Tucked away in a small, one-story warehouse on Locust Street in Midtown St. Louis is a bustling artisan furniture workshop filled with slabs of timber harvested from trees that once grew in and around the St. Louis area. Inside, a small team of craftsmen transform walnut, cherry and white oak into the artful, modern residential and commercial furnishings sold at Goebel & Co. Furniture. Each piece they turn out – some 350 a year – is a distinctive combination of handcraftsmanship and computer-aided design and manufacturing, which has placed the workshop at the forefront of the boutique modern furniture movement in the U.S.
At the helm of the business is furniture designer and craftsman Martin Goebel, a Ladue Horton Watkins graduate, who has grown the small but steady business in the past few years. The youngest son of an architect and the grandson of a French pastry chef, Goebel says creative work runs in his family. “The creation of anything and everything has been a theme throughout my life,” he says.
Goebel found his calling at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, California, where he studied traditional furniture making. In 2002, he returned to St. Louis, where he designed and produced furniture for the next six years, while also earning a degree in fine arts from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He subsequently headed east to earn a Master of Fine Arts in furniture design from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. During his time on the East Coast, he developed products for different furniture companies, before returning to St. Louis in 2010 to refine his personal style, which is distinguished by clean lines and elegant, minimalist pieces.
In 2011, he launched Goebel & Co. Furniture with Nick Leidenfrost and Noah Alexander, both local business owners who had been early customers of Goebel’s one-off furniture pieces. Today, Goebel manages the company’s creative work, while Leidenfrost and Alexander bring business know-how.
“Nick and Noah are business and marketing people,” Goebel explains. “My background is in handcrafted product design and development. Their business savvy was the perfect complement for our business in its infancy.”
From the start, the company’s mission has been simple: to elevate quality, American-made modern furniture in the wake of the inexpensively made imports that flooded the U.S. market during the past two decades. The trend is so prevalent there’s even an industry term for it – planned obsolescence, or products made with intentionally limited life and function. “It’s the modern equivalent of fast food,” Goebel says. “Ideology is what motivates me to paddle the canoe backwards to a time in which furniture was not disposable.”
When conceptualizing new designs, Goebel says he finds inspiration in everyday life. “Design is a reaction to the study of life,” he says. “[At Goebel & Co.] we celebrate the simple activities of life through elegantly simple furniture. The real masterpiece of design is the life that occurs on and around our furniture. Our job is to facilitate those experiences.”
His all-time favorite pieces to design are dining tables – not the fancy type with delicate veneers and ball and claw feet, but sturdy tables and surfaces that bring people together for meals and get-togethers. “I love dining tables above all other [furniture],” he says. “The modern pace of life rarely yields time in which we can truly connect with our family and friends, exchange ideas with peers and children. The kitchen table [is] the location of family meals, homework and conversation.”
Goebel describes the Dempsey, the most popular production piece in his portfolio, as an ideal dining table for families. It's made of black walnut with an ebonized white oak that sits on a dramatic base (rather than traditional legs). People can sit at any location around the table, so all of the space can be used. Substantial heirloom pieces won't rock or break, and can be handed down to the next generation.
In addition to dining tables, Goebel & Co. makes a full line of production furniture, including chairs, stools, cabinets, armoires, bed frames and more for residential customers, as well as custom pieces for clients. Goebel says he truly enjoys designing and producing these one-off custom projects, which are often deeply personal for clients.
“What I like doesn't always translate into what others like,” he says. “Our production furniture is a reflection of our experiences. Custom pieces are one of a kind and for a certain purpose, dictated by our private clients. In the end, they look and feel like them. “I love totally niche pieces that celebrate the minutia of life...bar carts and bachelor cabinets that hold watches, shoes, cologne. I once created a cabinet for a gentleman who loved bow ties – it’s fantastic. Who loves bow ties that much? We all have these little idiosyncrasies; it’s what makes us, us. Why not celebrate it?”
And word of Goebel’s custom work is spreading and resonating with clients in St. Louis and across the country. Last year, Goebel & Co. Furniture created 40 commissioned pieces for residential and commercial clients, including Washington University, Companion Bakery, Brennan’s Wine and Tobacco and Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.’s Grove Brewery & Bierhall, as well as Tommy Bahama’s corporate offices in New York City.
In just four years, Goebel has built up a thriving business in his hometown.
“We’re a steady employer of local craftsmen and a purchaser of local subcontracting,” Goebel says. “I left both the west coast and east coast to return to [St. Louis], and my clients and employees remind me daily, through their actions, that I made the correct choice. In the short [term] and long term, I’m looking forward to expanding our local employment and sales.”