80 years of history, from 1930s Istanbul to Thessaloniki today. Enjoy.
In early 1930’s Istanbul, young George Sofianos went to work selling furniture in an uncle’s store. Working after shop hours to earn extra money, and already recognized for the attention he gave to anything he did, George soon developed a successful sideline of calling on private homes to French polish older pieces of furniture, using his own hand-mixed shellac. But by 1936, George had had enough of being a furniture salesman, and of polishing. He figured it was time to open his own business, setting up shop selling the fine veneers he’d come to love to craftsman throughout the Bosphorus.
In 1946, George relocated his business to Athens, Greece. The timing was fortuitous. Post-war Athens was booming as the city grew at rapid pace, and people needed furniture to fill all those newly-constructed apartments. George was there to supply cabinetmakers with same top quality veneers that he had been known for back in Istanbul.
As in Istanbul, George made quality customer service and a wide selection of veneer top priorities—values that even today remain a hallmark of the company he built. But George was also the first to understand the importance of displaying merchandise in a visually appealing and organized way. In 1940’s Athens, veneer merchants still had a rather haphazard way of storing their veneers. Sheets were usually stacked, slapdash, into unsorted piles and were often damaged or torn at their edges. Descriptions, if there were any, were illegibly scribbled directly onto the wood. And customers were sold loose, unwrapped veneer bundles that they carried over their shoulder back to their workshops, either by foot or on the public bus. George was horrified. He also saw an opportunity to do things differently from his competitors: namely, treat his customers with respect.
George made certain his displays were well-organized and attractively presented, while care was given to the handling of each sheet of veneer. Product details were clearly written. Purchased veneers were rolled and wrapped in paper, making the trip back to the workshop an easier journey and insuring that they arrived in perfect condition. And George did one more thing that other veneer merchants didn’t: he sold his clients what they actually wanted. Instead of being forced to buy veneers in bundles of either 24 or 32 sheets as was the practice at the time, if a customer wanted just two sheets, he bought just two sheets. Or six. Or sixteen. Or Thirty-six. As long as bundles could be divided in two (veneers are sliced in mirror images, like the opposite pages in a book), George would sell his customers what they needed. It didn’t take long for George’s new store to become an unequivocal success.
By 1963, George had opened a second branch of his veneer business in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. One year later, he’d acquired a veneer manufacturing factory there as well. For the next 30 years, George produced wood veneer for Greece, and for exporting abroad.
Although his company, G. Sofianos SA, became a well-known veneer manufacturer, profits alone were not the real reason that George began producing wood veneer. Perhaps it was from those early days of French polishing fine furniture, a job requiring both skill and attention to detail, but somewhere along the line George had grown a deep appreciation for the beauty and tactile texture of wood. As Akis Tsirigotis, George’s eldest grandson explains it, “Pappou just loved wood. If working with wood hadn’t been his business, he would have found some way to work with it as a hobby.”
As a veneer manufacture, George was now able to travel widely, sourcing then-unusual lumber ranging from zebrano to Rio and Indian rosewoods. George had an eye for knowing which logs were going to produce the most beautiful veneers, but it was the roulette-like suspense of seeing them sliced open – of seeing for the first time whether or not he’d chosen well – that appealed to his gambler’s heart. George liked to win, and he usually did; as with black jack, a game he occasionally enjoyed, purchasing wood for a factory required both a willingness to risk, and skill.
One of the many things that set G. Sofianos S.A. apart from its competitors was George’s innovative approach to slicing logs into veneer. Although manufacturers used a variety of machinery, veneer production in those days was still very much art and technique – or, more frequently, hit and miss, depending on the skill of the person manning the boiling vats and the saw. George became an expert at both, and he trained his workmen to become experts as well. Too long a time in the vats changed the colour of the wood; an unsteady hand at the knife produced veneers that were uneven in thickness and texture, but Sofianos veneers were widely appreciated because of their colour, consistency and beauty.
An unexpected outcome of George’s enthusiasm for sourcing such an unusual variety of woods was the interest of local instrument makers. Since not every part of a log could be sliced into veneer, offcuts of wood, beautiful in themselves, would be set aside for other purposes. Many of the logs that George was able to locate in the 1960s and ‘70s – Rio rosewood, for example – were almost impossible to buy in those days, and are often difficult to find even now. Word of mouth began to spread between luthiers that the veneer factory had ebony, rosewood and other exotic timbers for sale, and it wasn’t long before George was receiving a steady stream of instrument makers searching for that perfect piece wood. The longstanding association of G. Sofianos SA with the world of luthiery was born.
Thessaloniki 1975 - 1989
Although George worked for many more years at the company he built, eventually the time came to hand over the reins of his business to the next generation of family members. In 1975, George’s daughter, Alice Sophianou-Tsirigoti, took over the management of G. Sofianos SA, serving until 1989 when Alice’s eldest son, Akis Tsirigotis, was named company president. Akis worked closely with suppliers and customers, helping the business evolve to a changing environment while continued to run the factory floor.
Several years later Akis’ younger brother, Yiorgos, also came on board, taking over the responsibility for the business’s accounting and computer systems, and eventually building and administrating the Sofianos website.
Akis and Yiorgos had both grown up on the factory floor, learning about logs and veneers by the side of their grandfather, George, so it was a natural transition for them to take over the family business. Together, the two brothers steered G. Sofianos SA firmly into the new century.
While still maintaining the business’s core as fine veneer merchants to cabinetmaker and craftsmen throughout Greece and neighboring countries, Akis and Yiorgos began to actively strengthen the company’s long-term association with instrument makers. Not unlike their grandfather, George, and his passion for hunting down the best woods and the newest materials, they searched for ways to better serve the luthiery community, expanding their inventory to include an extensive range of luthiery supplies. They also increased the number of services available, including those offered to online customers. “Each piece of wood has its own character, its own identity – even its own sound,” explains Yiorgos. “Because of our experience in woodworking and marquetry, we’re able to provide luthiers with a range of custom services in our workshop, something that most other luthiery suppliers aren’t really able to do. We feel it makes a difference”.
Today, George’s grandsons continue to seek ways to better serve their customers. Woodworkers, both professional and amateur, continue to rely on G. Sofianos SA for its high-quality veneers. Architects and designers appreciate Sofianos hand-built door panels, as well as a bespoke design and marquetry service based on decades of experience. Just as it was with George, service continues to be the Tsirigotis brothers’ top priority.
If George were still here today, he’d be proud.