Profile of a Wausau artisan whose designs are sold across the U.S.
Graham Coulson of Wausau designs and builds made-to-order furniture for customers across the United States.
He has sent pieces to Seattle, Iowa, New York, and Texas, to name a few. One of his trademark “Ying Yang” tables graces the entry at Cream City Restoration in Milwaukee. An upscale barbershop in Atlanta ordered two solid-walnut barber stations based off a design Coulson promotes on his Etsy page.
Interestingly though, he gets few custom orders from Wausau. That’s despite thousands of local people seeing his work, through his appearances at several local art galleries and Festival of Arts each year since 2013.
Graham Coulson furniture
Artisans like Coulson, who just turned 50, need to cast a wide net to catch the right type of customer, and that’s why many of them rely on web-based markets like Etsy. In Coulson’s case, he needs someone who’s looking for not just a functional table, desk, bench or cabinet, but also furniture that’s a work of art.
“His pieces are very well thought out. They’re very structural and architectural,” says Randy Verhasselt, owner of Evolutions in Design in Wausau, where Coulson’s work was first displayed in a retail setting. “For Wausau it’s a tough price point, but it’s not that people don’t appreciate it. You’re not going to see it at a box store… It’s a piece of art.”
His Ying Yang Table, for example, looks very much like a sculpture, but it’s very functional. The two- and even three-piece design gracefully combines into one surface but can be pulled apart to create separate tables. He has made multiple variations—different legs for either a modern or mid-century feel, adding drawers or multi-level shelves, or varying the height to create a desk, table or coffee table.
Even if others were creative enough to come up with the design, there’s a reason these tables aren’t mass-produced. They’re a pain to build. The characteristic one notices first about them—not a straight line to be found when looking down at the top of the table—makes them ill-suited for production-oriented shops focused on speedy, easy construction.
Almost all woodworking equipment assumes the artisan is after pieces that are straight and square. Not so for this table. But Coulson does need to consider efficiency. It didn’t take many outings before he developed Ying Yang templates. These are essentially traced by a computer-controlled cutter to make the arcing incisions into the slabs of hardwood tabletops.
The Graham Coulson Furniture workshop is well off the beaten path in an old country schoolhouse, southeast of Mosinee in the middle of the Town of Guenther. He’s about half finished with renovations to the building that saw its last student nearly 50 years ago. He chose the building for one reason: its price. When it was time to spread out from his original shop in the basement of his family’s east side Wausau home, Coulson went to the courthouse to find listings for the very cheapest properties with a building. Only four were cheaper than this place.
He has been a serious woodworker only since 2013. He first made his pieces available for sale at Evolutions in Design, the 319 Gallery on Fourth Street in Wausau, and two other locally owned stores that have since closed. His work was also displayed at Gallery Q in Stevens Point, an artist-owned cooperative where he was April’s featured artist.
He learned early he wouldn’t make a go of it based on Wausau-area sales alone. His first order was for an end table shipped to someone in New York. The second was a television stand that went to a customer in Hawaii. Last year only a handful of custom-ordered sales came from within Wisconsin.
His website grahamcoulsonfurniture.com “is basically a catalog of my work.” He’s also giving both Facebook and Instagram a try to garner attention well beyond the area.
Several factors have to align for him to make a sale. He says, “It’s all about exposure and getting your name out there. People don’t drop $800 or $900 on a table every day.”
With that thought in mind, he’s also producing wooden-faced clocks that mount in painted PVC pipe pieces joined at a 45-degree angle. Especially for online sales where an item is purchased based on its appearance in a photo, he says, “I need some things in the $50 range.”
Plus, creating original, functional art is a challenge. “It’s surprisingly hard to come up with something new,” Coulson says. Just saying, “I’m going to come up with a new table,” might sound easy, but it’s “incredibly” difficult to achieve, from design to production, he says.
Coulson wouldn’t balk at an order of 50 identical items, but “I prefer to do the one-off custom pieces,” he says.
The barber stations were a good example. The customer in Atlanta saw his media stand on Etsy and asked for the addition of mirrors and extra drawers. “Anything’s flexible. If you want to change it, no problem. I’ve had a customer say, ‘I like this table and I like that table, can you put them together, please.'”
Coulson prefers using native species—woods that grow in the area and are easily purchased here. Those include walnut, maple, cherry, black ash, and sometimes poplar if it has color variations that gives it interest.
Originally from England (and still with an accent to prove it), Coulson became intrigued with sustainable design about the time he was graduating from college with an engineering degree. That engineering background has been a plus on the practical side of furniture making, especially in his more witty, original designs. “It gives me a sense of what will and won’t work,” he says.
Nearly all of his pieces have an incredibly soft, natural finish that’s delicious, touchable and inviting. That finish is part of what makes his furniture so distinct.
He prefers not to stain wood and, unless told otherwise, will finish the pieces with a Danish oil that gives the wood a soft glow. “I hate it when everything’s super-shiny,” Coulson says. “It’s like you’re making something as a substrate for plastic.”
Coulson was delighted recently when one of his customers who bought a set of tables several years ago called to tell him what happened when he felt the need to restore the oil finish Coulson had applied. The man described the visible renewal of the wood as being “almost a religious experience.”
The application process for Danish oil is low-tech and satisfying, requiring little more than a screw-top can of the oil, a soft cloth and perhaps some gloves.
Verhasselt sees a Frank Lloyd Wright influence in Coulson’s work—a clean look that’s artful in its lines rather than embellishments, and would stand on its own in any style of home décor, he says. Sometimes people associate (and maybe confuse) artful with something that’s highly decorative. But beautifully designed, distinctive furniture can serve as those “pops” of art as well—which is exactly why Coulson’s work feels so at home being displayed in art galleries as well as in a residence.
Part of the beauty is in utility. Coulson is gratified when he hears customers says they regard his furniture as art, but almost everything he makes is meant to be used. He was chagrined when he heard from several people that the cutting boards he had given them as Christmas gifts were “too attractive to use.” Take pleasure in using the item, he says.
Even as an engineering student college in the U.K., Coulson longed to become a furniture designer. But life, as they say, got in the way. He met his future wife, Tami, a native of Wisconsin Rapids, when she spent a year studying abroad at the University of Warwick. They married and lived in London, where he took a security job with the Goldman-Sachs investment firm. Six years later when the Coulsons were expecting a child, they began to consider whether the city was the best place to raise a family.
They bought a house in Wausau and moved here in 2005. Coulson was a stay-at-home dad initially, wedging in some work for a local landscaper. He then took a job with Handcrafted Furniture doing production work until deciding to go out on his own in 2013. These days, he also puts his engineering background to use working two days a week designing and building business displays at TD Fischer, while devoting at least three days a week at his workshop. He’s not quite to this point yet, but, “I told my wife, if after five years I wasn’t making a living, I’d get a proper job,” he says.
Meanwhile, he wants to be known as an artisan who makes furniture worthy of being treasured and handed down to succeeding generations. As Coulson says and many would agree, “Good design actually enhances a person’s life.”
How to get that Graham Coulson-type finish
It’s a Danish oil rub, and such a low-tech application that even amateur woodworkers can do it.
You can even make a wood smoother by using automotive-type wet-or-dry sandpaper in fine grit (400 or 600). Daub the oil on the wood and spread it with the sandpaper. Some of the particles from the wet sanding process will fill the pores in the wood, giving it a silky smooth feel without the plastic-y look of high gloss.
If using this method, wipe off the excess oil with a dry cloth or paper towel after sanding, let the wood rest a while and follow with more oil per the instructions on the can.
Usually you can finish a piece of woodwork with a simple hand-rubbed application of the oil. Simply apply the oil liberally, allow it to soak in for a few minutes, apply more, then wipe off the excess. Though not all find it “a religious experience” as one of Coulson’s customers said about freshening up one of his pieces he had bought several years ago, most people like to renew this kind of finish every few years.