written by Anna Bird
It’s hard to imagine being starved for visual stimulation while growing up in a cabin at the head of Wallowa Lake. For the teenage Tyler Hays, there was nothing wrong with the mountains and the clear waters of Wallowa Lake, but it wasn’t controversial or thought provoking. It wasn’t completely satisfying. In the 1970s in rural Wallowa County (population then 6,247), the budding artist felt closed off from the rest of the world. He yearned for something beyond the Eagle Cap Mountains, but it was something intangible, a world of which he had little knowledge.
Like most families in Wallowa County, the Hayses didn’t have much, so they improvised. At a young age, Hays became intrigued by materials and processes. He tinkered with anything he could get his hands on, and drew designs for a log cabin he thought he would someday build in the mountains. He learned how he could survive in the wild and ways he could build a life from things around him.
“I wanted out so bad—not to get away from there—I just had this hunger for something else,” Hays, 45, says. “I don’t know where I got it from, I was just, this weird kid who was ready to run away to France, and I didn’t know where France was, I had just heard of it.”
Hays didn’t end up in France, but he did leave Joseph. He is now the owner, founder and head designer of a luxury American furniture company in New York City, where his clients are society’s elite. His early days of tinkering with whatever he could get his hands on in Joseph were paying dividends in New York.
At the age of 17, he ran away to Portland looking for that “something else.” He found alternative rock and an eye-opening street culture, and went on to attend the University of Oregon to study computer science, physics and, eventually, art. He was a talented abstract and conceptual painter and sculptor. As a precocious art student, he already had solo shows in Portland galleries.
I wanted out so bad—not to get away from there—I just had this hunger for something else – Tyler Hays
In 1994, at the age of 25, Hays packed up and moved to New York City in search of further creative challenge. He used his informal training in craftsmanship and became a handyman in order to survive, while attempting to build a life as an artist. His first studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn overlooked an old brick factory with what he thought to be “BDDW” painted on the chimney, so he would pretend he had his own factory, and BDDW became the signature of Hays’ handy work. That building was actually home to Eastern District Dye Work (EDDW), nevertheless BDDW became the unofficial name of what eventually morphed into the design firm that now attracts billionaires and celebrities.
He began using all domestic hardwoods—maple, oak, walnut, holly, Osage orange, sycamore, elm, and cherry—traditionally joined and hand rubbed with natural oil finishes and lacquers. His style is minimalist and modern, but with a rustic, organic twist that gives the BDDW brand an edge.
He opened his first showroom on Freeman Alley in 1998 with little momentum. In 2002, Hays took a gamble in the post-9/11 economy and relocated to a fashionable Manhattan address with a SoHo showroom on Crosby Street. His work soon earned a reputation for being American-made, well-crafted, wood furniture. Now, Hays employs nearly eighty wood workers, builders and engineers, who produce each BDDW piece out of a workshop in Philadelphia. Their attention to detail and quality is hard to come by in furniture building these days.
“I’m interested in the iconic nature of furniture, and then taking the process and pushing it to levels that no one’s really done before,” Hays says. With the success of his line of furniture, he has earned the freedom to continue pushing the boundaries. Recognition among metropolitan sophisticates of New York led him to open a showroom in Milan this spring. “I have a love affair with Italy. So opening a showroom there is kind of an excuse to spend more time in the most beautiful country in the world,” Hays says.
The longer he stayed away from tinkering in rural Oregon, however, the more it crept back into his psyche. “I have a history there, and it’s more a sense of place than most people get to have,” he says.
Some of his Eastern Oregon endeavors include: buying an industrial knitting machine to make sweaters and blankets, mining clay to make limited edition ceramic mugs, experimenting with mixing natural dyes from leftover sawdust and elk blood from a local hunter, and making his own hair product from pine pitch and clay.
After having a son of his own five years ago, Hays has renewed his ties to Joseph, to raise his son with a familiar sense of place and a connection to nature. When Crows General Store in Lostine—a small town outside of Joseph—was in danger of going out of business in 2012, Hays stepped in to help.
Rebranding the store as M. Crow & Co., Hays sees this as an opportunity to invest in the future of rural America, as well as a chance to preserve the heritage and culture of Wallowa County.
Ironically, the child who couldn’t wait to flee rural America, Hays now wants to do everything in his power to invest in his home community. Earlier this year, M. Crow & Co. announced it will sponsor two scholarships for graduating Wallowa County high school seniors.
“By investing in our local youth, we have the best chance at preserving and bettering Wallowa County’s economy, culture and heritage,” Hays says. One scholarship will go toward a student on an academic path, and one will be a non-academic scholarship. “A kid could write me a letter and say, ‘I just want to go to Egypt to climb a pyramid, clear my head.’ If there’s a young kid who wants to start a goofy business or just has some crazy dream—anything really,” he says. “That’s the kind of scholarship I needed.”