MP Custom Made business partners and friends, Mike Pendleton and Eric Grimes, are in the line of work of producing rustic and modern furniture – from a basement workshop. Often, basement dwellers can catch a bad rap for being weird and reclusive. While they may consider themselves eccentric weirdos, Pendleton and Grimes are hardworking, optimistic problem solvers.
They know life is too short to hate their jobs, so they don’t. In fact, they show up to work even when they don’t have deadlines. They just love being creative and having access to inherently dangerous power tools – their favorite being the traditional band saw. Striving for a low environmental impact, they source most of the wood from fallen trees in Chicago park districts and use water-based solvent finishes on their products.
My interview was in Bridgeport at the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, known informally as Bubbly Dynamics. Pendleton and Grimes were on their only break of the day – eating local pita bread and chicken shawarma – when we had a conversation about their creative process, woodworking and design business, and how it feels to be recent television stars.
Jen Mosier: When did you move in to your studio at Bubbly Dynamics?
Mike Pendleton: I’d say around 2009. I was a grad student at IIT and my design department put me in touch with Blake, an IIT adjunct assistant professor. They said, “Oh here’s two weirdos”. We hit it off like a house on fire.
JM: How did you find your studio space?
MP: Through Blake I met John Edel, who owns Bubbly Dynamics. He needed help with a light fixture for his vertical farm, and coincidentally I needed a space. John had renovated this warehouse space [referring to Bubbly Dynamics] and he also wanted to create a community that would feed itself.
JM: With a visual arts background, how did woodworking come into the picture?
MP: I worked in an architecture office and built theater props. When I moved here from D.C. in 2000, I started building furniture.
Eric Grimes: Before this I was doing animal husbandry work, IT Support, and then graphic design just before this.
MP: (interrupts) I was desperate…. Not to imply he was terrible.
EG: I was.
MP: I just needed anyone who could hold the end of the board.
JM: What’s the appeal of working with reclaimed wood?
MP: My interest goes way back when I was growing up in houses that were always under renovation. We had to burn boards – knowing they were beautiful – because it was cheaper than paying someone to haul them away. My mother was also a horrible packrat. She stored her decorative molding collection outside and it deteriorated. Now the opportunity to buy it and use it as a product is here.
JM: Do you have a morning routine?
MP: I’m very habit oriented.
EG: He’s definitely got a routine.
MP: I go in, turn on all the lights, start the coffee and walk around the entire place. I know it’s a little silly. I’ve been going so long without my own space that I just like to go and look at everything.
EG: I have no routine. I get up and go. Sometimes I’ll get to work at 5 a.m. or 10 a.m., but always after a pit-shop to the local gas station for caffeine.
JM: Is it difficult to work in the basement when you’re working with larger slabs of wood?
MP: We are physically limited by the size of the elevator. I have the dimensions memorized because those are the hard facts. I’d trade it for better doors and taller ceilings, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
EG: Aside from that, it’s great working in a basement because we have temperature control in a building that is not heated or cooled.
MP: Come summer, when everyone is miserable and roasting, we are just mildly warm.
EG: We can also make all the noise we want without neighbors complaining because our workshop, is the entire basement level. It’s just us.
JM: What was it like to be on DIY network’s Kitchen Crashers?
EG: That was our first television experience but it aired second. It was more annoying dealing with the crew instead of realizing we were going to be on TV. We were relatively close to O’Hare and there were airplanes going over constantly…Ok wait for an airplane..(he makes a quick clock-ticking noise, and acts out their experience)…Ok go. Oh! Wait for an airplane.
MP: (Taking a bite of Mediterranean take-out) Yup.
EG: Wait for an airplane…
MP: MmHmm (chewing and nodding).
EG: Ok go….Nope. Too Slow. Thankfully, I fit my lines in between planes.
MP: But they didn’t end up using anything I said, probably because a plane was flying over.
JM: What’s one of your current creative outlets?
EG: We created Monster Boxes, which are hinged boxes with eyes and teeth, all made from recycled wood. When the box opens, you see the hidden interior teeth. This was just an experiment project to use some scraps but people seem to love them.
JM: Where did you get the idea for those personality-filled Monster Boxes?
MP: We were chasing each other around with standard hinged boxes, ones we were already making for clients, and the idea hit us. We yelled, Teeth! This needs teeth.
JM: In the growing Bridgeport arts community, how does your business fit in?
EG: I think we are growing at our own rate, and its just coincidence everything is growing as well.
MP: We are incredibly fortunate to be here. Before Bubbly, I was working in someone’s living room and there was no community. Bubbly is made up of a group of people, running creative businesses, with most of them in the small-scale manufacturing category. I recognize the value of coincidence, but even if we moved around the corner to 35th and Morgan, it wouldn’t be the same experience.
JM: Will you be part of the Bridgeport Art Walk on October 19?
MP: Yes. The reality is, with Bridgeport getting more attention, all we have to do is just show-up, put balloons on the door and sweep. And how awesome is that for lazy people who don’t like to socialize and spend most of the week in a basement?
EG: Yup. We are the trolls in the dungeon.
Interviewer and Writer Jen Mosier