Designer Spotlight: Joe Manus of Shiner International

Designer Spotlight: Joe Manus of Shiner International

What do you do when life gives you a Shiner? You wear it like a badge of honor, and fight back with all you’ve got.

That’s what Modern Furniture designer Joe Manus did, when the aftermath of a burst housing bubble upended his construction business. “We didn’t feel it right away. After a year the phone rang less…and then not at all”. Joe faced the sobering truth that he would not be able to keep his doors open.

Thirteen years ago, a skating friend of Joe’s asked him if he would make him a shelf. Joe embraced the new challenge with the characteristic mantra – “let’s do it!” The eye-catching result attracted a passing bar owner who pulled over to admire Joe’s craftsmanship, as Joe applied the finishing touches. “I need a new bar, can you come by?” Joe had never built a shelf, let alone a bar. But exhilarated by the challenge, he said could do it. This marked the birth of Art Through Labor, a company that Joe and his friends forged into a thriving commercial and residential custom building business – until 2009.

Not one to go down without a fight, Joe laid it all on the line. He’d read an article in Furniture Today about a contest at the America’s Mart trade show. The article stated that if you were selected for the best booth, your space would be paid in full. “The closest I had ever come to a trade show was skateboarding America’s Mart” Joe mused. Instead of paying his rent, he decided to risk it all to win best of show.

To obtain the exhibit space, a portfolio of prototypes is required. Lacking this, Joe photographed pieces he had built for use in his home, constructed primarily from refuse materials. “Many of our materials I call bastard materials – they get a new home and a fresh start.” Joe explained. “Proudly damaged goods”, he calls them “a badge of honor.”

His application was accepted without the usual specs or prototype lines. From his home PC, Joe pieced together a new identity. Shiner International was so named for the black eye that inspired the reinvention of Art Through Labor. Printing his own order forms, business cards, and configuring a self authored website, he did the show. The reception was spectacular. It’s not that easy to come up with a fresh twist on modern furniture that woos the jaded furniture market. But Joe’s take on modern interpretation is not derived from formal training (he’s the first to say that he never even visited his first museum until he was eighteen). His unique vision is the product of inspiration unfettered by convention. Joe sums it up simply – “design is a genesis.”

His card board lighting was conceived by chance, as he noticed the play of sun light through corrugated cardboard stacked near a window. By day’s end the studio was littered with fantastic modern lighting prototypes. Joe calls the Pant Chair his “Tour de force chair” Panting, bruised and bloodied Joe pushed his motor cycle to safety following an accident. The pain dwindled as he became mesmerized with the lop-sided rotation of the bent front wheel. Ditching the bike and hurrying back to the shop, Joe sketched the concept design onto a napkin and which was realized within a day.

Though Shiner met critical acclaim at America’s Market the volume of orders necessary for Shiner to sustain viability still fell short. His wife, 3 year- old daughter, and production team of stalwart friends had all stood by him in his leap of faith. “It’s easy to sell the truth”, he maintained. “It personifies what we do – our true logo.” But his resolve was on tender hooks by final day, when committee members came to present him with the award – Shiner International had been named Best of Show for visual merchandising at Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings 2010 Market.

Joe packed up and bet it all again to exhibit at NYIGF (New York International Gift Fair) and then at The High Point Market. His display was seated in the coveted “Inner Hall.” “Giant companies try to get into Inner Hall for years” Joe relates, with undisguised disbelief. In the wake of this honor came global recognition; 16 interviews, and most important a line of buyers writing orders, in some cases exceeding 600 pieces per individual style.

Joe’s modern furnishings and lighting can be seen in 15 magazines this month. He’s on the “What Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolee Like” list. But what made it all real for Joe were voice mails of congratulations about Architectural Digest – he had no idea what they were talking about. Running to a shopping mall and paging madly through a copy, the magazine opened to reveal a spread featuring his table. “I started jumping up and down and screaming like rocky!” Joe exclaims.

Joe is at once exhilarated and overwhelmed by his sudden success. “I’ve completed 10 trade shows in nine moths, and am in 15 magazines this month; it’s crazy”. It’s a lot to absorb for this self-described “accidental environmentalist” and “late bloomer”. But there’s little time to savor the success. Joe and his team have 10 new proto-types prepared to wow High Point’s Spring Show, slated to open the day that he and his wife’s second child is due. And Joe has found a comfort zone grounded in the genesis of change. “When my line gets out there and people start making knock offs, I’ll do something new. I’m happiest with a pick up truck full of left-overs and trash. I’ll just reinvent. If I can build something that I can give to my kids, well – that’s what it all about”.

See Joe’s Modern Furniture and Modern Lighting Pendants at – coming soon!

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