Hays, a self-described hillbilly from rural Oregon, is now the successful owner of a high end design firm with a cult following. The story of his journey was recently published in the Wall Street Journal. Below is an excerpt about how BDDW furniture began.
Hays grew up in Joseph, Oregon, a tiny town named for Chief Joseph, leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe. According to family lore, his great-great-great grandfather was the first non–Native American born in the town. Hays grew up trapping mink and muskrat, “shooting anything that moved, out of boredom,” he says. (He remembers a disaffected teenage version of himself skinning a raccoon while wearing eyeliner and listening to Echo & the Bunnymen.) His father was a sign maker, and his mother ran a doughnut shop in town. He recalls feeling so starved for visual stimulation that he would ask friends to bring him magazines from Portland so that he could cut out Giorgio Armani ads and paste them on his bedroom walls. And yet there was a sense of the power of handiwork in the Hays home: His mother bought antiques at yard sales and refinished them; he received a sewing machine as a present from his grandmother when he was 5 and made much of the clothing he wore through adolescence.
But he was an unhappy kid, “suicidal,” he says. He ran away from home at 17 and soon found himself playing in rock bands in Eugene’s burgeoning grunge scene. “I didn’t know Europe existed when I went to college,” he recalls. Girlfriends at the University of Oregon laughed at him for not having heard of any great or famous people. “I missed out on all the cultural references.”
It wasn’t until his senior year of college that Hays discovered fine arts. He took a painting class and was so successful that he ended up with a scholarship and, not long afterward, a gallery in Portland. “I was like a little art star,” he remembers, selling close to $30,000 in paintings his senior year of college. “My professors hated me.”
In 1994, Hays moved to New York, settling into a vast, caved-in Greenpoint warehouse with no heat or water. When a college friend started apprenticing for an architect, Hays got jobs working as their handyman. “I grew up making stuff, so I just started figuring things out. I’d fix your tile, whatever. I became a plumber and an electrician because I had to make the Greenpoint loft livable.”
By the time he turned into a general contractor, in the late 1990s, Hays could afford to install a little wood shop in the loft. At the end of a project, he would build a small piece of furniture as a parting gift—a square block for an end table, a simple shelf to hang on a wall. On his invoices, he drew a cartoon of the Greenpoint building’s brick smoke stack, which appeared to have the letters BDDW painted down the side. (In fact, Hays had misread EDDW, the insignia of the building’s original occupant, Eastern District Dye Works.)
“We used wood because it was cheap and we had a table saw, and we did minimalism just because it was easier,” says Hays. “At the time, there was all this Michael Graves postmodern stuff, so it felt fresh to have a piece of raw wood that was solid and square and thick. Calvin Klein Home was the coolest place in town, but you’d flip over the furniture and find a ‘Made in the Philippines’ tag on top of 10 coats of black lacquer. I liked the idea of being the guy who actually made the thing.”