Pamela has always been a bit proud that she flunked her concrete class at Pasadena City college but still managed to make a long-lived concrete business. Theoretical slumps, tensile and compression load calculations: concrete can be quite mathematical and difficult. Important for an engineer building a house, of course, but you only need so many equations for an end table. Turns out education isn’t everything, and a first failure doesn’t mean that’s the wrong direction. Despite flunking, Pamela continued to experiment with concrete, gradually developing her skills, trying many different materials, especially natural materials like hemp, roots, sawdust, rice hulls, and of course leaves.
This play turned into our aesthetic, and eventually our business. Play became products, and we started selling our furniture in 1994, including dozens of dining tables. These were some beautiful tables, with many textures and colors. We were officially furniture makers! But in 1996, a customer called to complain a huge crack had formed in their table. Pamela replaced it, disappointed but some replacements are expected. But then another customer called, complaining about a large crack, and another, and another, the replacements racking up. This was the kind of catastrophe that every maker fears, that their creations are crumbling far faster than they should. Pamela was devastated, ashamed, and stuck in a corner. Either she would have to refund every customer, or replace dozens of tables.
Clearly her techniques weren’t working. Maybe her concrete class failure was deserved. Maybe she should just give up, refunding everyone and moving on. But instead, Pamela started calling up concrete manufacturers to figure out a new method. As a woman working with concrete in the 90s, many of them would just write her off. Even today, concrete still has strong connotations as a “man’s material.”
But eventually, she found Mike Driver, who introduced Pamela to glass fiber reinforced concrete and other techniques and products to greatly increase concrete strength. He continues to help us improve our techniques to this day. Before this, Pamela used steel reinforcement, which corrodes over time, especially in thin products like dining tables, and with lots of organic materials. Sometimes, trying too hard to integrate natural materials makes something less green if it won’t last as long. Glass fibers don’t corrode, and are also much lighter, meaning her tables could last longer while being thinner, lighter, and stronger. With these new techniques, Pamela replaced around 75 tables over two years, a huge undertaking at the time. Now, rarely now does a table fail (any cracks in our current tables are nearly always thin and non-structural).
These early failures could have destroyed the business, but Pamela pushed through to make a better product and develop an even stronger work ethic than she already had. In fact, without these early failures, maybe the business would have failed later on, without the dedication, impetus, and rebellion that overcoming the failures inspired in Pamela. If Pamela had know the “right way” to make concrete from the beginning, would she have the aesthetic she has now? Who knows, but she’s still glad she failed that concrete class.