Written by Carly Phillips
For Chip Gerber, Steel Forest Furniture Company started as a hobby that just sort of spiraled out of control. He and his family relocated to Columbus about 10 years ago to begin his business, Mississippi Steel Processing. This is where he took an interest in turning scrap steel into intricate, one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture.
“My love has always been fabricating with metal,” said Gerber, a 54-year-old business man. “I also do a little bit of woodworking and carpentry and a little bit of everything. I do a lot of different things that are trades with your hands.”
Gerber credits his start with furniture to the day his wife purchased and brought home a simple looking table about three years ago. “I said, ‘You can send that back because I can probably build you that table,’ and it became a challenge.”
Once word got out that Gerber had a knack for building furniture, a business was born. He started building things for friends and family – just for fun – and they pushed him to move forward. “People were encouraging me. They said, ‘You’ve got a unique style with the steel and the wood and all of that. You should open a store.’”
A walk down Main Street led him to Steel Forest Furniture Company’s first home, a 1,000 square foot space that just so happened to be for rent.
“I rented the store and had no idea what I was going to do,” Gerber said. “I actually had to create the company, so I challenged my two teenage girls to come up with an interesting name that obviously dealt with steel and wood and kind of blended the two so people would understand what we do.”
The building grew as the business did, and the new location allotted about 2,000 more square feet. The idea behind the space is for people to come in and get exactly what they ask for. Gerber and his team encourage people to bring in sketches, ideas and rough drafts so the piece to be created can feel like their very own. Once it is completed, it is very rare that the same piece will be made again. They are strictly unique.
“We do a lot of different things,” Gerber said. “Modern looking things. Rustic looking things. I lean more towards the rustic look, the rustic industrial look.”
People don’t always realize the things that can be made out of these types of recyclables. The group has designed and made wine racks, wall art, old ammunition boxes nestled into a steel framework, powder coated signs for the outside of buildings, bottle holders, a monstrous vault door for a wine room, burnt out letters, outdoor benches, metal countertops, bar partitions, custom tables, walls surrounding a bathroom, and more.
Another thing that makes Steel Forest Furniture Company and the work they do different from the norm, is their use of all local materials. The wood comes from Mississippi Farm Tables in Ridgeland, a mill in Caledonia, a collapsed tree in a local’s yard or an old barn. The marble comes from Columbus Marble Works. True Grit in Columbus does some of the paint and powder coat and of course the steel and metal come from Mississippi Steel Processing and Steel Dynamics.
“Everybody says it’s something that has happened to me since I’ve gotten older,” Gerber said. “I’ve always built things. I’ve never really thought of myself as creative, but apparently I’m considered creative. All of the credit certainly doesn’t go to me, I’ve got a great team.”
Layhill Precision Fabrication is another company of Gerber’s and a part of Mississippi Steel Processing. This is where a lot of the pieces are brought to life. “I always have graph paper with me,” Gerber said. “If I sit on an airplane. If I have down time. If I’m waiting for something. I come up with some ideas. And then I’ll take those ideas and have a general look with no dimensions. If I like what it looks like, I put some dimensions to it. Then I give it to our CAD (computer-aided design) guy. The equipment turns it into a type of file and that file is what the machine reads. It basically reads what we draw and burns that out of a flat plate of steel.”
The store started out as Gerber’s. It was a place for him to create and share with the community. Now, it is still Gerber’s, but he likes to think of it as more of a joint effort.
“I encourage people that work here to come up with ideas and develop some things,” Gerber said. “Throw it on the wall and see what sticks. Some ideas are great, some not so great.”
“I don’t want this to get out of control,” Gerber said. “The store supports itself. It supports the people that are here. I would love to have a group of people that are as passionate about it as me and I think I do for the most part.”
“It’s neat to have other people involved in it. I wouldn’t want to be the only one. It makes the whole process more enjoyable.”