EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Back when Robb Bokich was a poor college student, he couldn't afford store-bought furniture, so he decided to make his own.
Inspired by the comfort of a friend's pillow chair, he bought fabric and foam and borrowed a sewing machine. He worked 26 hours straight. When he was done, he had his own piece of furniture — and the germ of a cottage business.
Bokich is now in his 35th year of operating Robb's Pillow Furniture out of a house on River Road. He was a fixture at the Saturday Market for years, and is a regular at the Oregon Country Fair.
Bokich has been working with what amounts to half a body. He suffered a massive brain injury when he was 16 that paralyzed the left side of his body. Today, through perseverance and not a little ingenuity, Bokich, with his wife, Emily Wille, has been able to steadily build his business.
"I started the company with the theme of furniture people could afford," he said.
Several years ago, a friend and neighbor, Mary-Minn Sirag, helped Bokich discover a new market for his furniture. Sirag, who has autism, liked Bokich's chairs, and realized their design would appeal to other people with autism.
"It really hugs you tight," she said. "People with autism often want sensory registration, and part of that is to be snuggled up tight."
Bokich donated a chair for an auction to benefit Sirag's group, KindTree Productions (Autism Rocks!), a nonprofit arts and education group for the autism community, and the word began to spread about the chairs. At Sirag's suggestion, Bokich and Wille renamed one of their signature chairs, from the Raindrop Chair to the Hug Chair. They attended autism conferences, and started a separate Web site called www.autismfurniture.com.
Tammy Andersson of Cincinnati, mother of an 11-year-old boy named Lucas who has Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, came across Bokich's site while searching the Web for autism resources. Lucas has a hard time relaxing and difficulty sleeping on conventional mattresses. She bought a pillow chair last March, and Lucas has slept in it every night since, she said.
"He sleeps really well on Robb's pillow furniture," she said. "It's firm yet it has a floaty feel."
Bokich's business is a family business, with no other employees. Bokich and Wille are assisted by Wille's son, Jeff, who plans to take over the business when Bokich is ready to retire.
In 1967, when Bokich was 16 and living in Idaho, he went on a car trip to Eugene with his sister and a family friend. Near Blue River, a drunk driver smashed head-on into their car. His sister was killed. The driver suffered massive leg injuries. Bokich was riding in the back seat, where the force of the crash rammed the knob of the window crank into the side of his head and tore a hole in his skull. He was in a coma for 3½ months.
When he awoke, he couldn't walk or talk. The left side of his body was paralyzed, the muscles atrophied from lack of movement.
Bokich lived in a rehabilitation center for a year, and then went back to high school. His parents made him walk to school. He was unable to talk, he drooled, and he couldn't eat or drink properly.
"My high school social life was a disaster," he said.
His plans to study engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were smashed as well. He decided to go to college in Eugene, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Oregon. But he elected not to pursue a career in psychology, deciding instead to make and sell foam-filled furniture.
His first piece was a cube-shaped chair. Friends saw it and liked it. So he bought more fabric and foam and kept sewing. He started selling his pieces at the Saturday Market about 1973. He also tried to drum up customers by propping a cardboard sign against a tree in front of his house. But he struggled to establish the business.
"It was tough going in the early years," he said.
On market days, he would get up at 2 a.m. and spend 2½ hours setting up his booth. If it rained, he towel-dried the pavement before putting down carpet. Then he'd sleep for a few hours until the market opened.
Along the way, he developed technological innovations that helped ease production. Early on, he bought an industrial sewing machine that was 10 or more times faster than the 1929 Singer he had been using.
And he was determined to figure out a better way to cut big chunks of foam into bite-size pieces. He ended up buying an antique wool carder from a farmer, a machine designed to straighten and clean yarn fibers.
Bokich started experimenting with the machine, trying different teeth in different configurations until he got it to cut the foam the way he wanted.
"It took more than a year to get it right," he said.
A turning point for the business came in the late 1970s, when futons began growing in popularity in the United States. People who liked his pillow chairs asked if he made futons. He didn't, but he started.
"I jumped on the bandwagon," he said.
His futon business took off, enabling him in 1985 to stop selling at Saturday Market and focus on his home business.
He still sells futons and, with the help of Wille, has diversified into other furniture, including bunk beds, conventional mattresses and dressers.
Bokich has done well despite purposefully staying small and keeping his prices low, he said. His signature Raindrop chair starts at $79; a four-piece love seat set starts at $319.
About three years ago, someone from Gateway Mall contacted him about a space that had opened up. But Bokich and Wille decided to stay put.
"It would have meant a huge increase in prices," Wille said. "We don't want to be huge. We like living in Eugene. We like our lifestyle."
(Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.)