Going With the Grain: John Smith

He left a good corporate career to make furniture—and build a different life.

By: Gretchen Cook

Why leave a high-flying career to start a business in a field you know nothing about?

“You have to be consumed by what you do,” says John Smith, who three years ago left his post as a vice president at Nextel to make furniture.

Smith, 42, owner of Willem Smith, has a hand in every aspect of the wood furniture he produces, from sketching ideas with his designer to overseeing production in three countries. Although he denies he’s a detail freak, Smith frets over how quietly a box closes or how a chair feels as it is pushed into the table.

The Great Falls father of four decided to leave Nextel when a family illness convinced him he needed to be home more and self-employed. He knew little about furniture except that he loved its beauty. Experience had taught him that those happiest in their work were creating something tangible that connected with people.

“There’s something about having someone buy one of my pieces that will be so central to their lives,” he says, imagining family dinners at one of his tables.

There’s nothing sentimental about his approach. Smith focus-groups everything from armrest heights to the company’s name (Willem is his own middle name). His pieces are an unusual blend of contemporary lines and classic styles, and the richly finished exotic woods are stunning.

Last year, orders from around the world allowed Smith to move his line into the Jayson 15 showroom in the Washington Design Center. But Smith’s rewards aren’t measured by sales figures alone. When a customer stops to admire a piece, Smith glows. “It’s really just great to watch reactions,” he whispers.