Reclaiming artistry: Making unique furniture from rust, grit and grime

  • Living
  • Saturday, 19 Apr 2014

Marian Built brings new life and purpose to reclaimed materials in the United States.

It's barely 5pm on a week night and the buzzy Rock Creek restaurant in Seattle’s artsy Fremont neighbourhood is already filling up. Michael Marian and his business partner, Travis Farber, sit at the bar, looking at everything but the menu.

“See how that bottle is leaning forward a little?” Marian says, eyeing the shelf he built behind the bar. “Need to fix that.”

It’s a familiar exercise, and one Marian performs all over Seattle, Washington, now that his company, Marian Built, which brings new life and purpose to reclaimed materials, has caught fire faster than a barn in August.

“People are getting sick of (mass produced things),” Marian says. “Someone said, ‘Man is again creating the imperfections that only come from handcrafted pieces’. It doesn’t look like a machine built it. It looks like people did it.”

In a place where the term “handcrafted” applies to beer and booze, cheese and crullers, bass guitars and leather bags, Marian, 33, is creating the kind of furniture on which you want to set them all.

When Marian was asked to build tables at the new Via6 building downtown, the maker fitted reclaimed wood tops with steel bases, and used miner’s grate (used for sifting through rocks) for the doors on the restaurant’s wine rack. (“It’s still got a couple of rocks in it.”)

After that came jobs at some of the most talked about restaurants in the area: The Hollywood Tavern, Westward, Brimmer and Heel Tap, Rock Creek, Barnacle and Tanakasan.

The Marian Built shop – located along a bumpy stretch of asphalt and light-industrial businesses on Shilshole Avenue in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood – is also a throwback. The planer is 70 years old. The joiner is 105 years old, and came from the wood shop at the New York City Parks Department, which used it to make the benches at Central Park. (“I haggled with the guy until he was blue in the face,” Marian said.) The band saw is from the 1940s – World War II era, Marian likes to say – and indeed, when he throws the switch, it sounds like a Cessna airplane taking off.

“We’re going back to a classic way of building things, but applying new techniques,” Marian explains. “We’re just trying to be as efficient as we can while still maintaining traditional craftsmanship.”

Marian started the business in January of 2011 after the construction work, at which he made his living at dried up in the recession. It was rough going for a while, but in April, the operation moved from “a tin shack on the other side of Ballard” to Shilshole Avenue.

The spaces allows them to keep up with their restaurant work — but also continue creating for homeowners who want something they can’t get anywhere else. Homeowners like Mark and Caryl Andrews who hired Marian to build them a table that appears on Marian’s website as “The Adams Table”. Almost 2.5m in diameter, it is made of wood reclaimed from a warehouse, set atop a metal base. The tabletop alone – buffed and lacquered to a blinding sheen – weighs 158kg and took three men to move into the Andrews’ home.

"It’s art, it’s absolutely art,” Caryl Andrews says. “When somebody walks into the house and sees it, we have to take 20 minutes to tell the story. It’s got big divots in it.” Marian had asked if they wanted the divots smoothed out. They said no. “You can go to a furniture store, but nobody is going to have this table,” Mark Andrews says.

The couple also enlisted Marian to make a kitchen pantry featuring a 13kg vintage fire door hung upon hinges from 1910. It slides on a bracket to reveal shelves made of metal from cars and licence plates.

“I call his work art because I think he’s an artist,” says Caryl Andrews. “These things came from an old burned-out warehouse and someone was going to toss it. But Michael made it something beautiful. And now I see him everywhere, which is a true testament to his work. I don’t think anyone explodes on the scene like he has without deserving it.”

Marian’s eye developed early, when he started building houses with his father, Gabriel. He learned to weld at age nine and bought his first welder – a US$500 Miller Thunderbird – when he was 12.

He recalled trips to the Value Village chainstore with his mother, and picking up “buckets” of stainless steel silverware to practise on. Now, he stops at junkyards and yard sales with his fiancee, Kelley Goad.

“We’d pull over to a hoarder’s house, or I would be looking for something and know where to get it,” he says. “I just see something ... so I usually walk around with a stack of cash.”

They don’t fake anything, Marian says. They don’t purposely distress anything, or beat wood with chains.

“All this stuff we build out of reclaimed stuff, it has energy about it,” Marian says, “It has a feeling that you can’t duplicate.”

There’s lumber from houses, the sides of barns in Ephrata. Gym flooring.

One project was made with wood that was underwater and frozen – therefore, preserved – in the back of his building on Shilshole.

Most people may not think much of what Marian finds, but to him any old thing can be the start of something beautiful.

“The art is always inside you,” he says. “You just have to find the medium with which to express it.”

Even if the medium is rusted, dented and left to die in a field. – The Seattle Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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