VANCOUVERITES: Eight Minutes With Local, Sustainable Furniture Craftsman Jeff Martin
by Jenny Bachynski | Jeff Martin is the founder and principle designer behind Jeff Martin Joinery – a small furniture design studio based out of Vancouver. All pieces are handmade and designed locally with a heavy focus on quality materials and traditional crafting techniques. Jeff’s beautiful, sustainable creations have been featured around the globe and his dedication to his work is evident in every piece. I spoke with him to learn more about his process and to hear his views on where furniture design is heading.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how Jeff Martin Joinery came to be? Well, I grew up in Vancouver and at 18 I moved away to school in Quebec to study business. In my first year of school I broke my back in a pretty gnarly accident. I faced the very real threat of paralysis, and it served as an immense wake up call for me. I finished school and once I graduated I immediately knew that I wanted to learn a trade. I wanted to be up on my feet working with my hands. My thinking at the time was that I wanted to learn how to build my own house. I thought carpentry is a very honorable pursuit and the ideals upheld within this trade are of the utmost importance to leading a good life. So I got cracking on it. And I went through a fairly natural transition from wearing the tool belt to donning a shop apron and pursuing furniture design. I just built stuff for my girlfriend and for our house. Then friends would ask me to make them things, and family friends, and so on. I was just happy to do the work – I would simply charge for materials and essentially do the work for free. Really, without the support of my family and friends, and especially my fiancee, I wouldn’t have gotten it off the ground.
Last year I was awarded an opportunity to apprentice underneath celebrated designer, Palo Samko, out of his modest studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. After about a month there, Palo recognized that I could cope in the shop and he started giving me his orders for solid furniture while him and his team worked largely on cabinets and kitchen remodels. If you have experience in the trade you would know what that means. Palo let me go wild – just play with the orders. It was very generous of him. Again, I wouldn’t have learned so much if he wasn’t such a great mentor. It was incredible. Palo is one of my favorite designers in the world and he continues to be my mentor, plus we got along so well. During the apprenticeship Palo asked me which piece I liked the most from his cannon of work and I told him it was this bronze cabinetmaker’s mallet sculpture. You know it’s not furniture, it’s a simple, small sculpture he did – just a trinket for himself. And on the last day of the apprenticeship Palo gave that to me as a parting gift.
Palo thinks I should set up shop in New York, but Vancouver is my home. I love it here and I’ll fight like an animal to make the business work on the West Coast. Everyday I get to go to the shop I’m as happy as a dog. I wake up with a wagging tail, there’s no down time. And I’ve been doing it for about 4 years now.
What is your favourite and least favourite thing about working with wood? I love everything about wood. I love the botany, the science, the history of different species of wood. I love the grain and structure of wood. I love the smell, weight, and presence of wood. There is nothing I dislike about wood. I dislike what man does with wood and that’s one my main reasons for working with wood. It’s not really expressively stated about my materials – but I source everything from sustainable and responsible companies. My walnut comes from Oregon and California and is only harvested due to rot from orchards and the city streets of Portland, San Fran and the like. I avoid wood that comes from the forest unless it is windfall.
If you could hire anyone to work for you, who it would be? I love working with my friends, and most of them are good with their hands and are pretty bright dudes as well. I’d take friends over a cabinetmaker or a stuck up design school grad any day of the week. Actually, I think working with a sculptor would be really cool. If I could afford it – I would go back and work for Palo for another year, or perhaps down to Joshua Tree to apprentice under sculptor Alma Allen. His work is absolutely incredible.
How important is style to you compared to functionality? Is it hard to find that perfect balance? I’m not sure if style is the right word, I concentrate on building a certain aesthetic. Shape, composition, colour, materials, layout, and execution are elements of the work I take very seriously. So in that sense, I think those factors are what all artists use in their respective tool boxes. The one difference between what we consider fine art and furniture design is that element of functionality. A furniture builder must consider and build to human proportions. An 8 foot tall table or 10000 square foot bed would be fun to make in a sculptural sense, but useless as furniture. We must strive for both, and each cut in a piece of wood is testament to the nature of this duality.
Who or what inspires your work? I really love shapes and playing with different forms. Experimentation is a great inspiration for me, as are the materials themselves. I really love the sculpture from Giuseppe Penone, Constantin Brancusi, JB Blunk, Alma Allen, Harry Bertoia, and Josh Vogel. And the furniture from Tyler Hays, Palo Samko, and George Nakashima. I think there’s lot of other individual pieces from a slew of people that I really like – but these guys – their collections of work are complete and profoundly beautiful. These are the masters, virtuosic in a sense, and their work leaves me shaken.
What do you think Vancouverites are looking for in their furniture? Is that something you take into heavy consideration when designing a piece? People want to relate to their furniture. It may sound stupid, but you live with it, and therefore represents a major decision in your life. You curate an ensemble of design that you live with for many years – and it’s actually quite important. Having a nice setting can make you feel good on the most basic level, and can be something much more profound if you find that special piece. That’s why there will always be a market. The big box guys will never be able to get personal enough to help you relate. And the guys who don’t care about execution and actually controlling the production of their pieces will never make a piece done flawlessly. From material sourcing to design and construction – I build for the upscale Vancouver market, but my work sells to international clientele as well.
In all of your travels, where have you found the most beautiful wood and what type was it? Portland, Oregon has some of the nicest Claro Walnut in the world. The Willamete Valley produces astoundingly fantastic grapes for Pinot Noir. It has something to do with the humidity, temperature, lack of snow, and the iron rich soils. Fortunately there is an abundance of Western Walnut here which benefits from the same factors. Looking at a piece of Claro Walnut side by side with American Black Walnut is incredible. Black Walnut is monochrome – it is brown. It is beautiful, but it is brown. Claro Walnut is Calexico in colour. From silver to purple, grey orange, black and blue. It is largely considered the most beautiful wood in the world. And it’s right here in the Pacific Northwest, harvested exclusively from responsible sources.
Do you have a favourite piece that you have designed or are most proud of? I have about 20 pieces in my house right now. The collection is awesome. Picking a favourite is tough. I like our bedroom set. It’s a ‘patchwork’ claro walnut bed, matching side tables in bleached Maple, Bastogne Walnut, and leather. And we have a coffee table at the foot of the bed. The top was a reject from the Nakashima studio, and the base is rosewood. It was the first birthday present I made for my lovely girlfriend. I’m also designing a new dining room table for some close friends in North Vancouver. The top is 3″ thick claro Walnut over a cast bronze base. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be my new fav!
Working with wood (especially in the way that you do) seems like such an organic experience. Do environmental issues influence the way you source and build your materials? Absolutely. The lumber I use is flagged for removal due to rot or disease by professional arboriculturalists, milled and hauled away by bio-diesel fueled trucks, cured in solar powered kilns, then worked on and finished with all-natural oils. Additionally, the joinery and construction methods I use are guaranteed under warranty for 25 years – but should last for generations. I believe that durability is the grandfather notion behind sustainability.
While in my studio, I can’t live without my….? Dust, eye, and ear protection. It’s a hazardous place and you have to play safe!
Thanks Jeff! To find out more visit www.jeffmartinjoinery.ca.
Jenny Bachynski was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta. In her teenage years she packed up her bags and headed to Vancouver to pursue further education in fashion design. In 2009 she started her own small business Jenny Andrews Recycled Leather Goods, as well as her blog Jenny Loves. After starting her blog, Jenny discovered that one of her greatest joys was stumbling upon beautiful and interesting things, and sharing them with anyone who would listen.