George Bernal is in a hurry. It's been raining all morning, but there's finally a break. He and his team rush to roll out a emerald green velvet couch they built in their warehouse, a small shop in a SanTana industrial complex. Its final destination is the soon to-open Vacation Bar in downtown.
“I’ve always wanted to create things and always wanted to build things—it’s like my therapy,” says the 39-year-old. “People do all kinds of stuff; for me, it’s using my hands.”
Bernal is a designer and fabricator specializing in custom furniture, visual display and metal fabrication. His custom designs dot Orange County: Including an office design build for Live Love Spa; a chair collaboration and other custom work for Harvey’s Seatbelt Bags; communal tables and entire build out design for Oceans and Earth in Yorba Linda; an eco-green revamp at the Spa at Laguna Cliffs Marriott; and tables and benches for Alta Baja Market.
For Bernal, each design starts as an idea, brewing in his mind (he doesn’t sketch or write anything down). Eventually, through the building process, from a single piece of wood his idea is transformed into a custom piece of furniture. He cuts, joins, assembles and finishes each piece by hand, creating works that are classic yet forward-thinking, clean and functional. His subtle signature details create a timeless appeal in each unique furniture piece.
“A lot of my inspiration comes from my hikes,” he says. Influenced by raw organic elements and by the famous American woodworker, George Nakashima, Bernal tries to keep things simple. “With a lot of the table designs that I’m doing for Vacation Bar, I try to find live edge pieces to keep the natural components intact while incorporating modern features,” he says.
A native son of SanTana, Bernal says his adolescence was always nomadic, with enough life experiences for multiple lives. Like the summer he decided to run away with the circus. “I just turned 18, and graduated from high school and didn’t have anything lined up,” he says. He decided to advantage of an opportunity presented by his girlfriend’s parents at the time and joined a European single ring traveling company in the East Coast. “My first show with the circus was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.,” he says. “Setting up a brand new tent that just came off a boat from Italy.”
Bernal traveled around the U.S. with them for four years. “I learned how to use certain tools, and developed skills to build and create props for the show,” he says. The owners, artists and all those involved became like family. “ I never met people who were so loving, giving and caring,” he says. But when it came to work, Bernal said you had to be tough and work hard, in which he attributes to his strong work ethic.
Homesick, the thrill of the circus came to an end and Bernal returned to Orange County. But he only stayed for a bit. In his early twenties, he learned how to start up a business first hand, with a stint in Turkey opening up a coffee shop for a customer he met while working at Starbucks. “ It’s funny because I don’t even drink coffee, I’m sensitive to caffeine,” he says. “I missed the travel. when I was with the circus, I had gotten used to being somewhere new every few months. I expedited my passport and I was on a plane to Istanbul.”
Within a year, Bernal helped design a coffee shop, creating an atmosphere with a vision of something that you would have here in the United States.
Bernal returned home, found a partner, worked for a sign company out of Newport and fathered a baby daughter, named Emily. But she fell ill, and passed away in 2004.
“With that happening, I had a choice," he said. "Drown in my sorrows because I lost someone that meant the world to me? Instead, I decided right then and there that I needed to do something with my life. I realized that I was doing everything at the sign shop I was working at and asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do this on my own?’"
Bernal borrowed $10,000 from a friend and in 2005 launched Anatomical Design, creating signs, custom retail fixtures and tradeshow booths for companies. His first job was with Remo Drums for the NAMM show—a much-needed boost for his soul. From that followed opportunities to do work for Ezekiel, 686 and Rip Curl.
“All these opportunities kept landing and the company just kinda took off," he says. "It was a success overnight and I payed the money back.”
One of Bernal’s first clients was Dana Harvey, namesake founder and owner of Harvey’s seatbelt bags. “A year into my company, Dana reached out to get signage and from that we hit it off and they asked if I could be their go-to guy,” he says. “I helped him build their retail store off of Melrose, up in Hollywood.” The two lived in an Airstream for about two months in the back of the building and built the store from the ground up.
Bernal believes in surrounding oneself with talented, creative, skilled individuals, saying it pushes you to be better yourself. That's how he got involved with Vacation Bar. “Chris [Parker, Vacation Bar owner] and I got together, came up with a concept and it’s been nonstop ever since,” he says. “I would say 98% of the bar is resourced locally here in Santa Ana. It’s about community and if I can support local, I’m going to do that.” He goes to A-1 Foam and Fabrics for all his upholstery and Austin Wood for all his lumber, like the white oak you’ll soon see in Vacation Bar.
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Bernal is standing at his workbench looking down at piece of wood while his shop dog, an English Bulldog named Lucile runs around with a piece of plywood in her mouth.
“I’ve spent over a decade trying to get where I’m at and I’m happy to be doing it in Santa Ana,” he says. “It’s the best feeling when I get to go into my shop every morning and say I’m gonna design a chair today and figure out ways to make it functional, sustainable and last forever.”