Profiles, Journal of National Kitchen and Bath Association
Fall 2004 | By Miranda Hitti
George Wurtzel was born to build. The 50-year-old founder and owner of CounterPoint Creations in Lansing, Mich., says he’s “the absolute happiest” when he’s in his shop, making cabinets and countertops. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Wurtzel. “I enjoy what I do.” Finding fulfilling work – and sustaining that passion for some 30 years – is an accomplishment many professionals can admire. His company’s projects are about 70 percent residential and 30 percent commercial, and focus on fabricating solid-surface and laminate countertops, constructing cabinets, and renovating kitchens.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Profiles, Journal of National Kitchen and Bath Association.
If Wurtzel had his way, he’d go about his business without any fanfare. “I generally let my work speak for itself,” says Wurtzel, who is also a licensed builder with a degree in furniture production management and numerous certifications for solid-surface fabrication. He prefers to downplay a personal trait that, to him, is almost beside the point: “I’m totally blind. I don’t see at all,” says Wurtzel. “Seeing or not seeing doesn’t have anything to do with how your brain functions,” he continues. “You don’t really design on paper… I lay it all out in my brain. Lots of people sit down and start sketching. I don’t do that. You can take an image on a computer and rotate that image – I’m very good at doing the exact same thing in my mind.” Aptitude tests confirmed that Wurtzel has a “visual/ kinesthetic” way of thinking. He talks about going to “look” at a space. “Looking can be taking tactile information and putting it into visual information without any trouble,” he explains.
Wurtzel approaches his work like many designers. First, he identifies clients’ goals – “their wants, needs and desires,” he says. On new construction projects, he determines where the walls and windows will be placed, along with the room’s size and traffic flow. For remodeling jobs, he visits the site, asks the client what they like and dislike about the space, walks around the room and takes measurements, using a standard tape measure with an audio output and a mechanical ruler.
A degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa caused Wurtzel’s blindness, gradually eroding his eyesight until it was completely gone by the time he was 20 years old. Before then, Wurtzel says he could see things in bright light but never had sufficient sight to be able to read “I’m passionate about braille literacy,” said Wurtzel. “About 70 percent of all blind people are unemployed. Of the 30 percent who are employed, 80 percent of those are braille readers. Braille is one of the important tools I deem necessary to make me successful.” Having had limited vision as a child, Wurtzel knows what colors look like, which helps him on the job. “I’m always pestering people, ‘What color is it? What are the backgrounds, foregrounds and tones? Is it a solid color? Is the particulate cream of wheat, veins, omni directional, or directional? Is it beige-y, is it blue, is it yellow?’ I try to catalogue these things in my mind.”
Wurtzel got an early introduction to his field. “I originally went to a vocational program to be a Volkswagen mechanic,” he says. Disliking the grease and grime, Wurtzel opted to work with a boat-building friend. When a customer requested a custom-made showcase, Wurtzel’s friend volunteered him for the job. Wurtzel’s next break gave him a boost. “I started building some lawn furniture, putting it out in the yard for sale,” says Wurtzel. “A man came along and bought a couple of my lawn chairs. He came back two weeks later and said he wanted 200 of them.” Wurtzel took the job, bought a joiner and a radial arm saw with his brother’s charge card, and never looked back. “I just progressed from there,” he says. He got his first commercial job around 1974, installing all the cabinets and counters for a Michigan dental lab.
After running Wurtzel Woodworking, his own custom cabinet and millwork shop in Traverse City, Mich., Wurtzel moved to Hickory, N.C. in 1982 to study furniture production management at Catawba Valley Community College. He earned his degree, staying in North Carolina for 15 years. During that time, he made prototypes for a furniture sample builder. “We built a little bit of everything,” says Wurtzel, who also built a factory to produce European-styled cabinets. “I had just finished going to college for two years, and I had a good idea of production flow,” he says. “I’ve done a few other things,” adds Wurtzel. “I started a small company in North Carolina that manufactured triangular-shaped [wooden] boxes for veterans’ flags. I built the prototypes for that. I was the marketing person; I didn’t do the manufacturing myself. I ran it for three years and sold it to someone who saw the potential and had lots of capital to go out and pursue it.” In 1997, Wurtzel returned to Michigan, opening CounterPoint Creations in 1999. He credits his career’s longevity to perseverance. Having explored the marketing end of the business, Wurtzel favors hands-on work. “I much prefer the shop end of it,” he says.
Wurtzel’s employees include an office manager, designer and four shop workers. Sharon Burton, a CounterPoint staffer and Wurtzel’s long-time girlfriend, has watched Wurtzel work over the years. “He does amazing things. He can touch a table and say, ‘Oh, mahogany.’ He can tell the species by touching the wood,” says Burton. “If he’s been in a house once, he walks straight through it without any hesitation,” she continues. “You don’t think he’s blind. He can re-plumb the sink. He hooks up gas piping for people. He can’t finish dry wall, but he hangs drywall. He cuts the holes precisely.
Occasionally, Wurtzel’s clients are unaware of his blindness. “Due to the fact that this is not a one-person operation, I’ve had occasions when the people have never met me. I’ve been at their house working. Sometimes, they’re quite astonished,” says Wurtzel, who generally doesn’t broach the topic of his blindness. He once worked in a client’s house for two full days without her noticing anything unusual about his sight. “I was cleaning up, getting ready to leave and settle up with the paperwork,” Wurtzel says. He handed her the invoice upside down. “She said, ‘There’s nothing on here,’” says Wurtzel. He apologized, explained and handed her back the paper, right-side up. “She was dumbfounded,” he says. “Those are things that happen,” says Wurtzel, who initiates handshakes to avoid not seeing a client’s outstretched hand. “First and foremost, I am a good engineer, good designer and good woodworker who happens to be blind.”
His clients agree. George Lambert, a licensed contractor, hired Wurtzel to renovate properties, including his own home, where Wurtzel re-did Lambert’s three baths and kitchen, built and installed custom cabinetry in the living room and revamped two home offices. “He’s very intelligent and has an extremely good memory,” says Lambert. “You talk to him like you would a sighted person. You forget that he’s blind.” Lambert remembers being astounded when Wurtzel walked into his house after traveling a route with multiple turns, pointed at the kitchen wall and said, “That’s the west wall” with no hesitation. “You look around and say, ‘What does he do next?’” Lambert wonders. “He is very good at guiding people into what will work in the space. I’ve probably owned hundreds of properties. He’s up near the top. He does the quality work you would expect, that you were paying for.” ??
Living Without Limits
In his spare time, Wurtzel serves on the board of directors for a camp for blind people. He has participated in an organization called Ski for Light, a skiing group for visually and mobility-impaired adults, and once skied 500 miles across Lapland, Finland. Wurtzel wants blind students to get the chance to chase their dreams, too. “Our school system in the state of Michigan has deteriorated the amount of education blind kids are getting, as far as anything above and beyond [academics]. They’re not getting woodshop, metal shop. As bizarre as it sounds, they won’t let blind people take phys ed. I can get up on a stump and rail about it,” he says. “I’m capable of doing what I do today because I had opportunities as a kid to learn those kinds of things.” “One of the things I try to get people to understand is when people say they can do this or that, you have to look at their work, not if they can see or can’t see, if they’re in a wheelchair or not in a wheelchair, if they’re short or tall,” Wurtzel says. Life is too short for anyone to sit on the sidelines, no matter what abilities they enjoy.