Sam Unruh doesn’t like rules, and prefers to live a life of his own making. But when he hatched the Unruh Furniture brand out of the confines of his garage, he envisioned a product rooted in tradition.
“It’s hard to find handmade furniture anymore,” he says. “I wanted to change that.”
Unruh, known by employees for his whimsical leadership style and business wonk, sits at a sleek walnut desk, built on legs made from tree trunks. A soft light slants onto the floor of his office, which is housed in a hundred-year-old stone church. On his desk is a picture of his twin daughters, elbows-deep in birthday cake.
Unruh remembers his own childhood well.
“I was the known troublemaker of the family,” he says with an easy grin. But his cherished childhood memories all revolve around the dinner table where he and his five siblings would gather to bond with each other.
“Growing up, the table is where my family came together,” he said. “We didn’t just share meals there. It was a place to say the hard thing, communicate real feelings, and to laugh until we cried.”
Unruh was a new dad when he started to imagine a novel furniture company, designed to make prized pieces. Each item would evoke nostalgia, paving the way for fond memories in the next generation of defiant boys and girls.
He knew what he wanted. The furniture had to be customized for each family. It would be made locally by a team of craftsmen and women with the same reverence for the product, and would value making one heirloom piece after the other the way he did. The crazy part? To create the brand he had in mind, the furniture would be guaranteed for life.
His wife Hayley insisted Unruh was onto something.
“It was a risk, but I knew she was right. It was what I wanted, but until that moment I didn’t have the courage to pull it off. Her great ideas haven’t stopped since we opened the doors.”
The dream of preserving legacy didn’t stop with furniture. When Unruh spotted the abandoned stone church in Kansas City’s Midtown, its castle-like structure captured his imagination. He went to town meetings for a year, insisting he intended to use the building to preserve its heritage and lore.
“People thought I was crazy.” Unruh unfolds his arms revealing the logo on the company T-shirt he’s wearing. The shirt tips visitors on how to correctly pronounce the company name. “It’s pronounced UN-roo,” the design instructs.
Unruh utilized the church’s features to highlight its original structure as well as his vision for his own product. A walkway starts with a staircase and leads past the sanctuary, giving visitors the opportunity to pause and admire the space. Twenty-four sections of stained glass windows wrap around the area now used to apply finish to furniture pieces. The dated sheetrock has been removed, allowing visitors to appreciate the raw wood and rustic beams, and the ceiling reaches 60 feet high from the original floor to the top of its dome.
The showroom winds playfully around the rest of the work area, where prospective buyers can see makers at work: sawing, building and sanding furniture. The showroom itself is the highlight. It features an arrangement of en vogue furniture pieces coveted by buyers from Kansas, Missouri and as far away as California. One customer arrived from Kentucky to pick up their custom Unruh piece themselves.
Unruh’s opus doesn’t end with the furniture or showroom. Over the last five years, Unruh has given more than 55 tables to moms with a program called Tables For Moms. In the early stages of the company, Unruh was working on a table with former employee Robert Cortez. Cortez told Unruh a childhood story about a gift his mom, a hardworking single parent, received from a neighbor. The gift was a table. It created a sense of place for Cortez, a home for memories and family history. His story sounded familiar to Unruh.
Today, dusty craftsmen and women get together once a month over lunch hour to huddle together to read stories of local moms. From the list of moms who’ve overcome domestic violence, cancer, or taken on foster parenting single-handedly, they select the next family whose children will carve out their family story around one of Unruh’s tables.
To learn more, visit www.unruhfurniture.com.