In 2015, designer Thomas Wynants identified a market opportunity in the United States for Extremis, the Belgian outdoor furniture brand founded by his parents. He knows himself of this opportunity in a singular way, by a road trip across the United States with his wife Ashlee Anvik, and maintaining a headquarters in Rockford, Michigan.
Spring always blossoms late in Michigan, but with the start of May, the sprint into summer finally begins. “In a few weeks, nature will be lush green,” says Ashlee Anvik, as we gaze out over the nearby golf course from their backyard. Since mid-2018, this house, a mid-century gem from 1957, has been home to Ashlee and Thomas Wynants, both in their early thirties. From here in Belmont, Michigan, it’s only a short drive to Extremis USA headquarters in Rockford. “When the weather is nice, we can even go to work by kayak,” Thomas tells us.
Spring always blossoms late in Michigan, but with the start of May, the sprint into summer finally begins. “In a few weeks, nature will be lush green,” says Ashlee Anvik, as we gaze out over the nearby golf course from their backyard. Since mid-2018, this house, a mid-century gem from 1957, has been home to Ashlee and Thomas Wynants, both in their early thirties. From here in Belmont, Michigan, it’s only a short drive to Extremis USA headquarters in Rockford. “When the weather is nice, we can even go to work by kayak,” Thomas tells us. Both Ashlee and Thomas are avid outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for winter sports. They could also have landed in Colorado, where the mountains and the city are close at hand, or anywhere else in the United States. However, Rockford was not chosen completely at random. This small town of around 6,000 people seems straight out of a guidebook to 1950s America, with its picturesque Main Street, quaint single-family homes and nature reminiscent of the Ardennes. But above all, Rockford is located 15 kilometers north of the American furniture capital, Grand Rapids. This historic Furniture City, the second largest city in Michigan after Detroit, is still home to (office) furniture giants like Steelcase, with whom Extremis USA works closely, and Herman Miller, as well as many suppliers. “Grand Rapids has 200 furniture makers, but in Rockford we are the only ones, which allows us to invest in the local community. All the while keeping Grand Rapids expertise and suppliers close at hand,” says Thomas . Chicago is where Thomas and Ashlee met in 2015. Thomas was on stage at Minimal, the multidisciplinary design studio founded by Scott Wilson. Ashlee, originally from Montana, had moved to Chicago to work in advertising, first at The Onion, the satirical news site, then at the New York Times offices in Chicago. The internship was a revelation for Thomas. He has heard of the Neocon, the furniture fair which, briefly, is the American counterpart of the Salone del Mobile in Milan. With the flame of youth and his untimely enthusiasm, he convinced his parents to participate in the Neocon with Extremis. After his internship, Thomas returned to Belgium and resumed his position at Extremis in Poperinge. Ashlee and he stayed in touch and they created a long distance relationship, between Poperinge and Chicago. But the United States and Ashlee weren’t letting go of Thomas. “I saw huge potential in the US market for Extremis and thought my dad’s designs deserved exposure beyond the European market, so I convinced Ashlee to start Extremis USA Inc. with me. And then we presented this project to my parents.” Dirk and Hilde Wynants reacted cautiously. They had been married for years before Hilde got involved in the business. A little worried, they asked Ashlee if she was really into it, because it’s not nothing to give up on a good job at the New York Times. Ashlee admits it was a bit like jumping into the void. “I felt like I had finally found my dream job and I was going to give it up for this young Fleming” (laughs). Thomas threw a farewell party for Ashlee’s co-workers, which he dubbed the “apology party.” “It was a way of apologizing for poaching her from her position. I asked her boss if she could come back if I messed up. He immediately agreed.” Founding a business in a new market niche alongside a brand new love interest is one thing, but the way Thomas and Ashlee have done it and continue to do so is a challenge and an eye-opening test for their relationship. Before settling in Belmont, they spent several years on the road, with Extremis catalogs and a suitcase of clothes in the trunk of their SUV. From one Airbnb to another, and the last year in their retro motorhome, they stayed in each region of the United States for one to three months, to have a good understanding of the American market. “I handed over the keys to my apartment, sold my furniture, and got in the car,” Ashlee recalled. Their long-distance relationship therefore transformed overnight into a 24-hour relationship, shared between travel, work and daily life. “Deep down, I knew there was no in-between: it would be complete failure or marvelous success,” says Thomas. “We had to make decisions. There are limits to commuting and seeing once every three months. You can’t do this forever.” These years spent on the road have taught them a lot of things. “My specialty is design and Ashlee’s is marketing and communications, but neither knew the US furniture market. We quickly filled that gap.” Ashlee and Thomas have traveled the country from trade shows to architectural firms to outdoor furniture retailers. Canvassing, getting their foot in the door, they threw themselves into the water to get Americans excited about Extremis. “We were just knocking on doors and this handsome lanky boy in flip flops, with his hat, flowery shirt and nice accent would grab attention and often convey the first hurdle of the reception,” laughs Ashlee. “Of course, we helped out with some nice catalogs with lifestyle flair that directly caught the eye. Anyway, we got tons of appointments and we built our network.” Extremis USA already represents 25% of Extremis’ turnover. Despite their home base and offices, they still travel a lot. When I interview them at Belmont in May, they preferred a series of roadshows through the Midwest and covered some 4,000 miles in three weeks. You can follow their itinerary on their Instagram account @tours4togetherness. With a trailer filled with more than half a ton of ingeniously stacked furniture, they pull into a dealer’s parking lot, roll out grass mats, put on some music and start their outdoor party with the iconic models of Extremis like the Hopper, the Picnik and the Pantagruel. The collection comes to life and links are woven around a Tremist beer brewed in Poperinge. “It’s quite grueling to put it all together and take it apart, especially after the party, but it’s really a great way to show the Extremis lifestyle. Customers experience the robustness of our products, experience the quality and comfort. No need to stuff their heads with sales pitches. Just make yourself comfortable and have a drink with them.” Compared to the town square in Poperinge and a remote farm in Montana where Ashlee grew up, Rockford’s Main Street wasn’t a huge change of scenery. “The cultural differences between a New Yorker and a resident of Montana are greater than those between an American from Michigan and a Flemish from West Flanders, even if the first is more religious and the second says more swear words”, estimates Ashlee. Extremis USA’s warehouses and offices are housed in a former road works depot where the city stored road salt for Michigan’s harsh winters. Today, they are filled with pallets of Extremis furniture, shipped by sea from Belgium. The objective is to gradually launch local production to reduce the ecological footprint of transport. “Sustainability is in the DNA of our brand. We are now looking at how to manufacture large parts on site and how to reduce the need for transport by carrying out final assembly here,” explains Thomas. “In addition to the ecological aspect, it is also important for our American customers that the company with which its business police undertakes to produce and hire personnel on site. They show a certain patriotism, but From a trading point of view, it is also more efficient to work with the dollar, for example, and to protect against price fluctuations.” Meanwhile, Ashlee and Thomas are well established in Rockford. In a divided divided America, they have friends on both sides of the political spectrum. “The points of view are quite mixed in this region, but it remains civilized. With some people, we never talk about politics. We know that we would not be able to agree, but that does not prevent having a nice evening together,” says Thomas. “Besides, we don’t have any friends among the extremists who stormed the Capitol,” Ashlee adds. When COVID shut down the world, Ashlee and Thomas worked with the local Chamber of Commerce to furnish downtown Rockford’s pedestrian-only Main Street with Extremis furniture to keep locals together outdoors. and remotely. The Extremis slogan, “Tools for living together”, takes on its full meaning here. “I remember one snowy December night, all the Christmas decorations and people so happy to be able to go out…It was magical,” Ashlee says. They also gather people in their house, in Belmont. Their home is perfect for entertaining and entertaining as the Americans say, and Ashlee and Thomas often invite clients there. There is of course the furniture from the Extremis collection, but vintage finds and the 1950s structure of the house create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, far from the coldness of a showroom. Plus, Ashlee and Thomas are a very inspiring host duo. Warm, open and fun. They applied Extremis to the US market in their unique way. If the American team is completely independent in Rockford, it sees itself living partly in Belgium and partly in Michigan. “We’ll see. This way of living and working suits us,” says Ashlee. “We’re both pretty detached. We don’t cling to places or material things. Of course, we like to live in a nice house, but material things are replaceable and we don’t want to be stuck. This mode of nomadic life pleases us and we have learned to live in the present moment, wherever we are.”