Architect’s furniture sideline draws on DIY skill and family ties
Josh Bender and his brother Matt, the founders of Blackhall Woodworks, a St. Louis startup that designs and builds sleek, sturdy, solid-wood furniture, didn’t always get along as kids. But after college they realized they had a lot in common.
Both work in creative fields—Josh, a’09, at an architecture firm, and Matt at an ad agency. And both are dedicated do-it-yourselfers.
After graduating at the height of the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce, Josh Bender drew on his experience in KU’s Studio 804 design-build class to work construction for more than a year before landing a job with M+H Architects.
“I started building things for myself here and there and slowly rehabbing my house,” Bender says. His brother was doing the same, and making furniture—a bed frame, a baby crib, a dining table—for his growing family.
By then, childhood scraps had given way to weekly get-togethers.
“We decided, why don’t we actually do something while we’re hanging out,” Bender says. “We’re always thinking about designs on our own; why not actually build some of this stuff and see if anyone wants to buy it?”
Plenty did. When Blackhall Woodworks (named for the St. Louis street they grew up on) launched, in 2017, the Benders made their first sales within a couple of weeks. Growth has been steady ever since. They’ve at least doubled sales and revenue annually, and by this October sales on their website, blackhallwoodworks.com, were already five times their first-year total. The brothers also market their handmade pieces on Etsy and at pop-up markets around St. Louis.
Blackhall favors local wood and clear, natural stains that bring out the beauty of the grain without changing the wood’s color. Their look is influenced by Danish Modern and Mid-Century Modern design.
“Minimalist, clean lines, not a lot of fluff,” Bender describes their aesthetic. “Especially at the scale we’re working at, not having anything that’s frivolous in the design, I think, is strong.”
Despite working in design professions, the brothers find their DIY approach to furniture-making—they make every piece themselves in a 120-square-foot woodshop in Matt’s basement—is fulfilling in ways their day jobs aren’t. Being your own boss is nice. So is having the final say on what the finished product looks like. And there’s the satisfaction of breaking away from the desk to work with your hands and breathe a little sawdust.
“We each have jobs where we’re in front of a computer all day,” Josh says, “and having something on the side where we get to work with our hands is something we both have a passion for.”