A Cross-Genre Design Studio in Nashville Finds Its Niche—By Building It From Scratch

 In Interviews, Style

In an era obsessed with elevator pitches, it’s rare to stumble across a company that resists categorization—and rarer still to find one that does so as gracefully as Nashville design studio Oil/Lumber.

But as a furniture company that also makes clothes, or a clothing company that also makes furniture (both viewpoints are equally valid), O/L is uncommonly comfortable living in the grey space between industries—due in part to founder Ethan Summers’ undeniable polymath tendencies. “My entire life, I’ve always made stuff,” he says. “Taking pottery classes, painting … I was the kid trying to win those colored-pencil drawing contests.”

With age, the itch to explore every creative—and entrepreneurial—avenue only increased: “In college, I was giving haircuts in the dorm and ended up starting a small business as the ‘dorm barber guy.’ I literally remember writing down matrixes with circles—’What do I like to do? What could I make a business out of?'” he recalls.

A Cross-Genre Design Studio in Nashville Finds Its Niche—By Building It From Scratch

It’s not so surprising, then, that this approach landed Summers at the center of a genre-defying design studio that combines two crafts not often paired together. Even the brand’s name contains a bit of a red herring. “Originally, ‘OIL’ was actually for bikes—I did a lot of work with vintage motorcycles,” he says. “I designed custom motorcycles and repaired-slash-modified them. So a customer would bring in a vintage Honda or BMW or something, and I would try to make it their dream—I would cut it up, weld it and fabricate the rear end, upholster the seat and basically make the bike look really cool. And the ‘Lumber’ side was furniture. Those are the two things I liked doing.”

Over time, the motorcycle element faded from view but was quickly replaced by another of Summers’ obsessions: fashion. “We were doing furniture more and more, and I wanted to make T-shirts for our company. So I designed a T-shirt, then a sweatshirt, then a hat. The plan was to have somebody else make all of it—we were going to build a prototype, make a tech pack and take it to a factory,” he says. But the factories’ minimum orders were sized for fashion retail, not a one-off project or two. “So out of necessity, I started to look for vintage sewing machines. I thought, ‘Let’s just find one.’ I can sew—my mom taught me how—and I’m not afraid to try new things,” Summers says.

Soon, the Oil/Lumber name became an umbrella under which Summers’ sleek brand of contemporary furniture and Japanese-tinged workwear could coexist. “For the longest time, I was separating clothes and furniture because they didn’t really make sense to me [together]. But I was talking to a friend who said, ‘You’re just an artist; those are your two mediums. I like to do watercolor and ceramics; you like to do clothing and furniture.’ So when that happened, I started to bridge the gap. I started to upholster things with the same materials we would [use for] the jackets. Some of our sofas are made of the same hemp-cotton that we make our Japanese coats out of, and vice versa. So whenever I approach a textile or material, I try to use that on both sides of the project.”

A Cross-Genre Design Studio in Nashville Finds Its Niche—By Building It From Scratch

Both endeavors are also united by a significant debt to Summers’ dualistic upbringing. “My dad is from Chicago and my mom is a first-generation Japanese farmer who grew up in Utah,” he says. “My Japanese lineage is very strong—a lot of my inspiration comes from my heritage—and the workwear [influence] is from my dad’s side. My grandfather was a car mechanic in Chicago, so when I see pictures [of him], I try to pull from that.”

It’s an unlikely marriage of elements—especially when you factor in the tight-knit Nashville creative community which has definitely left a mark on the brand’s aesthetic as well—but one that allows for surprising moments of cross-cultural connection. “A lot of our furnishings are built out of oak, which is a traditional Japanese wood that is very prevalent in Japanese furniture. And what’s crazy is, in Tennessee, there are 17 types of oak. It’s this weird correlation.”

Still, these moments of serendipity aren’t something Summers takes for granted. “If you were to ask me five years ago if designing Japanese coats in Nashville would work, I would’ve called you crazy,” he says.

A Cross-Genre Design Studio in Nashville Finds Its Niche—By Building It From Scratch

But being based in Nashville has given Oil/Lumber a chance to flourish that Summers admits it might not have had in other cities. “When I graduated, it seemed like, if I wanted to get into design, [I would have to] move to New York or LA or even Austin or overseas to Europe. But [Nashville] is my second home now. I ended up realizing that this is the best place for us to gain recognition and grow as fast as we could, because there’s very little competition,” he explains.

And the Nashville community has been good to Summers, so he’s quick to return the favor. “In our warehouse right now, we have 4,000 square feet for our furniture and clothing design, and next to me is a lighting designer, and then we have a screen printer on the other end, and a wallpaper designer. … There are literally 15 businesses in the same space, and we’re all friends. That’s our community in action. This building is like a beacon, and I feel super grateful to be a part of that.”

And since Summers is self-taught both in his furniture designs and apparel, there’s a practical side to fostering that closeness, as well. “We’ve asked a ton of people to share knowledge and help,” he says. “We have a small community of artists here who are so genuine, so I’ve really leaned on them for advice. No one teaches you in business school how to run a clothing brand slash furniture design studio.”

A Cross-Genre Design Studio in Nashville Finds Its Niche—By Building It From Scratch

For all this skill-sharing, Summers certainly isn’t short on know-how. In a single day he may jump from designing a new pair of cargo pants to building an understated oak dining table, then zigzag from sales to machine maintenance (vintage sewing machines, while workhorses, require a bit of care) and finish by scheming up a new cross-genre project for the future—like a cookbook inspired by his family’s cultural-hybrid recipes.

“I’m all over the place—in a good way,” he says. “We cut and sew everything here; we design all the furniture here; all sides of the design process are controlled in-house. Generally, I’d say 99 percent of the projects are done [in the studio] from start to finish. We do every bit of it, other than plucking the feathers off the ducks to make down,” he jokes.

In short, Summers isn’t one to balk at getting his hands dirty—or dyed blue, for that matter. “I’ll literally go outside and Japanese indigo-dye some of our jackets, like our Haori coat.” Keeping everything under one roof allows him some control—he’s often the one hand-finishing plackets and collars on shirts before sending them out to customers—but he seems more invigorated by the spontaneity it permits. “At night, that’s usually when I come up with new furniture designs. Sometimes I don’t sketch, I’ll just go downstairs and make something. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve designed something that was supposed to be used for another purpose, and looked at it, and changed it into something else.”

With a company history as meandering as the one Summers describes, this might as well be Oil/Lumber’s unofficial slogan.

Images courtesy of Oil/Lumber. 

Recommended Posts
Three St. Louis Artisans on the Rise: Ceramics, Apothecary Goods and IllustrationsIn a New Light: Centro's Fresh Approach to Illumination in Saint Louis