Kyle Dubay and Bo Shepherd met in 2012 at a park cleanup in the Brush Park neighborhood of Detroit, so it seems fitting that they now run a successful business making furniture and designing interiors using salvaged materials found around the city. Their company, Woodward Throwbacks, has a 49,000-strong Instagram following with whom they share behind-the-scenes pictures of their projects and the incredible doors, cabinets, and other architectural pieces they save from being tossed out with the trash.
“Illegal dumping was a pretty big issue in the city, and we would go out and pick up that material and start making things,” Shepherd told Departures. “So that was the idea of Woodward Throwbacks: taking all this material, cleaning up our neighborhood, and making some one-of-a-kind pieces.”
In the span of six years, the couple went from a one-car garage to a 24,000-square-foot studio and showroom. Creating a company in architectural salvage and furniture design wasn’t exactly an obvious choice for either of them. Originally from New York, Shepherd moved to Detroit in 2008 to study transportation design and spent five years designing car interiors for GM. Dubay went to school to play soccer, but ended up getting a business degree. “Bo and I both grew up in households where our parents had businesses so we grew up around the trade,” Dubay said, adding that he and Shepherd “took to this profession and design work naturally.”
In the beginning, they would ride around the city on their bikes and bring things back one at a time, but these days they often fill up an entire U-Haul. Now that their business is well known, people call them hoping to sell remnants or give them leads on buildings that are about to be torn down. They might salvage a couple of doors from an old house or a hundred doors from an apartment building. “I think people are getting more conscious that they don’t want to waste,” Dubay explained, underlining the studio’s sustainable ethos.
He and Shepherd recently acquired a silver sink dating back to the late 1800s or early 1900s from a woman who thought it was brass and are currently making a one-of-a-kind bar for a client using wood reclaimed from an old church. “The materials really dictate what we build,” Dubay said, explaining that rather than starting with an idea for a piece of furniture and searching for the materials, their process tends to go the other way around. “If we find something with a ton of history, we’ll design something around it and make it special,” Shepherd added.
As they’ve grown, so too have their projects. Though they started out refinishing doors and building furniture, they’ve begun doing full-scale interior design projects. In addition to the bar they’re working on, they’re doing a bunch of work for Carhartt’s new headquarters and creating custom millwork for Amazon’s new building in Detroit. They recently built out the sunroom in their own home and are also renovating a historic house they purchased in the North End and documenting it on Instagram.
Unlike many other businesses, they’ve actually hired four new team members during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they attribute to the phenomenon that as people go out less, they’re spending more time and money on their homes. “We’re sending furniture all over the country on a weekly basis now,” Dubay said.
According to Shepherd and Dubay, all of their friends in Detroit are artists and business owners, and they feel very much a part of the city’s thriving creative community. “It’s getting more expensive every day, but there’s a lot of room to express yourself. There’s this vast open playground of 140 square miles and a lot of it has been pretty empty for a while,” Dubay noted. “There’s something special here in the city. I think that’s why a lot of artists and designers move here. When we go on vacation and come back, there’s nothing like being home.”