Ann Arbor picture frame manufacturer employing former prisoners expands business, moves to Saline

Urban Ashes recently announced a move into the former Johnson Controls factory at 135 E. Bennett St., Suite 15, in Saline in order to make room for an expansion into commercial contract furnishing and OEM picture frame manufacturing.


Paul Hickman founded the design and fabrication company in Ann Arbor in 2009 as a social enterprise employing former prisoners to make photo frames with reclaimed wood and non-toxic finish.


As the company expanded into other markets, including furniture, it became necessary to find a bigger space. Hickman says the company was "under the gun," running out of time on an extension of the lease at its old Ann Arbor location, when he ran across the Johnson Controls building in Saline. The building was in rough shape and hadn't had any updates in more than five years.


"We had to look pretty hard at the space to see the potential there, and luckily the landlord was willing to invest some money in replacing the roof and investing in the building," Hickman says. "We saw the raw space as being a really nice partner with what we do, reviving things and bringing things back to life. We weren't out looking for that, but it fit really well."


Hickman says the previous location's layout was "chopped up" on different levels, with wood storage and the shop floor on a different level from the offices and showroom. The new space is almost 9,000 square feet, up from about 3,000 at the old location.


"We're working on much larger pieces and higher volumes, so we need more equipment and more space," Hickman says.


Urban Ashes' move into commercial contract furnishings means the company will be providing custom-made furniture made from reclaimed wood for restaurants, hotels, health care settings, and other retail and commercial uses, including large conference tables for boardrooms.


Urban Ashes has already provided all the furniture for J.B.'s Smokehouse in Canton and large tables for the Detroit Foundation Hotel.


Hickman says the term "original equipment manufacturing" usually is applied to automotive firms but it is being used more for other industries as well. The expansion into OEM means that Urban Ashes will make picture frames for other companies who will then use the frames with their products and finishings and sell them under their own brands, rather than under the Urban Ashes brand.


Urban Ashes will also continue its focus on custom framing for more than 250 framing stores in 44 states, Hickman says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Urban Ashes.

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