From functioning as a major port on Lake Erie to a producer of steel through the mid-twentieth century, Buffalo, New York is a city that was built on industry. The city’s downtown is filled with towering grain silos and wide-windowed factories, its residential neighborhoods with early historic mansions that once acted as homes for manufacturing tycoons. When outsourcing and globalization forced business out of the region, Buffalo suffered a fate that befell other Rust Belt towns—swift population loss, infrastructure degradation, and a seriously bruised economy. Although the massive manufacturing economy that once supported Buffalo is gone, industry remains the city’s lifeblood, and the reason for its twenty-first century resurgence.
Buffalo is now undergoing something of a renaissance, guided at the helm by a growing population of creatives, entrepreneurs, and makers. One such maker is Sean Wrafter, a Western New Yorker whose skill with woodworking led him to found Wrafterbuilt, a design and build company that has become a fixture in the city. It’s fitting that so much of Wrafter’s work is crafted from salvaged and reclaimed materials. It is the narrative of reclamation that has defined not just Buffalo, but Wrafter’s own life and work. His studio is housed in a re-purposed warehouse space on the city’s East Side, an area that has witnessed some of the area’s most destructive losses. Wrafter also recently opened up a shop, co-owned by fellow maker Andrew Emerson, on the city’s up-and-coming Hertel Avenue. We recently paid a visit to Wrafter’s studio and shop to see this prolific mover-and-shaker in action. Check out the photos below + shop Wrafterbuilt at west elm Rochester or wrafterbuilt.com!
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
My name is Sean Wrafter. I own Wrafterbuilt Furniture. We are a retail furniture and home goods store that offers custom design and build service to both residential and commercial clients. I started my business by making table tops in my basement for my friends but things have grown so rapidly that in the last three years, we have been involved in the design and build of about a dozen restaurants, plus several commercial office and retail spaces.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
15 years ago, the idea of being able to locally produce goods in America was a laughable idea. Today, it makes total sense for everyone involved. The important thing is to be able to reach out to people who understand the value in what we do and make it make sense financially. I produce pieces that have a competitive price tag, comparative to a national brand. If I can’t keep the cost manageable, I don’t make it. People will shop locally for a little while out of a sense of loyalty but if you offer a competitive price then it actually makes sense for them to come back.
Tell us about your studio space.
Buffalo has a ton of empty warehouse space. I work out of a 60,000-square-foot building that used to be a bakery. I am sure that several hundred people a day worked here. Now, on an average day, there are between 6 and 10 people in the entire building. It is actually pretty amazing and I am really spoiled. The warehouse is located in a neighborhood that many people would be afraid to go into but the truth is that it’s actually just really quiet.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
When you own a small business, you wear a lot of hats. I spend a lot of time in my shop right now producing work for clients. I balance that with sales, marketing and promotions, and design time. On any given day I might be going through a collapsing building with a chainsaw in the morning and meeting with a group of architects in the afternoon, then spend the evening doing home visits with clients to discuss their projects. In between, I have to find some time to mill lumber so that I can keep producing work. It is certainly never boring!
Where do you seek inspiration?
People that inspire me are people who are interested in everything and not afraid to try anything. People who make things and do things with their hands. Chefs, barbers and hairdressers, tattooers, mechanics. These are people who make a living being skilled at trades that everyone needs access to, but have somehow become less important than a degree that doesn’t get you a job.
People who are well-rounded and have life experience. People who are not afraid to step outside of their comfort zone. I am more impressed with someone with no building background that somehow figures out how to put together a simple piece of furniture than I am with a really experienced woodworker who uses a lot of fancy joinery and expensive machinery.
Why do you love Buffalo?
Buffalo has been through so much in the past sixty years in terms of economic loss that it is actually staggering to think about. We were once a city of a million people that now holds less than 300K. What I love about Buffalo is the resilience of the people. The artists, entrepreneurs, and visionaries that didn’t give up and decided to use what we were given to keep creating. Buffalo is in a renaissance right now and its all because a few people didn’t give up and just kept making and creating and seeing promise where everyone else only saw failure. The best part is that everyone supports and inspires each other. We really lift each other up and it is special in a way that I have never seen or experienced in my 36 years.
Wrafterbuilt is located at 1376 Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, NY.