Product Design

Designing to His Own Beat

29 Nov, 2010 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

User Profile: Rock musician Dale Meiners found a second creative outlet — producing one-of-a-kind millwork designs for discerning clients.

Dale Meiners has devoted his life to drawing beauty from wood, whether it’s in the form of a bass guitar or unfinished stock destined to become a dining room table. As a musician, he cofounded The Marked with Billy Corgan, who later became the frontman for Smashing Pumpkins. Today, Meiners designs and builds custom furniture and cabinetry through his prototype millwork company, Trimline Custom Designs. He also teaches at a vocational woodshop, passing on his love of good design to his students.

Cadalyst: How did you make your way from playing and producing rock music to designing furniture and cabinetry? Does your musical background influence your current work?

Meiners: I grew up with a piano and guitar in my bedroom — I played music all the time as a kid. I majored in music theory, then transferred to Florida to join the Marked with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. I started performing, then toured for the next four years. I had been recording my bands since high school, so my three recording studios over the next 10 years all started from bands asking me to record them.

My parents built our house, so building was in my blood too. I worked as a trim carpenter between studio sessions, and really liked it, but had to stop because I was up too late recording. In 2003, I had a daughter. Recording took all of my concentration during a live take, and I knew I wanted to be available for my family. I also foresaw the end of studio engineering with the introduction of laptop-based recording hardware. But I haven’t retired as a musician, and never will.

My oldest and best carpenter says I run my company like I ran my recording studios: When bands couldn't afford to pay for a day of recording guitar overdubs, I would give them a free day. The records sounded better, and I kept getting busier. At Trimline, I use only the best materials and hardware I can get, unless a client requests otherwise to lower costs. If a client wants to upgrade to a better material, I upgrade without a markup. I want to build better furniture, and continue to grow the business.

Dale says this heavy bamboo set is "interesting and complex from a distance, soothing while seated." Image courtesy of Trimline Custom Designs.

Tell us how you go about designing your unique pieces.

Whomever I fabricate for — architects, designers, end users — my goal is to understand their taste, functional needs, and personality, and offer elements they would pick if they were exposed to everything I am. My carpenters are also involved in the creative process. No one blindly makes parts; everyone works together to create. I am always looking for the best product, so every idea is considered, and every good idea is implemented.

We operate as a prototype shop, so if we haven’t built something before, we research, do tests, and figure out how to build what our clients want. I think my business is growing because I make an effort to avoid repetition, and keep every design unique. My clients realize this, and art has more value than a wood box.

Where does CAD come in?

I use Google SketchUp to prepare renderings for clients, and for shop drawings. I build in SketchUp before a project gets built in the shop. I don’t draw boxes and shapes; instead I draw pieces of wood, to scale, and join them in the proper manner. It can be very time-consuming, but I start with a blank page, and have complete creative control. This is not production software, to export to CNC; it's creative. I draw drawer slides, stack DVDs in drawers, mount TVs on brackets, everything. There is a huge SketchUp library, so I can import monitors, laptops, refrigerators, etc.

When I send a job into the shop, the SketchUp file goes on the shop computer, and my carpenters measure from this file. If a new job comes in as a CAD drawing, I usually redraw it in SketchUp so my guys can see what they are building.

Exported SketchUp files look like cartoons, so I use Photoshop to neutralize or grayscale renderings [that will be shown to clients and architects]. I lower the saturation, adjust the contrast, and reshape the perspective. I [prepare] line drawings with dimensions on a page, with a title bar, company info, and drawing details, as well as a rendered version.


How do renderings help?

I detail everything in photo-like images that clients can understand. Without this, they could not give me qualified suggestions. I have sent files to picky clients, who can download SketchUp for free and “walk around” their woodwork to verify it is exactly what they intended. I am currently finishing a condo millwork package where the client said, “Your drawings are the first time I’ve had any idea what I am buying.”

Do you plan to make use of any additional software in the future?

I have a carpenter in architecture school, and he has mentioned some features of Autodesk Revit that interest me. He drew a king-size bed, and can quickly export that to the shop as a twin, queen, etc., either by adjusting the scale, or adding additional spindles (for example, to elongate the headboard). When he scales in Revit, the components scale appropriately; e.g., 3/4" plywood stays 3/4". I seldom scale in SketchUp, as I can't lock my components to stay at the same thickness while I make them longer.

Currently, your shop avoids automation and mass production, as you believe they will detract from the custom nature of your work. Do you intend to work with CNC machinery in the future?

I recently bought a CNC machine — that is yet to be installed — to create curved forms I can mold around, shop fixtures, etc. I want the machine to expedite the production of internal workings and structures, but I want [the surface] that clients see to have spent time in the hands of someone who cared about making it. That is a special quality of my furniture.

Home office built from 32 panels of architectural-grade sapele mahogany over brushed stainless steel. Image courtesy of Trimline Custom Designs.

Do you bring your experiences with shop projects into the classroom?

Trimline is all about substrates and veneers, yet I teach hardwood furniture techniques. This seems to be a great recipe: My students understand the beauty of wood, but also realize, for example, that medium-density fiberboard doesn’t move, and is dead flat. The students also know that a shop fixture cannot be built out of wood and be expected to stay true. Although most students continue to build with solid wood, they understand more, and are better furniture makers.

Next semester I will step out of the woodshop for the first time and into the computer lab to teach SketchUp. I occasionally render a project for a student, or use SketchUp to show difficult joinery that is too difficult to explain with hand drawings, and have attracted enough interest to run a class teaching it. I am very excited to see students’ projects get better by building in SketchUp before they start cutting wood.

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