Soil & Oak has been one of our favorite partners to work with over the years, having created some incredible pieces for our clients all the while being a pleasure to collaborate with. As part of our Artisan Spotlight series shedding light on the makers behind our custom designs, we asked them to tell us about their story and what inspires them in their own words. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself? How’d you get started in your trade?
My work history is a bit unusual: if you’re kind, you would call me a polymath, if you’re honest, you’d probably call me a dilettante. I’ve careened from career path to career path over the last 13 years, which has been really awesome, but also a bit terrifying because I’m 35 and on my 5th or 6th career path.
TL;DR version? I started out working in HIV/AIDS in India in orphanages and human rights groups in Bangalore and New Delhi, planning on a long career of doing good. After law school, I somehow ended up on Wall Street as a corporate lawyer during the financial collapse where I stayed for three years wondering where I’d gone wrong. That is, until I quit and founded a tech startup, Smallknot, a community financing platform for small businesses, which launched to great fanfare but soon flamed out. In about 2013, I landed at a farm-to-table startup called Farmigo. Over the next three years, I went from transporting tomatoes on the back of my motorcycle back to my desk to leading a department of 30 really talented folks. Of course, that company didn’t work out either.
None of this answers the question of how I got started, except to say that nothing in my life was a natural lead-up to my current trade. My work was always intangible -- never physical. I sat in office towers shuffling contracts for investment banks. I sat in board meetings. I was paid generously for basically being good at managing my inbox, literal and metaphorical.
But, soon after I joined Farmigo, my co-worker Kallie and I needed a new desk and decided we wanted a standing desk, after experimenting with some slapdash plywood desks in our office. After searching online for a long time, we reached two conclusions: 1) most standing desks were super ugly and 2) most standing desks were super expensive.
Kallie had studied furniture design at RISD, so I put myself in her hands and we ended up strolling around IKEA fruitlessly for hours during work hours until we just said screw it and decided to buy a kitchen countertop and then pick up some pipes from Home Depot. She was the design. I was the muscle. A few sloppy hours later -- we had our first standing desk. And I was just utterly in love with it.
From then on, we just kept building desks for our office. And each time, learned more about the materials and figured out a process. One day in the summer of 2013, while planning together to quit the company in a fit of rage about a (short-lived) new boss, we decided just to throw the thing on Etsy and see if anyone would pay for this thing.
And it turns out they would!
So, mistake by mistake, sale-by-sale, I just kept learning. Every new design required new concepts, materials and power tools. I started out building tables in my Brooklyn kitchen, knocking over plates and spices and scaring the dog. Eventually, I just started building other requested products and listing them for sale as soon as the first one was done.
Fast forward 4 years, and somehow I find myself doing this full-time out of my woodshop in the Hudson Valley.
What is your day to day like?
Ha, well, it’s not particularly interesting. Though, I will say this -- I wake up everyday without the slightest bit of anxiety or stress. And I spend less than 2-3 hours a week in front of a computer. Which is INSANE given that I used to spend 50-70 hours a week working in front of a screen.
I wake up around 6:30, take the two dogs out and then start making breakfast for my son, Ennis. Work starts around 8 and I generally wrap up by 5 or 6. About 3 hours a week are spent on the road making pickups from my plumbing supply guys, picking up lumber from the lumber yard (or Home Depot), or to our butcher block suppliers. At our current scale, it makes more sense to pick-up as we go, rather than hold inventory. Another 15 hours are spent in my workshop cutting, sanding, staining and getting woodwork done. And the rest of the time is spent traveling to project sites to do deliveries or builds. The vast majority of my computer time can be handled from my phone -- so I just do most of my correspondence while on the road or standing in line at Home Depot.
This does leave me alone for large swaths of the work week, so most of my day-to-day life involves an unusually high volume of podcasts and audiobooks. There’s a lot of pleasure in knowing you’re going to spend the next 5 hours in your workshop listening to a great audiobook about food.
What helps you find inspiration?
I love the process of creation. I get to create physical products with my hands that (usually) get people quite excited. I get to create products that are beautiful and accessible, but above all, deeply functional. I love being a part of creating beautiful things for beautiful spaces. It's really that simple. In the end, I build things that work -- I am not a designer. It’s a great feeling knowing that a desk or a shelf could become a small pleasure and fixture of someone’s daily life.
In a similar vein, I am inspired by entrepreneurs and this whole journey. I love that I get to build a business. I love creating new products and new partnerships and new operational processes. I get as much pleasure out of building a business as I do creating a new piece of furniture. Especially with a hands-on business like this, I spend so much less time with concepts like volume, active users, conversion, liquidity, CAC, LTV and all of the other intangibles I wrestled with in startups. Today, I sell a table for X and I make Y dollars. Done. That simplicity is like a warm hug -- almost therapy from all my previous roles.
Where is your studio located and where do you source your materials from?
I build on my homestead in Putnam Valley (in the lower Hudson Valley). We live in a farmhouse from the 1830s with a fish pond, a mountain, and quite luckily, a 12’ x 16’ corn crib which functions as my workshop. The workshop is quite small, but it has been great to just be able to step in and out of my home and get to my workshop within seconds -- especially with a young son at home.
As for materials, I source my pipes from a plumbing supplier in Westchester and my shelving wood from a local lumber yard or Home Depot, depending on the need. Butcher blocks are sourced commercially from Williamsburg Butcher Block Co., which are more budget friendly than a lot of the more custom hardwood block fabricators. This is all quite different from the early days when I would run to all of the Home Depots in a 30 mile radius and empty out their pipe displays on a regular basis and stand in line in IKEA for hours just to pickup a single butcher block.
What's your favorite thing about collaborating with designers and how has that helped you grow?
Working with designers led me to Becky Shea. Who is the best. But you know that already, don’t you dear reader?
But yeah, my favorite thing is honestly just seeing the end products. I am in a continual state of awe at seeing some of these spaces and feel humbled that I’m a part of it. It's so much fun to walk into a room and just be like "How the $&%# did you decide to do this, here?!"
Every time I work with a designer, I learn something. And every time I learn something new, the boundaries of my understanding extend just a bit further.
Usually, this is a challenging experience because designers just tend to create much more interesting problems and interesting products that often bear no relation to the constraints of real world materials or...well, math.
Sure, the challenge is a pain in the ass -- but it’s also immensely rewarding. There's nothing more satisfying than that type of collaboration -- which often begin with me thinking "what...the hell are you asking me to do...? why?" and ending with "Oh my god. Okay, yeah...that was a great idea.". Quite often, these challenges to math, structure and layouts often are the catalyst for new products, which is always exciting.