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May 26, 2016

Here's how a Seattle company got into the business of making $2M custom staircases

  • Ninety percent of Gauge Design Group's work is in homes that cost over $10 million.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Photo by Michael Walmsley [enlarge]
    Gauge designed this white oak circular staircase with black enameled hand-carved handrail.

    In the late 1970s, Shawn Christman hauled his tool belt, Sears hand-operated miter saw and Craftsman drill in a beat up Ford to build stairs for houses.

    He developed a following in a field that was ripe for custom design and craftsmanship. In 1978, he founded Seattle Stair & Design, which has gone on to create staircases in homes of the wealthy and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. It also has fashioned staircases for commercial projects, including the Barneys New York showroom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle.

    “We sort of created the market,” Christman said.

    The firm has a new name and new owners. This month it became Gauge Design Group. It is owned by Matthew Dekker and his father David Dekker.

    The 16-person Gauge works with homeowners, architects, interior designers and general contractors. It has a 10,000-square-foot shop and a showroom at 3810 Fourth Ave. S. in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood.

    In 2014, Seattle Stair bought Thatcher Woodworks, a Seattle cabinet shop owned by Mike Zuber, who had collaborated with the firm.

    That gave it Zuber's experience and the cabinet-making machinery it needs to sell more interior packages, which can include custom cabinetry, metal work such as cladding and mantels, and custom furniture.

    Buying the whole package benefits clients, said Matthew Dekker, the firm's principal and CEO, because the items are made in one shop and can be integrated the way the architects intended.

    To broaden its customer base, Gauge also is working on a modern-style furniture line it expects to start selling in early 2017, and it wants to produce more high-end furniture designed by others at its shop.

    Photo by Michael Lane [enlarge]
    This home has a bleached walnut and blackened steel staircase with steel ribbon artwork.

    The firm works mostly on the West Coast and in the Hawaiian Islands and is trying to break into the California market. In the islands, it works primarily on Maui, where it is considering opening a small shop, Matthew said. “We have joked that what we need is a very large boat,” he said.

    Ninety percent of Gauge's work is residential, primarily for $10 million and up houses. It also does work for corporate headquarters, hotels and department stores.

    The privately held firm projects $2 million to $3 million in revenue this year, and $4 million to $5 million in 2017. “Business has always been good,” Matthew said. “The wealthy never stopped building homes.”

    Gauge Design Group has about 10 projects underway ranging from $12,000 to $400,000. Customers pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a piece of custom furniture or custom metal or wood handrail. Kitchen cabinets go for $20,000 to $70,000.

    Matthew said great service is driving business. “Our goal at the end of the project is for the client to love what we built for them but maybe be a little sad that the process is over,” he said.

    The Dekkers bought a controlling interest and became partners in Seattle Stair in 2013. In 2015, they bought out Christman. The terms were not released.

    The Dekkers found the business through a broker. Matthew was a general contractor on high-rise condos in Chicago and wanted a change. David was a retired CFO of a finance firm and wanted an investment that could use his financial background, but where he could work part-time. He is chairman of the board and key adviser for Gauge.

    Christman still works at Gauge. His business card reads mentor, designer, pilot.

    While the firm was Seattle Stair, he brought aboard the Compagnon du Devoir, a guild of woodworkers and others who built the great cathedrals and chateaux of France. These woodworkers are at Gauge for 12 to 18 months at a time, designing and building staircases.

    In that tradition, Gauge uses furniture grade joinery for its stairs. That includes a series of stairs it built for one house that cost $2 million.

    When Christman was a subcontractor in the 70s, framers were essentially designing and building most stairs in houses, as architectural designs generally don't detail how they are to be built, he said.

    “When I asked them who's doing your stairs the contractors would run off their ladder because they didn't know who was doing it,” he said. “So I had an easy time breaking into the market.”

    A typical spec house in Bellevue still has a framed staircase, he said, “but for clients who appreciate good architecture and good design this becomes important to them. That might be a $25,000 staircase or it might be a $250,000 staircase.”

    Materials have moved way beyond wood in the last 15 years, Christman said. There's more transparency and more drama.

    For example, he said, the 13,000-pound steel, glass and wood staircase Gauge built for Barneys New York showroom looks like it is levitating, encouraging shoppers to check out the second floor, something they don't typically do. “You have to walk up it or walk around it and it sort of draws you in,” he said.

    Christman said he likes the Dekkers' big plans for Gauge.

    “I decided Matt represented fresh energy and that likely this company would still be ticking when I leave the planet,” he said. “If I wasn't having fun, I wouldn't be here.”

    Of course now he flies a Piper Jetprop to meet clients in the West. The old Ford was sold long ago.


    Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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