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Brooklyn furniture designer Jim Malone: Sometimes the future is in the past

Jim Malone with furniture. Photo Courtesy of CounterEvolution.  Photos Courtesy of CounterEvolution.

Went from making songs for Pokemon to creating tables for Shake Shack and Starbucks

Special to the Brooklyn Eagle

Although artist Jim Malone was not born in Brooklyn, it was for good reason that he and his wife moved to Fort Greene, where they live today.

He and his wife were living on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when they decided it was time to have children and build their family. In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Malone explained: “We lived on kind of the borderline where the Lower East Side gentrification ended.  There was a lot of tension in that area at the time related to the old Lower East Side and the so-called gentrification that was taking place. I mean, with kids in mind, we thought it might make life simpler just to move to Brooklyn."

Malone was born in Pittsburgh in 1966 and grew up in New Jersey in a town called Fair Haven, which he now refers to as "a postage stamp on the Jersey Shore."

Malone has achieved success in three different artistic careers.

As a folk-blues songwriter, Malone produced three albums. He also did production work for Pokemon cartoons before opening his furniture design company CounterEvolution. Whatever the medium, Malone’s work embodies the full range of his innovative creativity, a craftsman's aesthetic that is based on simplicity, elegance and function.

Malone’s workspace for his contemporary furniture design is on Hall Street in Clinton Hill, and the showroom is on West 17th Street in Manhattan. He also owns a home he built himself with reclaimed wood in the Catskill Mountains.

The primary material for Malone’s furniture designs are the large slabs of Heart Pine best known for their use in bowling lanes. It takes not only an artist’s eye but also a smart entrepreneur to recognize both the commercial and creative potential of discarded lanes from defunct bowling alleys.

In his youth Malone was a songwriter, composer and performer. As a form of imitation and practice, the early work of many songwriters includes a set of original lyrics written to an already popular tune. Malone's first song, written when he was five years old, was set to the Shangri-Las hit "Leader of the Pack." Malone's version was called "Bourbon on the Rocks."  

Malone still writes and produces songs. He was classically trained on the piano, but turned to the guitar. He recorded three solo CDs and was the musical force behind two different groups:  a touring band he called "Left Exit" and one called "Standpipe," which became a popular performing band in the Lower East Side clubs from 1996 to 2001.

Malone’s furniture design career started while he was still living on the Lower East Side. He had been working for four years for 4Kids Productions, a subsidiary of the 4Licensing Corporation, which dubbed the first eight seasons of Pokémon that aired on American television. “I did a lot of writing and overseeing production,” he said. "When I started that work I had no idea it would become such a phenomenon."

When the company had to file for bankruptcy over a copyright issue regarding another franchise, 4Kids Productions suddenly faced serious financial problems. Malone was "blindsided, taken by surprise" when he was laid off from the job in 2007. He was unprepared to abruptly change directions, and he had no desire to make a lateral move in the cartoon business.  

For Malone, it wasn't so much the “cartoon” world that he was interested in, as it was the aesthetic quality of the songs he wrote for those cartoons, and the audio work involved in dubbing English over the original Japanese speaking characters.

Malone said the adjustment period following his layoff from cartoon work was difficult at first, but eventually he came around to seeing it as the right thing to have happened.

"Cartoons didn't have anything to do with what I came to New York to do, and I knew that if I couldn't inform what I was doing with any unique artistry other than technical knowhow, I didn't want to do it at all," he said.

In the meantime, he had built something in his apartment and the inspiration with which he built it was still with him. That gave him an idea.  

Malone had been shopping for wood in a reclaimed wood shop in upstate New York, when he happened upon some old slabs of Heart Pine that were once the bowling lanes from a former bowling alley. As he explained in the Mission Statement on the CounterEvolution website: “When I first cleaned some old bowling alley wood to make a countertop, I was struck by the beauty and character of the antique Heart Pine beneath the layers of dirt and polyurethane. It was love at first sight.”

Malone brought the wood back to his apartment and built a 7-foot dining table and counter with a food-prep area. That's when he got the idea for CounterEvolution. He liked the notion of giving the Heart Pine a second life with a completely different purpose in a completely different world.

So he started building prototypes and through a Craigslist posting got his first client.  CounterEvolution officially became a business in 2008.

Malone became one of the vendors for the now nationally famous Brooklyn Flea Market.  Indeed, Malone's furniture became one of the highlights of the Brooklyn Flea’s promotional efforts.  Malone said, "I'm very grateful for that. I received a great deal of free press from Brooklyn Flea.  I have to say that's what really kick-started the business."  

His clientele now comprises both private homeowners and commercial clients, including popular food shops that like to practice and promote sustainability. One sure sign of his success is that Malone's CounterEvolution furniture is often highlighted as a selling point when clients describe their interiors.  

His biggest customer, the popular Shake Shack burger chain, has CounterEvolution tables and benches in 21 of its locations, including the Shake Shack in London. In fact, I first came upon Malone’s work when my research led me to an article in the Baltimore Business Journal about Baltimore's first Shake Shack; there I found Malone's Brooklyn-based furniture mentioned as a notable feature of the restaurant.

 table with benches.

Starbucks, well-known for its efforts to reduce its environmental impact and build greener stores, has also used CounterEvolution furniture.  

A more recent commercial account is a New York eatery called The Hummus & Pita Company, with three locations so far in Manhattan. The restaurant’s website notes: “The Hummus & Pita Co. is proud to be an eco-conscious brand...the space features everything from CounterEvolution tables made from reclaimed bowling alley wood to wallpaper made from recycled materials.”

Malone’s "business model" was based as much on aesthetics as it was on financial considerations and logistics: "The solid wood furniture aspires to be functional art, with the ultimate goal of bringing something timeless and beautiful into someone's home. Giving new life to reclaimed wood that has already served a community well in its first incarnation shows respect for our planet's limited natural resources. If that new life is thoughtfully designed and built to last for several generations, even better."

You can visit the CounterEvolution website Here.

You can listen to Jim Malone's music Here.

May 28, 2014 - 8:30am


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