Duncan Student Center abounds with ‘Purposeful Design’

Author: Stowe, Gene


Furniture ministry employs once-homeless men

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If you’ve spent any time in Duncan Student Center, you can’t help but notice the attention to detail in the interior architecture and furnishings.

A 37 1/2-foot climbing wall spans three stories; a staircase doubles as bleachers with power outlets at every seat; a grand two-story, two-sided gas fireplace boasts warms nearby café table seating; and comfy, overstuffed couches and chairs feature happy, bright patterns.

There is purpose in the design elements. It’s even in the name of one of the furniture vendors — Purposeful Design.

Purposeful Design produces custom, repurposed wood tables, but it’s more than a company: It’s a fast-growing ministry that provides jobs to once-homeless men, transforming their lives. That meaningful mission aligns well with Notre Dame’s, as both entities strive to be forces for good in the world.

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“They won the bid competitively,” says Julie Boynton, the University’s director of interior architecture, planning, design and construction, who oversaw the development and furnishing of the space. “What was great was the mission and company’s story that went along with it. You rarely find that in the commercial world.”

“The Lord guided him to this work,” says Margaret Carter, who left the market research company with Palmer to become sales manager at Purposeful Design.The story of Purposeful Design begins in 2013, when longtime market research company owner David Palmer felt a call to provide training and employment for homeless men at Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis, where he sometimes preached. Now, the men rebuild their lives while building furniture.


Most of the craftsmen at Purposeful Design have completed a program at Wheeler Mission to overcome addiction and been through intensive counseling. Several of the seven current employees have been with the company nearly from the beginning. In addition to the jobs, which pay up to $16 an hour, employees enjoy a supportive workplace and participate in financial counseling and Bible studies and are encouraged to serve the people around them.

“Most of the men that come to work here have no skills with woodworking,” Carter says, adding that Justin Christian, the head of production who has more than 15 years of woodworking experience, trains them. “The first assignment the men have is to make cutting boards or bread board or coasters. That gets them used to using the equipment. Then Justin works closely with the men on skill development.”


“Not only is the mission incredible — the product is incredible,” Boynton says.The heavy, meticulously constructed hardwood tops, with metal or wooden legs, are designed to handle high traffic and complement the student center’s décor that includes walls built of repurposed football stadium bleacher seats.“Our mission is to train them and develop different skills and improve those skills and continue to give raises so they stick around. It’s important to us that the furniture’s beautiful. Our No. 1 priority is to serve the men, but we also want to have a beautiful product to make the client happy.” They have lots of quality control checks, Carter says, including a sanding and restaining of the Duncan Student Center tables to meet exacting standards.

Purposeful Design’s clients are about 30 percent residential and 70 percent commercial and include Eli Lilly, Roche, Salesforce and Purdue University. The Notre Dame work is especially meaningful for the company’s workers and Carter, a South Bend native whose brother, father and grandfather graduated from  the University .

“I said, ‘Guess what — we are building furniture for Notre Dame!’” Carter recalls. “They went, ‘No way!’ For them to see their furniture in the stadium is really something. I had been blessed to have a great family — eight siblings, amazing parents. Now these men are my family, too.”


Originally published by Stowe, Gene at evp.nd.edu on April 24, 2018.