California Employer Teaches Former Inmates the Craft of Furniture Making

California Employer Teaches Former Inmates the Craft of Furniture Making

furniture makingInspiration

Formr, a recycled furniture company in California, gives everyone a fair chance at employment, including former inmates. Owner Sasha Plotista launched the business just nine months ago. Since then, he hired six ex-convicts and developed ten unconventional furniture pieces made entirely of repurposed products. From the beginning, Plotista wanted to launch a company that tackled two significant issues: waste and employment for ex-offenders.

His inspiration for creating the business came from many firsthand experiences throughout his career. Growing up, Plotista spent a lot of time with his dad, who worked as a contractor. While at different job sites, he noticed the shocking amount of waste produced. When he went to college, he decided to major in industrial design at San Jose State.

From there, he got hired to design the MediThrive cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. However, the federal government shut it down in 2009. While working with the cannabis industry, Plotista became aware of the massive number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses. He also realized the difficulties non-violent drug offenders face finding employment after getting out of prison.

“I saw for myself what the failed war on drugs looked like,” he told Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company. “When someone comes out of prison, they have to check the box on a job application that says they have a record. That makes it very hard for them to get their life back on track.”

With the combined experience Plotista gained in the contracting and cannabis industries, he decided to create Formr. He had enjoyed a fruitful career as a commercial, industrial designer but wanted to try something new. His passion for combating waste and recidivism led him to create a socially responsible furniture company. However, he met many challenges when trying to get his business up and running.

CA Employer Hires Former Inmates, Teaches Them Craft of Furniture Making

former inmates
Photo credit: Facebook

While gathering materials for his furniture, Plotista learned that construction sites produce a whopping 600 million tons of waste yearly. This includes materials such as broken bricks, new concrete slabs, and rusted metal pipes. Around 75% of these materials get recycled; unfortunately, about 145 million tons of material still end up in landfills. Plotista wanted to get his hands on these materials, but this presented many roadblocks.

For one, no established system exists to find out what contractors will allow access to their job sites. Therefore, Plotista realized he had to call contractors individually to ask if he can sift through their trash. Over the years, he has amassed an extensive contact list for gathering recycled materials. However, many contractors still don’t feel comfortable with outsiders visiting their job sites due to the liability.

He told Fast Company:

“Many contractors are set in their own ways and don’t want someone messing with their system. They have never diverted or recycled materials before, and they don’t see any reason to start doing so now. They call someone to haul it away, and they never have to think about it again.”

However, he has formed a relationship with several contractors who support his mission and give him access to their materials. While searching the sites, he looks for materials such as blocks of wood. Back at his workshop, he keeps a metal detector to scan materials he gathers for stray nails. He then cleans and sanitizes any recycled materials for use in production.

Finding employees for his business also comes with many challenges. Plotista utilizes various organizations that help him connect with people recently released from prison. He focuses on prisons with woodshops to find workers with experience making furniture. So far, he’s hired six formerly incarcerated people, but Plotista says retaining them proves difficult.

The owner of Formr speaks about experiences hiring former inmates.

It can take years for people to get accustomed to life after prison. One of Plotista’s employees had to quit due to a health issue overlooked during his sentence. Others have met challenges with housing or managing drug/alcohol addictions. Plotista says that communicating with them about how he can help makes a world of difference.

Despite the hiring challenges, Plotista says there have been success stories. His fourth employee, Gary Harrell, spent 45 years of his life in jail. After being hired by Formr, he discovered his love for creating furniture. He then started to work on his own pieces, and within months, he found wild success. Galleries like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and MoMA PS1 in New York featured his art.

Formr creates unique pieces such as tables with tech features and laptop desks for your couch. Using only salvaged materials like plasterboard, rusted pipes, and old wood, the company turns trash into a masterpiece. Sasha says that their customers don’t just want beautiful or functional products. Their primary audience of design enthusiasts want pieces that add meaning and value to their homes.

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