Watson makes award-winning furniture

What business with ties to Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo recently won a handful of awards for its innovative furniture?

It’s elementary, my dear — Watson.

Watson Furniture launched Haven, a collection of social tables and tools designed for collaboration, at NeoCon in Chicago. Haven won four Gold Awards, and when Watson’s C9 Trolley storage solution also took Gold that broke a 31-year record in the history of the award.

The Haven line won for communal tables, benches, conference rooms and collections for collaboration. NeoCon is the leading trade show for commercial furniture design.

Watson designs and manufactures office furniture in Poulsbo, after getting its start on BI in the 1960s. About 25 years later, cabinet maker and metalworker Grahame Watson handed the business over to Bill Haggerty, Daniel Warn and CEO Clif McKenzie, who runs the business, which employs about 185 local people. About 65 work in the office and 120 in the factory. It also uses local raw materials, but that’s getting harder to do because the supply chain has diminished due to COVID-19.

“The pandemic has made it extremely challenging,” said Joe McKenzie, son of the CEO.

Unlike most of their competitors, Watson takes design conceptions and raw materials into finished product entirely under one roof at their manufacturing facility and headquarters. Watson also has a studio in Seattle, but most of their customers come from their online virtual showroom.

The idea behind Haven is it is adaptable, transforming the workplace into a social haven for people and ideas to thrive. Haven is designed for multiple work modes and settings to fit the needs of many users and purposes. Circular shapes encourage inclusivity and group decision-making.

BI designer

Ethan Pearl of Bainbridge Island is the lead industrial designer. He did not design the Haven line, but he has won awards for his designs, too. His passion is for design that treads lightly upon the Earth.

Watson practices “practical environmentalism,” its website says, “We use the cleanest ingredients we can get our hands on – stuff that’s recycled or recyclable; stuff that doesn’t off-gas toxins; stuff that lasts.”

Its wood is 92% recycled, steel is 100% recyclable and its privacy screens are 100% recycled polyester fabric made from reclaimed plastic bottles.

“Each stage of our process is designed to maximize our ability to reduce, reuse and recycle…We reclaim and repurpose powder, sawdust and water,” the website says.

Their website says Pearl is in charge of “bringing ideas to life, whether that is through sketching, computer modeling or handcrafting physical prototypes.” His career at Watson started as a summer college intern helping with a variety of tasks, including as the self-appointed “VP of Cardboard Engineering,” due to his many cardboard prototypes.

“With advances in technology, manufacturing is getting easier and easier. If we are not careful, this ease to produce will result in an exponential increase in useless things. In products that clutter our lives and waste our resources. However, good design offers another path. By being thoughtful and intentional we can design products that help us live better with less….” he says in a quote on their website.

Owner’s son

Joe McKenzie, a son of the owner who has worked there since he was 13 and has done about every job, said the product development team looks at the big picture. “What’s happening in the world…They tailor the furniture to fit their needs.”

Walking through their offices and the factory, the first thing you notice is how spacious and clean everything is. That’s by design. “Being super close to people is not the best for you,” he said.

Describing one of the award-winning benches, McKenzie explains how there is a small divider in the middle so two people will feel comfortable using it. There is also a place for a USB. There’s a footrest and a place to hang a coat. On another piece of furniture, there are lockers with a place for recycling bins in the middle and a spot for plants above that.

McKenzie explained how a study shows that when people are in squares they are individualistic, but when the furniture is curved they become more collaborative. With squares, businesses try to cram in as many people as they can. Workers get the feeling someone is looking over their shoulder, he said.

But when furniture height can be adjusted, moved around easily and work areas bend coworkers actually are comfortable talking and won’t seek out a meeting room, which is much more productive, he said.

McKenzie said Watson makes custom furniture and can have a prototype up in one day. Most of its customers are in the United States and Canada.

He said during COVID they expanded their factory so workers “aren’t on top of each other.” He said 86% of their employees have been vaccinated.

McKenzie said they pay well and treat their workers well so many stay a long time. “That way we get the talent we want.” They also have monthly barbecues, bonuses, annual Bravo Night, espresso bar, campus walking trail, gym and showers, plus regular benefits of a successful company. But like everyone else now they have job openings – 16.

He said they are one of only a few furniture businesses dealing with both wood and steel, and able to turn raw materials into the finished product. “We don’t have a warehouse filled with the finished stuff,” he said, adding everything is made to order and shipped out.

He said they are very efficient. A welder can do 10 different welds in a day, he said.

Despite all of the fancy equipment, McKenzie said some of the work is still done by hand. “They are people working their trade. They are craftsmen.”