Interview with Rick Bulan, Owner and Designer of Golden Gate Furniture Co.
Tuesday, December 11, 2018 by Mehmet Kaplan
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. For people who live in San Francisco, it definitely has a more special meaning. I talked to Rick Bulan, who has been producing furniture by using pieces of the Golden Gate Bridge since 1994.
I'm sure that if Golden Gate Bridge had the chance to tell the idea, it would rather have its old parts come back to life as furniture rather than being thrown into a scrapyard. When Rick Bulan saw the news of the renewal of the Golden Gate Bridge, he believed it would be possible. After all, everyone wants to host a historical and cultural part of San Francisco at their home. I talked with Rick Bulan, Owner and Designer of Golden Gate Furniture Co., about his designs.
Rick, I would like to go back to 1994. How did Golden Gate Design & Furniture Company was born?
In 1994 I had the television on in the background one afternoon, and a local San Francisco station did a news story on the fate of the Golden Gate Bridge steel that had been removed during a replacement of some of the most weathered sections in 1993. It was up to the contractor who had removed the steel to do something with it (sell it, recycle it, melt it down, etc). When I saw the story, I just thought to myself “Wow… that would make a cool headboard!” The history of the material and the childhood memories of the bridge spoke to me, and I just wanted a piece of it for myself. So, I called the news station to find out the name of the contractor who did the removal, and then contacted them about purchasing a piece of the steel. It was then that I realized the sections were 12 ½ feet long and weighed about 1000 pounds each. I hired a truck to bring the handrail to my home, and there I spent a month cutting up and grinding down the section to a more manageable size, and I created not one but four 115-pound Queen-sized headboards. Friends saw my design and expressed interest, and I realized I was not the only one who may appreciate such a functional piece of history. At this point, I started looking into the feasibility of starting a company based on this idea, and later went back to the contractor to negotiate and purchase the remaining handrail sections.
Before 1994, did you ever think about to make unique furniture by using parts of Golden Gate Bridge?
It had not occurred to me prior to seeing the news story and creating my first headboard. Though the Golden Gate Bridge has always been a part of my life, I had not thought of the bridge as a resource for a business or an artistic venture.
I would like to learn more about you. Could you tell us about yourself? Who is Rick Bulan?
I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area. I have many childhood memories of spending weekends at the Golden Gate Bridge… playing underneath it, walking across it, picnicking next to it, and bringing the visiting family out to see it.
I took some architecture and drafting in school, but I am actually a finance major. Things just sort of snowballed when I created my first headboard, and I ended up going in a direction I had not really expected. Ever since I was a young kid, I had always envisioned myself running my own business, and when this opportunity came along, it fed both the entrepreneur and the designer in me.
I like things that are simple, with clean lines, and I am drawn to things that have a strong historical significance. Not only does the handrail material have a distinct, American-made history that inspires me, but the clean, straight lines of the Bridge’s art deco design appeals to me as well.
Could you tell us about the Golden Gate Design & Furniture Company?
I make limited edition furniture from historic steel off the Golden Gate Bridge. Specifically, from the original handrail sections that were removed in 1993. The craft involves the cutting and welding of steel, using plasma and blades, along with the finer finishing of the furniture designs. This involves grinding and painting, while preserving the distinct patina and weathering of the steel from 56 years of exposure to the wind and salt air of the Golden Gate.
Do you still use only the parts that you bought in 1994? or do you buy new parts of Golden Gate Bridge regularly?
It was basically a one-time deal, so I am working with a finite amount of material. It had been up to the contractor, who had done the handrail replacement, to sell the material that they had removed. Additionally, not all of the original handrail had to actually be replaced. Only the most weathered sections of handrail were removed. Replica sections that were then placed on the bridge were made with new steel, using nuts and bolts for the connections, rather than hot rivets. After purchasing an initial section of the original handrail for myself, I went back to the contractor and negotiated to purchase the remaining sections.
What type of furniture do you produce?
I like things that are simple, with clean lines, and basically, I try to follow the existing Art Deco design elements that are already part of the material that I am working with. In keeping with the origin of the steel itself, anything I add to my designs is American made. To bring out the character of the material, I try to preserve as much of the original weathering and patina possible, creating a functional piece of art and history that others can enjoy in their homes.
My designs all started with the headboard, and from there I expanded the line to include some end tables and coffee tables. In terms of the larger furniture designs, I basically have two lines… one furniture line, which contains all my original designs, are crafted using 100% Golden Gate Bridge handrail steel. These designs are most representative of the original material that I am working with. However, over the years, I have added a second design line that is lighter. The designs are still crafted using pieces of the original Golden Gate Bridge steel, but they incorporate new American made steel as cross members or supports to the historic steel.
I also have a line of smaller home décor pieces, which includes lamps and photo frames, for the customer who wants something for their home, but does not have space for a full-sized piece of furniture.
Finally, in recent years, to fulfill the requests for small gift items, I started a line of bookends, paperweights, jewelry, and fashion accessories (such as tie clips, cuff links, and lapel pins).
Could you give us information about the production process? Which equipment do you use? How long does it take to complete all process?
It can take weeks to create a design, since each piece is handcrafted, one at a time or in small batches. I start by bringing a single section of handrail into the workshop. The handrail sections, (which are stored offsite), are approximately 12 ½ feet long and around 1000 pounds each. Usually, I am doing this by myself using winches and a gantry to lift the sections onto and off from my trailer. Once I get the section of rail set up at the workshop, I will use Plasma / Oxygen Acetylene torches and saws to cut off pieces from the larger section.
Many of my designs have limited production runs, but each piece within a design’s production run can be slightly different due to the variation in the handrail material itself. The handrail sections were crafted by hand back in the day, so measurements between the pickets vary. Also, depending on where the section was placed on the Golden Gate Bridge, the vertical I-beams may have been installed at an angle to the bottom channel in order to accommodate the vertical pitch, or curve, of the bridge’s roadway. Therefore, measurements are approximate, and each piece must be sized up individually, checked and adjusted to fit and lay level.
After everything is cut, measured, adjusted for fit, and welded together, rough and sharp edges are ground down and cleaned up. However, I make sure to preserve any distinctive weathering, patina, or markings from when the steel was produced by the Bethlehem Steel Company back in the 1930s. Many of the pieces contain numbers or a BSC (Bethlehem Steel Company) stamp imprinted in the steel from when it was produced, which I try to highlight and feature in the designs when I can.
Once the design is cleaned up, I give it several fresh coats of International Orange, the official paint color of the Golden Gate Bridge. The paint that I use is the same exact paint used on the bridge itself, and I source it from the same supplier as the Bridge Authority. Any distinctive markings are cataloged, and a Certificate of Authenticity is created to accompany the piece to its new home.
Obviously, working with such a large and heavy piece of steel is very difficult. Trying to cut it down to a manageable size, and trying to convert it into something that it was not originally designed for, can involve some blood, sweat, and burns. However, in the end, there is a feeling of pride to step back and see a completed design that is now a functional and decorative piece created specifically for someone’s personal space.
What was your favorite furniture that you have produced so far?
While I have a connection to all my designs, I would have to say that I do have a special fondness for the Headboard, the design that started it all. However, I also really loved the Occasional Table, which was one of the first of the lighter design line. I introduced it in 1999, and it only had a production run of 50. It sold out and I retired the design years ago, but I still get inquiries on its availability to this day.
How does it feel to be part of the history of Golden Gate Bridge and give to its parts a chance to live in their new homes?
Our customers tend to be people who have some kind of personal connection to San Francisco or the Bridge itself. Many of our customers have shared their personal stories with us of what connects them… proposal on the bridge, married on or under the bridge, driven over the bridge on their daily commute, looked out upon the bridge from where they lived or worked… they associate the bridge with the happy memories of their time spent in San Francisco. Some customers are related to those who worked on the bridge during its construction in the 1930s, others have fond childhood memories of walking across the bridge with a family who are no longer with them. Having a piece of this bridge in their home, no matter where they now live, gives them this tangible connection to a fondness they feel or a memory they hold close. I feel honored that I am able to contribute to this connection and affection by providing these pieces that hold a special place in their hearts and homes.
What does Golden Gate Bridge mean to you?
The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon, and for me, it is the symbol of San Francisco. It was built not to just serve a purpose, but to be a thing of beauty with its Art Deco design and its striking color. The determination it took to build it represents the city and people of San Francisco itself. So many of my childhood memories include the bridge, whether it was the main attraction or just part of the background… it has always been there, and I could not imagine San Francisco without it.
How can our readers buy Golden Gate Furniture Company designs?
You can find us online at www.goldengatefurniture.com, and if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, our workshop is located at Islais Creek Studios in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point district. Though we are not open to the public on a daily basis, the workshop is available to visit by appointment, and we also host an Open Studios weekend event twice a year… once in the Spring and again in the Fall.
Social media has become an important part of life. What do you think about the power of social media on buyer's decisions?
I have found that social media is a valuable tool that helps keep our designs visible and relevant to our potential customers. It is said that someone has to see or hear about your product up to 7 times before they finally take action to purchase. For our designs, it could take even more of these connections, so we look at the long term… we have customers that will hang on to our postcards or follow us for years before they are finally at a point in their lives where they are ready to order that special piece for their home. I remember the days when the only way to stay in front of potential clients was to send out postcards and catalogs regularly, and hope that they were still reaching their intended audience. I felt like we were working in a vacuum, unable to know for certain how our designs were being received, and whether interested persons were still receiving our information. Now with social media, connections are made regularly in a way that allows for instant feedback. You can track responses and have a clearer view of whether your intended audience is receiving the information they want, and not waste your resources putting your product out there to people who are not interested.
How can our readers follow Golden Gate Furniture Company?
We regularly post our latest designs and news on our Facebook page and on our Instagram feed. You can also follow us at our blog The Chrysopylae for additional details regarding our latest designs and current events.
Thank you Rick.
For more information on any of the designs featured here, or to schedule an appointment at our studio, visit our website or feel free to contact us via email or phone.
Golden Gate Furniture Co.
1 Rankin Street, Studio 417
San Francisco, CA 94124