In Greensboro, Sam Rouse Furniture makes clients’ dreams come true
By Jim Dodson • Photograph by John Gessner
Ancient wisdom holds that someone who follows their passion may travel a lonely and challenging road but will find deeper meaning down that road, a tale as old as a guy named Noah.
“In my case, that really seems to be the case,” allows Sam Rouse, 26, a custom furniture maker who specializes in crafting handmade, heirloom quality, one-of-a-kind tables and other pieces for home and office. “My career has really been a blessing and a challenge — one I regard as both a mission and a calling to create beautiful things with my hands.”
It helps that Rouse, 26, was born into a family of highly accomplished commercial builders that stretches back to his great-grandfather’s days, a clan of craftsmen that built everything from office buildings to hospitals around eastern North Carolina and their hometown of Goldsboro.
As a kid, he loved to make things in his father’s garage woodshop, including his own Pinewood Derby car. “I loved to use my grandfather’s hand tools, which made it all the more special,” he explains one afternoon at his workshop in the rented space of a cavernous warehouse just off I-40 at Greensboro’s South Elm Street. “I never knew where this passion might lead me or what form it might take, but I had faith that it would lead somewhere.”
First place it led to was to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Sam met his future wife, Kayla, at an off-campus church gathering during his junior year. Kayla was a nursing student, one year ahead of him, and he was studying business marketing. They dated for a year before getting engaged, and over Christmas break of 2013, Sam went home to make his fiancée a beautiful foyer mirror for her graduation that approaching spring. Kayla found a job working in the neonatal unit at Duke Hospital while Sam finished his degree at Liberty the following year.
“Making that mirror, which was designed with small wooden drawers for an entry hall, was really the spark for me. I fell in love with woodworking and making furniture, and began thinking of ways to make it my business.”
During his senior year, Sam developed a business plan for what he called a “YMCA for craftsmen and woodworkers” — a fully outfitted workspace where craftsmen like himself could rent space and use professional quality machines and tools to work with metal and wood and grow their businesses. “I thought it was an original idea,” he says with a laugh, “and then I learned about a guy up in Philadelphia who had created exactly what I was thinking about. I went up and actually shadowed him, seeing how he put it all together. That was the good news. The bad news was that I would need about half a million dollars in startup funding, which I didn’t have.”
Instead, after he and Kayla were married at Duke Chapel in June of 2014, Sam found a job leasing apartments in Raleigh and started imagining his own one-man furniture shop. “I knew that I needed to have a much deeper understanding and training, so we began looking around at the top woodworking schools.” The one that grabbed his interest was the prestigious International Chippendale School of Furniture, a one-year advanced program, located in the village of Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland. “The way we looked at it,” Sam recalls, “that would give us a chance to live abroad before children came along, the opportunity for me to learn detailed draftsmanship, and for Kayla and me to experience a different culture from our own, a real adventure.”
Not long before they shoved off for Scotland, however, the couple discovered that Kayla was pregnant. “That sort of changed the situation for us,” Sam recalls. “We weren’t sure how to make it work financially, but sometimes you just proceed on faith. Through our church connections we found people over there that we’d never met who opened their homes to us. It was an incredible experience. We were able to live rent-free right up to the point of when our daughter, Lillianna, was born. Kayla found a job at a Bible college and we were able to finish our time living in student housing.”
Their Scottish year, he says, was a life changer and a career maker.
“The country is so beautiful, incredibly soulful — and the families we stayed with through the church couldn’t have been more helpful and generous. We made friendships that we’ll keep for life.”
Maybe more important, the skilled artisan training he received at the renowned school — which accepts fewer than 25 students per year — was intensive and thorough, an Old-World full immersion in the timeless art of making beautiful furniture. “The instructors were fantastic and demanding, some of the best woodworkers in the world,” he recalls. And the ratio of students to tutors was four-to-one. “Everything a student learned to make on machinery, for instance, was first also made by hand. It was called ‘bench time,’ cutting dovetails and mortise and tenon joints by hand. That gives you a real understanding of what goes into creating something that began as a simple piece of wood.”
During three 10-week semesters, each student was required to make a project for the conclusion of each semester. Sam’s first project turned out to be his most ambitious creation — a spectacular wooden cradle for daughter Lillianna, who was born in Scotland in April of 2016. He insulated the cradle with real Scottish sheep’s wool from nearby farms.
Next, he built an elaborate veneered game table with curved edges, and gained an unwelcome perspective in the process. “One morning early, I managed to put a quarter-inch drill bit though the end of my finger,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I wound up getting a close look at the British medical system.” The care both he and Kayla received upon the birth of their daughter has stayed with them in a very positive way.
His third project prior to graduation from the school was a gorgeous lectern engraved with the words “Speak The Truth In Love” made for the local church that housed them for much of their time in country. “It was tough to say goodbye to the people there. It was a wonderful family experience that ended with a pair of great showcases” — one in the stone barn at the school and another at an exhibit hall in Edinburgh.
The couple’s game plan was to return to the States, where Sam would work for a high-end furniture maker for a few years in order to deepen his craft and save money for starting his own firm. “One thing I’ve always known since those days making things in my father’s workshop,” he says, “was that I wanted my own business — one that would let me make unique pieces for customers based on their desires. That’s the fun part of being a woodworker — creating something a customer has envisioned and hired you to bring to life.”
A job with a large Tampa firm awaited, but when a Raleigh interior designer invited him to make a dozen or more custom pieces for a client’s “million-dollar” house in the Triangle, Sam revised his thinking and decided to start his own custom shop. When another friend called wondering if he could make a showroom display for General Electric in Mebane, he decided this was a confirming sign to go it on his own. “I had no shop or startup money — our savings were basically gone — and oh, we had a 3-month-old baby. That’s what brought us to Greensboro.”
He’d heard about a place called The Forge in the rapidly redeveloping downtown section of South Elm Street in Greensboro, an innovative, nonprofit “Makers Space” that provided industrial machinery and tools for budding craftsmen just like Sam. “For $54 a month they provided a space where I could keep my woodworking tools and everything I needed to get started. It’s essentially the woodworking gym I envisioned creating myself when I was back in Scotland.” Through The Forge, he adds, the network of like-minded crafts people proved to be invaluable. Small projects began coming his way — a custom conference table here, a French country-style trestle table there.
He got to work just in time to discover that his “million-dollar” client from Raleigh was a mirage. “The guy wasn’t serious — he even strung along the interior decorator. I learned the hard way about getting a signed contract for a project.”
The next few months were a test of faith. Kayla found work in a local hospital, and Sam got to work making beautiful display units for General Electric. When a friend invited him to participate in a panel discussion on the future of the North Carolina furniture business prior to the spring High Point Market, he jumped at the chance.
That was March of 2017. On the panel was a man named Tom Van Dessel of BuzziSpace, a leading High Point–based manufacturing firm that specializes in high-end workspace and acoustic furniture. Van Dessel invited young Sam Rouse to occupy a display space at the 2017 Spring Market, free of charge.
With the help of his sister, Sally Rouse, a Raleigh-based interior designer, Sam put together a boutique showroom featuring a credenza and tables he’d made for friends and early clients, a headboard and baby Lilliana’s Scottish cradle. “I think there were six pieces in all. Sally made the showcase beautiful, and we met lots of great people who have been helpful to us since. That was a godsend in ways.”
A client from Sedona, Arizona, got in touch to see if Sam could make seven custom hardwood pieces for her living room. “After she described what she wanted, I hand-drew the designs and emailed them to her. She phoned back with her further ideas and I got to work with walnut and ash, creating tables and side tables.”
Since then, several firms across the Triad have hired Sam to make their conference tables. And Smith & Edge, a bar across the street from the Grasshoppers ballpark, hired him to create a spectacular 50-foot bar. In addition, he’s been in discussions recently with his friends at BuzziSpace to possibly begin making workspace tables for their clients worldwide. “Their products are so precise and high-end,” he notes. “That’s exactly the kind of work that I love doing.”
On the recent afternoon Seasons magazine caught up to him, Sam and a pair of newly hired assistants were busy cutting stays for a commercial furniture manufacturing firm in Virginia. At the rear of their spacious work area were large automated saws that could cut hundreds of stays in a short amount of time, permitting Sam to finish work on several custom conference and work tables soon heading out the door to a customer near the Greensboro airport.
“It’s rewarding to have these kinds of big jobs to pay the rent and allow me to hire a couple of skilled workers,” he says as he’s showing his visitor a storeroom with gorgeous rough-cut hardwoods. Alongside them are old pine beams that came out of a restored historic building in downtown Greensboro; Sam believes they were hewn before Andrew Jackson was president and likes to imagine what stunning handmade pieces will come from them. “I envision someday maybe having three or four workers to do the commercial pieces, freeing me up to design and make beautiful high-end furniture for customers by hand.” His new website — Samrousefurniture.com — and growing word of mouth from those who’ve seen his work have begun attracting notice.
“If I’ve learned anything in this journey,” he adds, “it’s the importance of keeping the family feeling like my grandfather and father had with his business. I love making people’s dreams come true with my hands and their imaginations.”
He also has a baby son named Luke, who along with his toddler daughter Lillianna, occupy his complete attention, while wife Kayla works. “We’re a partnership and a family following in the rich tradition of making furniture by hand in North Carolina. That feels as much a mission as a job to me.”
Jim Dodson is the editor of Seasons and its sister publications, O.Henry, PineStraw and Salt.