In a rusted, tin-lined building at 17th and Treat streets, Lee Manning builds the framework for some of the most expensive sofas out there.
“We build the bones,” says Manning. “You got ugly bones, you get an ugly body.”
Furniture made by some of San Francisco’s most prominent interior designers, including Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, Douglas Durkin and Anne Jones, have had their origins here, but Manning has never rubbed elbows with silk-suited designers or discussed the latest decorating trends over martinis downtown — and he doesn’t care to.
Manning is at the tail end of a long chain of command. The way it usually goes is this: An interior designer will make a sketch of the furniture they want for a client, and an upholsterer will take that sketch and figure out how to make it.
Then it’s left to Manning to figure out how to make a skeleton that will support the structure, while keeping it comfortable.
“You can give Lee a photo or a sketch of a piece of furniture and he’ll get the finished product exactly right,” says Richard Andronaco, one of Manning’s primary customers. “He’s the main framer in the city, and he’s amazing.”
Manning only deals with upholsterers. The frames he builds make up only about 20 percent of the total cost of a custom job — the sofas that Manning works on will ultimately sell for close to $30,000. But not dealing with clients or designers, he claims, is the only reason he’s still “semi-sane.”
“A decorator can come in and talk about an ottoman for an hour and a half,” he says. “I can build an ottoman for $80 — boom, boom, boom, come pick it up in three days. The upholsterers will hold their hands and walk them through the decisions. It’s not economically feasible for me to do that.”
No, no, says, Andronaco. The hand-holding is the pleasure — working with a designer to match a piece of furniture precisely to the image in someone else’s head. That’s why he’s been in this business for 14 years. Manning has been in it for going on 40.
There are upwards of two dozen custom upholsterers in the city, but only five of them do the kind of high-end designs that will eventually wind up in Manning’s shop. Pacific Frame is one of three custom frame builders in the city and is by far the largest in northern California, but it does not mass-manufacture anything or use any kind of computer-controlled machinery. Each piece is cut and each product assembled by one of three men.
The building itself has had five occupants prior to Manning, from the Chiosso Brothers who built it in 1946 and filled it with machinery for custom frame-making, to Jim Dawes, who still owns the building and is Manning’s landlord.
Dawes sold the business to Manning’s predecessor, who proceeded to go bankrupt 18 months later. Manning stepped in, purchased the shop equipment and signed a lease on the space.
Over the years his crew has dwindled from seven to five to three. When the recession hit in 2008, that three-man crew was rarely pulling a full 40-hour workweek. Business went from slow to near-standstill.
Manning has lived through ups and downs like these before. “With all the previous recessions, I’ve seen the orders stop just like a door slam. It’s a panic, basically. After a month or so, things would loosen up.”
He downsized his garbage containers — with less work, there was less scrap to collect, anyway. He signed up for a PG&E program that helped retrofit the shop lighting, and his electrical bill fell by $300 a month.
He put his employees on a work-share program that allows them to collect partial unemployment benefits to supplement their finances when there isn’t enough work to go around. It’s more expensive than letting a member of the remaining crew go, but to Manning it will be worth it when the recession ends and he doesn’t have to hire and retrain new employees.
Finally, he cut his own salary. This year Manning will pay his foreman, who earns $18 an hour, about 35 percent more than he’ll pay himself. Since it’s his business, it’s only fair, he says. There were years when he made double what his highest-paid employee makes. “The idea is just to keep the business healthy so that on the other side of this we can take off again.”
It’s been two years, he says, and business hasn’t come back. Still, it beats being a miner’s assistant or a carnival ride operator — both jobs that he held in his youth.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” he says. “When we’re busy, I make a decent living. But I love what I do. That gives anyone a hand up on anyone else in this business.”