As he labors to create timeless pieces, Pete's careful craftsmanship is the ultimate guarantee that something will survive for generations to come.
His process is ever-evolving, as he constantly tries "to make that thing again, better, cooler, more sophisticated." His wood comes from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sources, which are responsibly-managed forests. He designs with two mantras in mind: "Smart design for compact spaces" and "Clever design that serves a purpose but also celebrates the integrity of the wood." Each cutting board is built over two days. Pete hopes his customers will keep the cutting boards on their countertop: "You want to have [it] in your house, on your countertop, for decades to come. That timelessness, I think, is cool."
Pete gets out of his community what he puts into it. Even though retailers in the area might also be competitors, Pete appreciates the kinship of small-business owners. "If someone needs something, you help them out. Be it your lumber supplier, or your person you're supplying stuff to sell to, or whatever part of the chain, those relationships are interesting. And I didn't expect those going into this. Whatever you need, someone's always happy to help."
It is exactly people like Pete who are turning the Gowanus Canal area around, but not Yuppifying it. Within the last three or four years, Pete says, "every single vacant space is filled up with someone making something. That's the fascinating thing with the whole Gowanus Superfund thing. The fact that they got the Superfund designation, Toll Brothers [real estate development company] and all [of] them pulled out and then all of these manufacturers moved in, and they're not going anywhere anytime soon. So, you know, in that way, it's a fate very different from like Williamsburg where, it's like, industrial's gone. Industrial came back. And they're not going. So that's cool."
The entirety of Pete's work is an homage, unintentional or not, to New York. He was raised in Westchester and educated in the Bronx and Manhattan. He makes his home and workplace in Brooklyn. He sources his materials from a lumberyard based in Queens, and has a real relationship with the family who runs the business (the owner's son commissioned Pete to make a cutting board he could give to his mother for Christmas). He was and is inspired by the great New Yorker Samuel Morse, the founder of the National Academy (now the National Academy Museum and School) that continues to educate students to the present day; and whose summer home, Locust Grove, is located in Poughkeepsie and is open to the public.
New Yorkers can look forward to the local fruits of Pete's work for years to come. He acknowledges, "Yeah, at some point I should probably live more than say, 65 miles from where I was born. But where else am I gonna go? So here I am."
Pete's New York State of Mind
"I've always been a fan of DeWitt Clinton, the whole idea of the Empire State. There's a lot going on. That's what I like about it. The fact that it was the gateway to the West, the Erie Canal, of course, that's fantastic. But I think the range is really what the key is. Having grown up a bit north of the city, it's not all New York City. But I think that the whole thing is the fact that you can go to the beach, or hike on some 5000 foot, 4000-whatever-foot peak. How tall is [Mt.] Marcy? You have that range. And that I think is fantastic."