CHICAGO -- When Steve Koch moved to Chicago after graduating from the University of Nebraska's design school, he had little more to his name than a résumé, a roll of quarters and a dream of running his own family business. He dove headfirst into the city's bustling, albeit exclusive industry of furniture design and craftsmanship. Luckily for Koch, he also crossed paths with a wealthy philanthropist who was inspired by his work.
Their friendship developed into a partnership that allowed Koch to build his company his way. Now a nationally recognized high-end design firm, one of the few with a team of artisans and specialists who handcraft their pieces, Tru Furniture represents a true Chicago success story. And Koch is working side by side with his son.
How did you get started in this business? How long have you been making furniture?
I've been in the business now for about 26 years. For 21 years we've been on our own. We got started thanks to the most wonderful, wonderful person, a philanthropist who prefers we not name her, but who's a landmark herself as a Chicagoan. We were working on her home up in Winnetka, and just in passing she said, "If I could ever help you out someday, it's been a pleasure working with you. Let's get together, and I can help you out." And you know, being 27 years old at the time, I said, "OK, thanks," and went on my way.
A couple of months after that, a light bulb went off over my head, and I thought I'd see if she remembered who I was and maybe take her up on her offer. So we made some prototypes, brought them over. We drove up to Winnetka in a van that had one window knocked out and no hubcaps. We were the epitome of a real start-up. We had absolutely no money at all. So we approached her; she liked our enthusiasm and loved the product that we had. She backed us 100 percent, with every penny that it took to get us going. So we had to learn how to run a business right from the start, hit the ground running, and she's the one that gave us our start. Everything from there was built upon that.
So after those three start-up years, how did the company grow?
In our experience, it seems like there's always one or two people who make a real huge difference. In addition to our donor, we were also really lucky for John Riccitiello and his wife. He had just moved to Chicago. At the time he was the youngest CEO of Wilson [Sporting Goods]. We were just getting by, and they came in the door and had us do their entire apartment up on Cedar Street. It was a wonderful place, and it gave us an opportunity to design about 15 to 20 pieces. That was probably one of the largest jobs we had at the time. That started putting us on the map. And after that project, we kind of never looked back. It just kept on growing from there.
We always ran our company with the attitude that we wanted to do such a nice job for our clients and have everything be so perfect and wonderful for them that they'd be more than happy to pass our name along to their friends. And if we can't help someone, we're always more than happy to help connect them with someone who can, which is easy in Chicago. I think one of the things that isn't known is that Chicago is probably one of the best places in the country where furniture is manufactured, and some of the best furniture in the entire country is all made here.
Where can people see your work in place?
Well, in Chicago, most of our work is in residences. We have products inside some of the hotels where we've done some lobby work. We did the spa at the Fairmont Hotel. But in Chicago we're really known for our custom work, working directly with architects, clients and designers. That's something that's really exciting about our business. It's not so much the really large projects that you would think, like the hotels, that are the interesting ones. It's really the executive homes and some of the residences that you get to walk into that are unbelievably beautiful.
To see our more notable projects ... well, if you're ever invited to the private owners level at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, we did all the work for Jerry Jones' wife. And the Playboy Casino in Las Vegas, we fabricated all the pieces there and the restaurant below it, Nove. That was probably my favorite project because there were a lot of things that were out of the ordinary. You know, seven-foot-tall wingback sofas, unusual fabrics like zebra, and a lot of alligator and rattlesnake. We also do a lot of work for Hyatt across the country, so there's a lot of lobby work that you can see.
Why is your business based in Chicago? Was it incidental, or did the industry draw you here?
I first came to Chicago shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska with a roll of quarters in my pocket and started making phone calls trying to kick off my career. My wife, Mary, and I had a young son, Drew, and Mary wanted to move closer to her family near here. So, with Chicago being the biggest city around, we decided this was the place to come to. All I had starting out was a résumé, a small portfolio of the work I'd done two years before that and a $25 roll of quarters, and [I] just started cold-calling designers, offering to work for them and asking them to take me on as an apprentice.
I feel lucky that I landed here. Chicago is interesting for designers, specifically furniture designers, because I think it's a well-kept secret what happens here. I don't think anybody realizes how much is really made here. The building that we're in right now houses different manufacturers and woodworkers. ... The shop that we use is about 65,000 square feet right now, which has grown during the downturn in the economy, which is just amazing.
What's your team like?
It's all old-school, start to finish. It's hand-tied springs. The frames are all cut by hand from handmade templates. It's great that a lot of the guys come into our shop young, without experience in the business before, and we're actually able to train them on what we consider to be the perfect way to fabricate a piece of furniture. Our manufacturing end is headed up by one of my best friends, Anees Jaber. Much like me, he kind of left his previous job with little more than a compressor and sawhorse and the same dream that we all had. Every person in the shop is like family. We know them all by name, and we have a great relationship.
What's your relationship like with your donor now? Does she still have a hand in the business?
After about four years of working together, she kind of sent us on our way. We had a great working relationship together -- we still do. She knew that she played an integral part in getting us up and going, and it came to a point where she was like, "All right, you boys are on your own." It was kind of like leaving the nest.
The help we got from her, there was no way to measure how you could pay it back. I mean, financially we paid her back, but mentally, how can you pay somebody back for giving you a chance at something that was your dream? It's not too often that you get to fulfill something like that. There's nothing I could ever do or say or make, anything, that could pay her back for what she did for us. We've done some work for her since; we built and donated all the furniture in the headquarters of a charity she was actively involved in. She has so much going on that I'm sure in the big picture, in the big scope of her world, it was surely just one of many kind gestures. To me, it seems like the biggest thing that's ever happened to me. It's a relationship that's hard to describe. When someone gives you a dream ... it's hard to describe.