Laura and Chris Panjwani are passionate about Amish craftsmanship. They’re also passionate about sustainability and protecting our environment; in other words, they’re passionate about made-in-America, locally sourced furniture. The couple was confident they could convince others that Amish-made furniture could be modern and contemporary, environmentally friendly, and an investment to be handed down to future generations. Together, they launched Contemporary Craftsman, an online furniture store where shoppers can custom design solid-wood furnishings.
The couple, high school sweethearts from Michigan, moved East 12 years ago for graduate school and jobs; Chris works full-time in the pharmaceutical sector, and Laura is a copywriter. After renting in South Orange, they purchased a wooded lot on a quiet cul-de-sac in Bridgewater. Their builder offered four different floor plans to choose from; naturally, Laura and Chris customized the design, creating an open-floor-plan modified colonial with cavernous rooms and lofty ceilings. In the fall of 2018, the Panjwanis moved in, and slowly set out to fill it, intentionally taking their time, avoiding the big-box stores in favor of unique pieces that would stand the test of time. “We’re not going to buy a piece just to fill a space,” says Chris. “We wanted furniture we could keep a very long time.” Adds Laura, “We want the pieces that we do have to stand out.”
This mindset led them to custom-crafted, quality wood furnishings, but not the traditional Amish styles they’d both grown up with back in the Midwest. Instead, they were drawn to something more transitional and contemporary—something appropriate to their younger lifestyle. Their personal quest led them on a surprising journey. They discovered a lack of resources on the East Coast—there just isn’t a lot of Amish-style furniture in New Jersey, they say. “We wanted to find it for ourselves,” explains Laura, “and then we realized we wanted to share it with others.” As they uncovered unique resources, Contemporary Craftsman was born.
Initially, the pair made connections with Amish craftsmen in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
“There are hundreds of crafters,” continues Laura. “What’s overwhelming is finding a piece that’s a good in-between. Something less traditional.” The couple spent years building connections and curating a collection before launching their website. “People have the idea that Amish furniture is colored brown and looks old-fashioned,” adds Chris. “We’ve taken the time to curate a collection that’s modern and transitional.”
Contemporary Craftsman does not have a brick-and-mortar shop. “Who wants to spend a Saturday walking around a furniture store?” asks Laura. Instead, customers can browse the website at their leisure, check out various styles, then mix and match woods and finishes. There are seven different types of wood and 30-plus stains to choose from. “People really love cherry,” says Chris. “It has a reddish-pinkish warm tone with a nice grain.” Oak and maple are also popular. “Maple is the bread and butter,” he adds.
Fabric and leather options for dining and office chairs, headboards and more are also plentiful. While the website showcases hundreds of furniture pieces, from dining and bedroom furnishings to collections perfect for home offices and patios, Chris stresses that it’s for inspiration; ultimately, every item is made to order—the company can essentially make anything. “We’re trying to give a really customized experience,” says Chris. “We are not looking to replace the expertise of designers. We’re working with people who are looking for something custom.” Customers often call to chat with Chris, share photos of their empty rooms, and ask for his advice. “You really get to know the people,” says Chris. Adds Laura, “I joke with Chris that he’s become a personal shopper.”
Customization takes time, of course—generally, four months, the couple says. “But if you sit down for a nice meal, you don’t mind waiting for it to cook,” says Laura. “It’s the same with furniture—you will wait for something really nice.”
As the business expands, so does the Panjwani family. Niam is nearly two; his younger brother, Jay, was born in August. Laura and Chris planned ahead, investing in a unique crib for both kids; the wood frame easily converts into a toddler bed and then a full-size bed. “The furniture will grow with them,” says Laura. “We can keep it for a very long time, then pass it down to our kids.”
Says Chris: “We took a giant leap of faith. Never, ever did I think I’d spend a million hours on this, but this is our passion project.”Click here to leave a comment