Tom Llewellyn talks wood and philosophy with Urban Hardwoods owner and founder Jim Newsom
Walk by the Urban Hardwoods showroom on First Avenue in Seattle's Belltown. Or try to. These are difficult windows to pass without stopping. Beckoning from inside are huge slabs of lumber polished to an unbelievable sheen, making every line of wood grain stand out like hand-painted lines on a giant canvas. These slabs have been simply formed into massive dining tables. It looks as if a furniture maker went on a killing spree in the last remaining stand of old-growth.
This is the table your kids will fight over when you're dead. That's what it's all about.
Calm down, hippies. That's not what happened. You might even say, "No trees were harmed in the making of this furniture." At least great lengths were taken to minimize harm. Because Urban Hardwoods takes green seriously. Their raw material comes almost solely from city trees that have fallen due to wind, disease or necessary hazardous removal. In most cases, the trees the work with died of old age. And many of the trees they work with have passed the century mark. But this isn't some ecological project. This is fine furniture, first and foremost. And the fineness of it is what will draw you in the showroom door. It is some of the most drool-worthy furniture you've ever seen. There is little noticeable decoration to it. No scrollwork, no dovetailed joints and no veneer inlays. Just slabs of wood as purely, simply displayed as possible.
"I'm a firm believer that craftsmanship should be a silent art.," says Urban Hardwoods owner and founder Jim Newsom. "It requires a lot of discipline to keep it this simple, but we try to remember that our job is to show off nature's workmanship, not ours."
It's hard to get Jim to theorize on why his furniture has such a strong appeal. "I don't get into all that squishy philosophy stuff," he says, "but I will admit—I do think our furniture connects on a primal level." He's right. His tables look like the power desks of type-A cavemen executives. Newsom's a fiftyish man with salt-and-pepper hair cut short and neat. A lifelong woodworker—he got his start in junior-high woodshop—he's doing what he loves for a living. He's turned his crazy idea of building furniture from found, fallen trees into a successful business. This is what he was born for. So why's he seem so stressed?
"We do three million dollars a year with just four woodworkers. That's a feat I'm mighty proud of. But I never thought I'd be a retail store owner. That scares me to death. I'm really proud of the business. But retailing is terrifying."
A UH table retails for between four and fifteen thousand dollars. A lot? Maybe. "But this isn't temporary furniture," says Jim in full-on preacher mode. "This is the table your kids will fight over when you're dead. That's what it's all about." In addition to an online store, Urban Hardwoods now has showrooms in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Jim used to also sell through Nordstrom, but he doesn't make repeatable lines of furniture. Each piece is unique, based on the tree it came from and, as he likes to say, "It's only for sale until it's sold."
I don't get into all that squishy philosophy stuff, but I will admit—I do think our furniture connects on a primal level.
What kind of operation does it take to make this much furniture? Jim has some nifty tools, some of which were custom-built for his unique needs, others which he ripped the computer controls off of because his needs are so simple. But mostly he has tons of wood. "This has been the big lesson for us," says Newsom. "Respect the raw material."
He does respect it. The eye-popping part of his plant tour (don't ask for one, by the way) is what he calls the Green Room, where freshly sawn slabs wait for the big show. This is a Warehouse of Unusual Size, stacked to the rafters with dissected hardwood trees: walnut, madrone, maple, birch, elm, oak, and more. It's the room where good trees come after they die. And they remain in Jim's purgatory for three solid years. Be patient. Keep it simple. These are the two hardest parts of the job at Urban Hardwoods. And the most important. If the wood is allowed to dry, it cracks less. If the design shows off the natural beauty of the wood, instead of hiding it with stains and decoration, the people gawk. Even Jim would admit that nature did the real work here. His main job is to stay the hell out of the way.
+ visit www.urbanhardwoods.com