Meet the Couple Turning Detroit's Abandoned Goods into Modern Furniture
A car designer and a graphic designer meet in Detroit. First comes love, then comes … long bike rides around neighborhoods, where piles of illegally dumped materials from demolished buildings catch their eye and imagination. Bo Shepherd and Kyle Dubay salvaged some to turn into art and furniture, and pretty soon, Nordstrom and Target were calling. Now the two produce an extensive furniture line, run a shop in Capitol Park (Woodward Throwbacks) and remodel homes—all using industrial castoffs.
Woodward Throwbacks started in 2015. How did you go from making items for yourself to national brand partnerships?
KD We made things for friends and started selling at markets, and just by trial and error, we kept building furniture until we got better at it. Now we're at a point where we can hire people who are more skilled than us.
BS Kyle spearheaded selling. I was still at GM until 2017 when I left to do design and woodworking full time.
Do you still search the streets for supplies?
KD As Detroit's streets got cleaned up, we started working with demolition companies. So many buildings are being torn down or remodeled, the hardest thing for us has been capturing as much as we can. Construction doesn't wait for anybody. The contractor says, "Get it out now if you want it." Getting truckloads of stuff is not the hard part. It's being selective about what we can save realistically.
You've said you're redefining what salvage style can be.
BS People hear reclaimed furniture and think, "Oh, it's rustic, it doesn't fit into my space." I'm like, no. It can be polished and modern, even though it's made out of something that's been around 100-plus years that was landfill-bound. Our furniture has an honest wear to it that's so precious and so good.
Once you get raw goods in the shop, what happens?
KD We mostly design around what we find, and our line has products we can alter to fit different materials. Our Modern Block Coffee Table is meant for wood, but we can rip flooring down and make the same style, or even make it out of marble or slate chalkboards. That's the way it's rolling now—small-batch runs.
Tell me more about remodeling with salvage.
BS I have to vet my clients, like, "Are you 100 percent down with these materials?" Most are all about it and just say they like a midcentury or industrial look, so we'll try to incorporate that. Then I dream up a concept and look through our warehouse to see what we have so I can propose the right flavor.
JL What kinds of items are you repurposing?
BS I just designed a kitchen with a 14-foot display cabinet from a local hardware store up the street. It was called Detroit Hardware, and it was woman-owned, which was badass. When they closed, I saved all the displays to put in a home. Then I designed a loft for a client using one of the larger displays as the main kitchen cabinets. I also made an island out of salvaged church pews and marble from Marygrove College. I finally had the opportunity to take a wild idea into a real space.
Bo, you went from the auto industry to this. Do you have advice for women who want to break into fields that aren't traditionally friendly to them?
BS Everyone has their own journey. I can only give you so much insight into how I was able to get here, because you'll have a different experience. But be true to yourself and hold your ground. I've had to do that so many times and prove people wrong. Use your voice and use your muscles, but just go for it. At the end of the day, you went on to that job site to get a job done. Get the job done and ignore the rest.
What's a high point for you two so far?
KD Opening our high-end retail store, Throwbacks Home, for sure. But I'm really proud of the [formerly abandoned] house we just finished rebuilding. It shows you can make a modern, appealing house using reclaimed and sustainable materials—it doesn't have to look like a rustic cabin.
BS Our whole life has been going with our instincts and doing whatever it takes to see success. That's the Detroit-American dream. There's so much hustle and grind here, so to be a part of building something bigger than ourselves—this is the best city to do it in.