Talk to Kory Helgens for any length of time and you may come away believing in fate. At the very least, you’ll agree that his Marion, Iowa-based company Spring Run Design Co. truly lives up to its motto: “Born from the storm.”
The way Helgens tells it, he was pushed rather forcefully — rather than leaping on his own — towards founding the brand.
“Two storms helped me form this business and they are the foundation of the company,” Helgens says. “I still shake my head at how everything got started.”
He first took the leap into self-employment after a straight-line wind felled 63 trees on his family’s rural property in Monticello. Named for the property that inspired its beginnings, Spring Run has evolved over the years, starting in 2015 when Helgens received the fallen wood back from the sawmill.
He spent many late nights in his garage after work teaching himself how to transform that timber, which included old-growth oak, red cedar and black walnut, into tables. It turns out that despite being untrained he has a knack for designing and crafting not just tables, but cutting boards, spoons, coasters and later the company’s logo and T-shirt designs.
He was so successful in his first creative pursuits that he soon quit his job to become a maker full-time. Now Spring Run’s stock sells out regularly, almost weekly, at the Cedar Rapids Downtown Farmers Market and two Iowa stores, Scout in Marion and Farm Shed in Cedar Falls.
Helgens’ second encounter with a life-changing storm was in 2017. While on vacation with his family in Colorado, he survived a lightning strike at an elevation of 9,000 feet. Prior to the trip, Helgens had been feeling resistant to the next steps for his business, such as creating a website. Call it a Midwestern reluctance to appear self-important, or perhaps it was a fear of putting his craftsmanship on display to the entire world instead of just those close to home.
But the message he came home with was, as he casually understates it, “Don’t be slacking. You can do so much more.”
He now felt confident that Spring Run is what he was meant to do. Any lingering doubts he’d been having about his career change were now gone.
During Spring Run’s first year, Helgens reconnected to the outdoor lifestyle he’d grown up with, a welcome change from his previous 12 years spent in an office. He traveled around the state of Iowa seeking out treasure troves of unused timber.
“Iowa was loaded with woodworkers, but now they’ve passed away or unable to work due to old age,” he says. “There was some amazing stuff just sitting there.”
But it’s not just the long hours spent searching for timber that make Spring Run special. Helgens humbly and repeatedly emphasizes that most importantly, it’s the stories that come with it. He was never good at math, he says. In fact, he was a history major in college. “But stories and people — I could always remember those things.” So to honor the stories of the wood he has sourced from around the state, each Spring Run Design Co. piece includes the backstory of the timber on the tag.
Consider Helgens’ own family’s story. Most of the 63 trees which catalyzed Spring Run were planted in 1901 by Helgens’ great grandfather. Two generations spent their childhoods amongst those great green giants, only to see them knocked down by a strong wind, wildly changing one Helgens’ career path.
Prior to that stormy day in 2014, Helgens was happy at his job in the corporate world. “I thought I was the 30 year man.” But two intense weather events — and God, fate, whatever you choose to call it — sent him out into what he playfully deems the “real world,” where he’s found himself chatting face to face with fellow Iowans and swapping tales with customers at local markets and art fairs.
“I couldn’t go back — you just meet so many amazing people out here,” he says now. “Plus, I have so many ideas. It’s not shutting off — every night I have a new idea.”
He also has more time to spend outdoors. Inspired by his experiences in nature, by 2016 Helgens had morphed Spring Run from a woodworking operation into an outdoor lifestyle brand. As of this summer, the brand’s featured products include a fire starter kit, hand-carved canoe paddles, and apparel bearing Helgens’ hand-sketched designs.
The best way to get your hands on Spring Run Design Co. is at the markets where they appear throughout Iowa or at the two above-mentioned stores. It’s true, some items are available on the company’s website, but if you can manage to buy from Helgens in person, you’ll understand why the selection online is so limited. Of course in part that’s due to his process; Spring Run’s small handmade batches often sell out locally before they can be photographed and promoted to non-local buyers. But it’s also because Helgens is a visionary who values getting to know people in his community and state as an integral part of his creative process. He believes, “Everyone’s got a cool story.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have plans to grow. Helgens’ five year plan includes a goal for Spring Run Design Co. to be known not just locally, but throughout the entire state. And although he’s currently the sole employee of the brand, he hopes to eventually delegate some of the varying tasks he has juggled on his own so far.
However, Spring Run continues to evolve, its founder’s magnetic energy and unique stories will inspire wonderment in anyone who encounters him.