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Ali Sandifer Studio

Detroit, Michigan

Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer

By Amy Kuras
March 14, 2014

When Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer met several years ago at U-M's School of Architecture, they were immediately drawn to each other's approach and aesthetic. He was a graduate student, she an undergrad, but they began collaborating together on projects. That collaboration eventually grew into a marriage, three children, and acclaimed furniture house Ali Sandifer Studio.

They launched in Ann Arbor upon finishing school, and eventually moved to Chicago to be closer to the resources of a big city. "We ended up going through a metamorphosis and learning about craft," says Ali. "It made a huge difference in our design aesthetic. It became much better, and more sophisticated."

They learned more about using quality materials, and now all their pieces are crafted out of domestic hardwood, respecting the beauty of the wood. "Part of it is just a reflection of honesty in the material and pushing the boundaries of materials," Ali says. "It's also the amount of care that goes into understanding how it goes together."

Their craft is very much a blending of understated, sophisticated shapes with organic, material-focused handwork, with storage creatively incorporated. Every piece is made by hand, and they do little if any design work on computers, instead following a rigorous and thoughtful process of thinking, prototyping, and refining until they come to the finished piece. "I think people now are starting to appreciate the value of handcrafted items," Sandifer says. "By us using solid wood it actually goes back to the old way of making things."

After moving back to Michigan when Ali was offered a spot in the first class of Detroit Revitalization Fellows, they made their home in Boston-Edison. Although their work is much less ornate than the types of homes you'll find there, both reflect the same craftsmanship, human scale and attention to detail.

Their furniture is available all over the United States; it takes eight to 10 weeks from ordering for them to craft the finished piece and up to another two weeks to ship. They also do a great deal of local custom work. "I think we've been pleasantly surprised at our ability to grow," Ali says. "I think there is a draw to that quality well-designed work."

They are now, however, experiencing the tension between wanting to stay as hand-crafted as possible and somewhat industrializing their process in order to keep up with demand for their pieces. Because the design process and the handcrafting are separate but linked processes, Sandifer says he believes they can keep the soul of their work intact. "I think when you design through crafting, the process of how you design is one component and the output is another," he says. "You can have a beautiful mass-produced piece that has the same qualities of handcraft."

As a married couple, they find that business bleeds over into home life and vice versa. That's not always a bad thing -- the same kind of collaboration and give and take that goes into a successful marriage also contributes to the success of a business partnership. It can be something as simple as taking both their physical statures into account – Sandifer is on the tall side, Ali not so much so – to be able to make furniture comfortable for a wider range of people.

One of the most charming aspects of their work is that each piece has a name. Though the names may seem whimsical, it's actually a part of the process they take very seriously and reflects their feelings about a piece. “Edith,” for example -- a large, imposing hutch balanced on delicate legs -- was so named that because the design, Ali says, "has an old soul."

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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