On a Sunday evening in Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer’s Boston Edison home, a delicious aroma of chili permeated throughout the dining room as their youngest son, Rami, played nearby with trains and toy football helmets. Family dinner was in an hour and the couple had just enough time to talk shop.
The couple are the masterminds behind Ali Sandifer, a design studio and workshop with a specialization in mid-century modern furniture. Every piece is made to order and crafted — from beginning to end — in their studio. With many clients on the east and west coasts, they realized early on that no matter where they go, the tight-knit creative community in Detroit makes it the perfect place to pursue their passion.
Ali and Sandifer have built a life for themselves in several places over the years, originally meeting as students at the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture. Sandifer was a graduate student (and football player), Ali an undergrad, but Detroit is where they’ve settled down and call home. After briefly living in Chicago, they moved here in 2011 and have never looked back.
“Our customer base is much wider than Detroit. What we learned during our times living in other cities is that we could be anywhere doing this,” Ali says. “Really, the furniture was wherever the two of us were.”
As a self-taught craftsman, Sandifer was initially a one-man show when he started the business in 2004, but his work evolved into a refined collection when Ali joined the team. The pair had collaborated since college on ideas together, so it only made sense to continue working together.
“When I first started, I was working with plywood, prefinished stuff, and they were just boxes that you could rearrange in different ways,” Sandifer says. “But when you start to think about the work we do now, we’ve chosen to marry function and push this sort of intimacy with the materials by using hardwoods and combining our styles.”
Sitting around their 8-foot-long and 42-inch-wide walnut dining room table, it’s clear that the furniture has gotten better over time, reflecting the couple’s design aesthetic: beautiful, precise, thoughtful, and built to last. The table’s surface has been hand-sanded to perfection, and is pleasingly smooth to the touch.
“You know that saying, ‘The Cobbler’s children are always the worst-shod,’?” Ali says. “I feel like for years we were living off of our prototypes and our mess-ups, and so we were at the point we’d been doing this for more than ten years, so we finally created a piece for us that’s intentionally designed for our home.”
The beautiful large dining table is the first official piece of their own in their home, while the rest of their house is furnished with failed designs and prototypes from old projects.
While the historical home does have a coffee table and storage units from their collection, the couple swears none of it is their best work — as design-obsessed purists, they humorously point out what went wrong with the pieces for them to have landed in their home. All this makes sense, though, as the couple can easily be classified as perfectionists, in the best way possible, and prototyping is key to their design process.
“We’ll draw out dozens of sketches and edits, then I’ll come into the studio and build a prototype out of a cheap material like plywood to get the general sense of concept, then Abir will come in and we’ll mark it up together,” Sandifer says. “We usually repeat this process over and over until it’s just right.”
Sandifer specializes in hand-fabrication with an expertise in hardwoods. As a designer, he has an eye for continuity and connections. Every piece he creates strikes a balance of organic and straight-lined forms that create both surface and storage. Every moment and detail in a piece is celebrated as much as possible. Joints are sculpted for beauty and structure. Hidden features are treated the same as those that are visible — backs and bottoms are as important as fronts and tops.
Ali curates the studio’s overall body of work and is passionate about the meaning of each individual piece the studio creates, as well as the collection of work over time. As a designer, she has an eye for proportion and scale. While not at the studio, she’s working in real estate development in downtown Detroit.
“I’ve always balanced furniture with something else, but Andre is working on furniture full-time now,” she says.
As parents and small business owners, it’s impressive to see the stunning collection of original tables, desks, and storage units they’ve produced. It’s not easy doing what they do — each piece takes anywhere from eight to 10 weeks from ordering for them to craft the finished piece, and up to another two weeks to ship. They also do custom work on a case-by-case basis.
Ali and Sandifer’s furniture might come at a cost, but the couple will be the first to tell you that the investment is one that will last you a lifetime. Building quality furniture to pass down from one generation to the next is most important to them.
In today’s era of cheap furniture, Ali and Sandifer’s recurring business question revolves around how to increase sales without neglecting their core values.
“The conversation we’re having right now is, ‘How does craft turn into mass production?’” Ali says. “We’re really fascinated with that fine line between craft and mass production. We will always have the soul of what we do, which is handcraft always, but what would it mean to cross that line and work with others to see our pieces in a different way?”
Whether mass production is in the cards or not, Detroit will stay as the couple’s constant.
“For the first few years of our career, we thought strongly that the work should lead, and we as the designers should be silent,” Ali says. “And for the most part it still is that way — all about the work and not about us.”
But there’s been a shift in that thinking, an embrace of the couple’s personality as creators of their designs.
“What Detroit and the incredible people here did for us, through a lot of pushing and prodding and mentoring, is that, ‘No, it is about your story. It must be about you two.’”