Into the woods: Turning fallen trees into furniture and works of art

Yang explaining how driftwood can be used as great decor pieces.

A young entrepreneur draws out the natural aesthetics hidden within pieces of wood to create unique furniture and décor pieces.

Pursuing one’s passion can be a risky venture, but it's worked out fine so far for Jeffrey Yang Pik Han. As a boy, the Johorian loved most things art-related. But he eventually studied electronic engineering and graduated from Britain's University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) with a Bachelor’s degree in 1999.

Then he worked for a consultancy firm in Singapore for seven years before deciding that he needed to do something he felt strongly about. Because discus fish had always fascinated Yang, he began to breed them for sale. Not one to do anything by halves, he entered the Discus World Championship competition in Duisburg, Germany in 2008 and snatched the top three positions in the red fish category.

He started to export the colourful tropical fish species to Europe, the US and within Asia. But in meeting with people in the industry, Yang picked up on another trend – a demand for driftwood art and furniture. “People wanted more of the back-to-nature feel,” says the 36-year-old entrepreneur.

So, Yang began to dabble in driftwood export business and that led to his newest passion – transforming rain tree and other types of wood into artistic furniture and interior décor pieces. “There's a growing demand for more artistic, natural wood pieces. In cities like Kuala Lumpur and in Japan, people don’t get to see natural elements any more,” explains Yang, whose business partner is his wife Joey Woo. 

In March, the Art Of Tree showroom opened in Shah Alam's Kampung Baru Subang, next to Yang’s discus fish shop.

“The key lies in the cut. Almost all timber loggers cut their wood into long blocks or planks. This conventional way of cutting only showcases the wood grain within,” Yang explains. “I place more emphasis on the natural shape and irregularities of the whole piece of wood itself. I believe if one is able to capture the essence of these irregularities, the wood can be transformed into a truly one-of-a-kind masterpiece. I have always viewed my collection of wood as art pieces.”

Yang started building his wood collection in mid-2013. It consists mainly of rain tree, angsana and acacia, plus some mahogany, merbau and cengal. He obtains the wood locally, working with various sawmills around Malaysia. The majority of the wood is derived from trees in and around city areas which have fallen down, usually after a heavy downpour.

Yang has them cut into smaller slabs and pieces, or at a certain angle, ensuring that he retains the original shapes. Each slab or block, or a combination of them, is then used to make furniture items like coffee or dining tables, or turned into décor creations like wall art.

Nature in the home: Joey Woo, business partner and wife of Art of Tree founder Jeffrey Yang, with a floral-shaped coffee table. ?– Photos by IBRAHIM MOHTAR/The Star
Joey Woo sits on a floral-shaped coffee table.
An eye-catching way of framing excerpts from Confucian teachings.
An eye-catching way of framing excerpts from Confucian teachings.
OPTIONAL: Customers can decide how they want each block or slab of wood to become a certain furniture item or art piece.
Customers decide how they want a block or slab of wood turned into furniture or an art piece.

An eye-catching piece in his showroom is the Hollow Bell Table Stand with Glass top (RM18,800), which makes an interesting small dining or even work table. Another unit that Yang is proud of is the Angsana Dining Table, which spreads out roughly in the shape of an “S” (RM18,800). The natural structure of the piece also allows comfortable leg room.

A rectangular-ish rain tree block with a stainless steel stand also makes a nice family dining table (RM8,000). Dining tables remain his best-sellers so far. “People are more willing to spend on that because they are usually the centrepiece of a house,” Yang says.

For dining chairs to go with these unique tables, he suggests that cushioned ones with stainless steel frames add a classy yet modern touch to balance the rustic table.

Gaps or hollow parts in the wood pieces that Yang acquires are left alone to preserve the natural state and beauty of the piece. Ingeniously, some of these gaps are filled with inserts containing inscriptions such as poetry, philosophical phrases or religious verses. The most expensive item in the showroom at the moment is a RM23,000 wall decor which features excerpts from the Dao De Jing, the famous Confucius teaching.

Yang has also found an inspired way to create a coffee table with an elongated slab of wood that has a gap in the middle. He filled it with epoxy material and LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to create an illuminated table.

“Customers are free to come in here and decide how they want each block or slab of wood to become a certain furniture item or art piece,” Yang says, adding that at the moment, his clients are quite equally balanced between regular customers and interior designers.

In the coming months, Yang intends to produce more finished pieces to offer a wider choice for customers. He's also keen to explore ways of incorporating driftwood or “Raja Kayu” into his furniture and art pieces to create a “modern, artistic, yet rustic” feel.

Since he started this business, Yang has been greatly encouraged by the compliments paid to him by seasoned timber cutters in the industry. “They are used to doing things the traditional way (cutting the trees to produce standard-shaped blocks or planks) and they tell me that they never knew wood could be seen in this way. They see the way we cut the wood and realise the artistic value there,” he says.

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