Corbin Clay: Beetle-killed furniture startup wins $100,000 GQ contest

When Denver craftsman Corbin Clay launched his own custom furniture company a few years back, he saw an opportunity to make stylish, affordable pieces out of an abundant resource: the vast stands of dead lodgepole pines left by Colorado's raging beetle epidemic. It was a shrewd move; among thousands of contenders, Corbin and his startup have won the $100,000 grand prize in a national entrepreneurship contest sponsored by Ketel One and GQ. The win includes a handsome spread in the February issue of the men's fashion magazine, which hits newsstands today.

Long regarded as so much dead wood -- and a fire hazard -- beetle-killed pine has emerged as a chic, trendy material for everything from coffee tables to kitchen cabinets, as detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article on the booming cottage industry, which made prominent mention of Clay's company, Azure Furniture. The distinctive blue stain of the wood, a result of a fungus that the beetles bring with them, is part of the exotic appeal; so is the lower price, although Clay's Shaker-like room tables can run as high as $1200.

Clay got interested in the field when he began to see the devastating impact of the beetle epidemic on Colorado forests -- and all the "useless" wood left behind. "I thought it was pretty silly that nobody was doing anything about it," he says. "Then I realized I was part of that nobody."

Building a market for beetle-killed pine involves educating consumers about the product, Clay notes. People ask if there are still beetles lurking in the wood (nope) or if the fungus is still active (nope again). It was partly his drive to explain the eco-friendly aspects of his work that motivated him to enter "A Gentleman's Call," the Ketel One GQ challenge to entrepreneurs. He applied online and didn't think much about it until he learned he was one of only five finalists.

"Ketel One, they're very interested in promoting the idea of craft," Clay says. "It's pretty cool when you have a company that large that puts their money where their mouth is."

Clay plans to use his winnings to help grow his company. "Our ultimate goal is to make our pieces more affordable," he says. "As you get greater economies of scale, you're able to offer more breaks to the consumer."

More from our Environment archive: "Ongoing drought news great for beetles, bad for us."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast