#23. Sean Wrafter
Since we started this project, we have discovered some people who make some very cool and high quality products. This week’s post presents one of the finest makers that we have discovered. I walked into this interview expecting to hear a great story about how Sean Wrafter, of Wrafterbuilt got started and the kinds of projects he likes to work on. While there is a good deal of that in this story, the way I read it is different. What I see is a man who loves his community and the people who inspire him. What I see is a listing of credits to the community and his friends. Sean is a good guy to get to know. I am sure glad that I had the opportunity. Thank you, Sean.
Let’s learn about Sean
“I traveled with my last job for almost two years. And I was in a lot of bigger markets, like Philly, Boston, Pittsburgh. And I would only be home for the weekends. So it was an interesting juxtaposition for myself because I hadn’t really taken a good look at Buffalo in a long time because you get used to it when you’re here. But then, only coming home on the weekends and seeing it from almost an outsider’s eye and also things were transitioning quickly in that the face of the city was changing that it gave me this whole new appreciation for what was going on here. To spend all weekend in Philadelphia, it was so hard. And it’s so difficult, but there’s so much to do there. And then I came home, and I live on this block of Allen and I haven’t gone to Cafe Taza in like six or seven years, and I remember coming home and Saturday morning, just walking over there and being like, oh my God, this is great, I forgot that this was here.”
On the Maker Scene in Buffalo
“There’s a community of makers and doers in Buffalo. I think that one of the first times I was aware of that was when Vera Pizzeria opened. It was really the first time that someone that I knew from my generation had opened a business. They were so successful so quickly. They had brought something to Buffalo that no one else had seen. It was really, really well received and really cool. So it really impressed upon me that I was now at an age and a position that I could probably make something happen. I didn’t have to be a super genius or super great at business. I could make it work. We’ve all seen people, like my last boss, the guy who owns Block Club and City Dining Cards, Patrick Finan, who’s a good friend of mine and a great boss. He started a magazine when he was twenty. When I was twenty I sucked at everything. So it was such an abstract, to start a business. Well you have to be like Patrick, you have to be super driven and ultra-intelligent at a very young age. Then I got to be thirty and I was like, oh wait. I’m kind of there in some ways now, so I’m really going to go for it.”
“The friends that I’ve made in the last couple years are all people who are doing stuff. It’s so nice to have this community to support you and we all have similar interests and we can commiserate but we can also celebrate. One of the guys from Bureau came over to my house on Labor Day and we made sandwiches and hung out. It was a great day. We didn’t talk about work at all. But it’s nice because we can relate.”
What cool projects are you working on?
“We’ve done so many bars, between Emerson and I. You know a little about the business, right? Are you familiar with Emerson James? Emerson and I filmed a reality show last year together called House Hunters Renovation. They filmed four of them in Buffalo and he and I worked on the same house. We basically had a bunch of mutual friends. We were doing something very similar, which is custom or bespoke home goods. I do the furniture, he does the lighting and metal work. So we went and grabbed a beer and commiserated a bit. I introduced them to some people, then I saw him on another job (we both did Buffalo Proper and Toutant). We just started seeing each other. Big Ditch, The Black Sheep. All these restaurants in the city that are opening now and very hip and attractive attention. Him and I have done work in most, if not all, of them. So then we started talking about how we would both like to open a showroom. And it kind of came together where we decided to co-op a space. So we found the space on Elmwood this past April and signed the lease. My wife quit her job and she runs the show room. You can buy anything in here. It’s definitely a retail store. But – the idea is we want you to come in here, see everything, look at it, touch it, and then we design your own piece based on what you like and what you’re looking for. So if you really like this table, this oak is from a church on the East Side that got gutted. The pews were all broken up on the side of the road. I keep a chainsaw in my truck. My shop is on the East Side, so I was driving by, I stopped. I cut a bunch of them up and ended up with four loads in my truck and I still didn’t touch the whole pile. So if you wanted this table, this is six foot by three foot. If you wanted a four foot square, or a seven foot long table, we could do that for you based on whatever the catch of the day is. So right now I have this oak, I have some barn oak, I have some hemlock beams, stuff like that. I can show people these samples, this is the wood or the material, now let’s define the aesthetic and the shape and the structure together. And with Emerson, it’s great because having a metal worker who can do powder coating, he can shape metal, he can weld, so if you have your favorite table you’ve ever seen is in the Restoration Hardware catalog, and you come in here with it, you can show it to me and we can probably make it for around the same price.”
What exciting changes are happening for you?
Wrafterbuilt now occupies half of the Modern Nostalgia store on Hertel. This interview happened before the move, but here’s what Sean had to say about it.
“They were a men’s and women’s clothing store. The men’s is getting consolidated, I believe. They’re moving everything to one half, which is the same side that Gretchen is on for Makers. So then Wrafterbuilt and Emerson James are going to be retailing on the other side. We’re going to keep this space [Elmwood] for consults, but we’re just not going to do retail in here. It was never meant to be a full-blown retail store. Also, we just picked up our first line of upholstered furniture, which I’m super excited about. Which means now you’ll be able to buy a couch from us. Or a chair, or a rug. Which not many places in Buffalo offer. Someone was paid a living wage to make it, which is very important to us. But there’s also two hundred fabrics and leathers to choose from. It’s super comfortable and it’s really accessible, price point wise. I started out with a very specific type of customer. I’m a specific type of customer and I don’t want to lose my customer base by raising my prices. I always want to be accessible. What we do appeals to twenty-five to fifty-five year olds who are, for lack of a better word, younger professionals and I don’t want to lose that by raising my prices and bringing in lines that aren’t going to make sense. I really want to offer other lines because I think that we have access to a lot of really cool stuff that Buffalo hasn’t seen yet. But I just want to make sure that everything stays even keel with what we do now so that we don’t lose our customers. So you’re going to see couches that are really beautiful, well-crafted, mid-century inspired, which is what everybody seems to like and what I really like, and you’re going to be able to get a really nice couch for twelve or thirteen hundred bucks. Which, in Buffalo, you’re either at Value City for an eight hundred dollar couch that’s going to last three years, or you’re at Kittinger Showroom trying to spend five thousand dollars on a couch. It’s not even about money sometimes, it’s about the style. My wife and I went to the High Point Furniture Market in April, which is this crazy giant furniture market in North Carolina. There’s 180 buildings. It’s like the size of downtown Buffalo. It goes from Sunday to Sunday and people from all over the world come and buy stuff. We sat on a hundred different couches over a three or four day period. We found some that we really liked that were cheaper, that we sat on them but didn’t like the quality. People come to us because they want handcrafted, quality goods.”
“Wrafterbuilt has changed so much. It started out as me making furniture, not putting too much thought into a mission statement or ideals, just I know that I don’t like to waste things and I don’t like to spend a bunch of money on stuff that I don’t need, but quality stuff that lasts. So that’s what I started doing. And now I think that being here two years, we’ve found a way to fill a niche that hasn’t been filled in Buffalo, which is to bring local and national brands to peoples’ attention, and offer accessible prices to the masses. You get stuff from us you can only see on the internet and you don’t know if it’s cool or not.”
Do you have any vision or goals for the future?
“I don’t want to get too specific on record, but the vision is this in a nutshell: We want to be known or thought of as the go-to for unique custom spaces in Buffalo and Western New York. Whether that’s home goods, furniture, fixtures or a buildout, we want to be thought of as that person or that entity. Whether it’s a restaurant or an office space, or your house. We don’t want to be run-of-the-mill. The thing is, even three or four years ago, there was this constant conversation with retailers in the city of how to pull people from Williamsville and Orchard Park and all these nice, suburban areas. How do we get all these suburbanites in here to shop? And I really believe that we don’t have to have that conversation anymore because now, in our neighborhoods, there is enough of an infrastructure of people to support our local business and Shop Local isn’t just a fad anymore, it’s becoming a way of life. I can tell you I do 80% of my business within two miles of my home. It’s awesome. I love it. I love seeing my customers at the grocery store, or at a bar, or wherever, walking their kids and dog on the street. I love neighborhoods.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“I did a lot of different jobs and tried a lot of different things and I felt like a failure a lot of times in my life because they didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. But all of them were just the training ground for the next thing. And now I’m really glad that I’m so well-rounded, because it serves me so well as a business owner and as someone who’s really trying to accomplish some things to know a little bit about a lot of things. So I guess I would have told a younger me that everything’s going to work out. Or, don’t be so hard on yourself. Or maybe, be as hard on yourself as you are being, because that pushes you to succeed in what you’re going to do next. I would tell my younger self to just keep going.”
- Andrew Emerson of Emerson James
- John Mirro at Hand of Doom (HOD) Tattoo & Lockhouse Distillery
- Bobby Finan at Tommyrotter
- David Horesh from Oxford Pennants.
- Erin Habes and her boyfriend Keith Harrington
- The Public
- Andre Sadoff from Buffalo Motor Works