By Eric Peterson | Jul 31, 2019
San Francisco, California
Furniture, decor, and jewelry
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Furniture, decor, and jewelry
When he was in his early twenties, Bulan was working trade shows for a tech company in Silicon Valley when he caught a story on the TV in the break room about a cache of old handrails from the Golden Gate Bridge.
In use since the bridge opened in 1937, the handrails had absorbed nearly 60 years of punishment when they were decommissioned. "It can be crazy, howling winds on the west side and you'll see people in shorts on the east side," says Bulan. "It's an interesting microclimate."
Crews removed the handrails on the west side of the bridge and replaced them with new ones in 1993, but the steel was just gathering dust in an industrial yard. "I thought, 'That'd be great as a headboard,'" he says. Bulan bought a few 12.5-foot-long, 1,000-pound sections, made some headboards, and then decided to go all in on the concept: "I bought 1,000 tons."
After 23 years, Bulan is still working its way through that same supply. "I still have a hand in everything," he says. "I personally cut everything."
Bulan also designs all of the products from his workshop at Hunters Point Shipyard Artists' Islais Creek facility and works with welders and other tenants as contractors. "Our facility is like an artists' colony," he says. "Our building is all welders, sculptors, and metalworkers."
The catalog grew over the years from headboards to coffee tables to lamps, and now jewelry. "My original designs were really, really beefy," says Bulan. "The bases are 100-ish pounds." There's a reason for that: "I wanted you to look at it and say, 'Wow, that's from the Golden Gate Bridge!'"
But demand for smaller items you could more easily move, and he created a line of tables, as well as lamps, bookends, earrings, and cufflinks. He uses not only handrail steel but new steel, glass, and locally salvaged wood, including walnut and bourbon barrels, and sells direct from his website as well as through several local retailers.
The 1993 handrail project was only the second time steel had been replaced on the Golden Gate Bridge, so Bulan has something of a monopoly in raw material, but it's also a finite supply.
He's had offers of steel from the Bay Bridge and the Doyle Drive project at the Golden Gate Bridge, but neither had the iconic red paint of the real deal. "I kind of lucked out with the pedestrian handrail," says Bulan. "It's kind of small. It's recognizable, as opposed to girders from the bottom of the bridge."
And the Golden Gate Bridge was a landmark in Bulan's life story long before he started making headboards from it. "I was born and raised in the city," he says. "When I was a kid, we would go and hang out [at the Golden Gate Bridge]. It was an after-church thing."
"I have lots of memories," he adds. "It's just home."
Challenges: Maintaining inventory. "The way my business is set up now, I'm small," says Bulan. "I can't produce as quickly."
And his finite supply of bridge steel poses a coming hurdle. "I know it's to the point where I'm starting to think of life after Golden Gate Furniture."
Smaller products "stretches things out and makes it more affordable for people," he says. "Those move a lot faster than 200-pound dining tables." But there's more attention to detail on cufflinks than tables: "It actually gets more labor-intensive when you make them small."
Opportunities: "I'm always working on new products," says Bulan. "Right now, I have a keychains and other prototypes I'm working on."
He says inspiration usually strikes when he's snowboarding at Sierra At Tahoe, where he's part of the ski patrol. "Sometimes I have to stop and pull out my Sharpie," he laughs, noting that he uses medical tape as his sketchpad.
Needs: "I'm always looking for new channels, but I don't want to do it at the expense of the family," he says. Staffing a recent summer pop-up store at Pier 39 was difficult. "I don't know if I could do it again," he says. "I'm happy with wholesale. Retail is an entirely different animal and I'm not interested in that."