Brek: I studied architecture at Miami University in Ohio, where I met my first wife. She was from Kent. In my junior year I met a mentor and friend who was a graduate of the California woodworking school called, at the time, College of the Redwoods. It’s a community college that is world renowned for this one woodworking program. I applied, was excepted, and moved out there to study.
It's a nine-month program with a second year option. They teach specific hand skills that allow you to be precise and sensitive in constructing what you want to build. It's not a regimented program, but more tailored to the individual’s aspirations. One of the greatest things about that program was working among other creative minds. You get exposed to other style points. You’re also only building a couple pieces a year so you really get to focus on the craft. I was fortunate enough to be accepted for a second year, wanting to explore curved shapes in cabinetry. I had lived in Kent prior to California so I moved back after studying. Those two years spotlighted my extreme passion for and devotion to woodworking, on the other hand, revealing the departing interests of a once married couple. I moved to Traverse City, Michigan for about a year and a half, meanwhile falling in love with someone from Kent, as it happened. I came back to Kent in 2006.
I worked under Brian Klempp building kitchens, decks and every kind of construction. He passed away, but we had a rare working relationship and friendship. I kept the shop after his passing and had a few pieces of machinery to get me going. The recession of 2008 had begun, so it was kind of a rough start. Fortunately I was able to stick with it and eventually came to feel more confident about a word of mouth clientele. There've been highs and lows, but I’ve had consistent work for the past 4 to 5 years and continue to find new customers.
It’s furniture as well. I really love making furniture, but it's not such an affordable item for most people, because of the way Ikea and others, like many Amish factories set the bar so low. The fact that retail furniture has become a manufactured goliath has made prices (and quality) so low as to define a new precedent for throw-away consumerism. Specifically with furniture, it’s really hard for me to compete from a price standpoint because I really don't find it ethical to dumb down to the common standard. If you want the best craftsmanship, it simply costs more than what you’ll find at Levin Furniture. Every so often somebody will love something I’ve made and want to commission a unique piece of furniture, but in general, I make more cabinetry and built-in residential products… something that becomes a permanent fixture in the house. This, I feel competitive in.
I usually get here at 7:30 or so and work past five, but there are always plenty of interruptions or running out to meet with somebody about a project. I don't have an office at the shop so I do computer drawing at home, but in general my favorite days are when I can just get in the zone here.
It's gotten a little bit small for me, but I do like the cozy aspect of my shop. I’ve put in a lot of time over the years organizing it different ways, so it does feel pretty comfortable. I wish there were more windows.
I listen to a lot of podcasts actually. I’m intrigued by philosophy, culture, politics, and gaining new perspectives about life. One of my favorites is Waking Up with Sam Harris. I feel lucky to have found such a rare beacon for moral clarity and rationality concerning modern issues, not to mention the myriad smart guests he hosts.
It's hard to start from nothing, for me. I like to have some boundaries or parameters in place as a conceptual stencil. Simplicity just kinda sings to me, rather than complicating a design. Inspiration usually flows from the context I’m designing in. Shapes, proportions and color are important to me and must agree with the home’s décor. I want people to look at something and not be shocked by it, but instead feel a relaxed appreciation for it. I think the furnishings we live with are more timeless that way. When you're spending a lot of money on woodworking that's handmade and you hold that process in high esteem, you don't want something you’ll find gaudy or ostentatious in five years.
You can find a lot of beauty in ‘ordinary’ woods if you pay attention. I tend to like the domestics we have locally that are less toxic to work with. I pay a lot of attention to woods’ graphics and the grain orientation within various parts. Some people would cut around a knot or other oddity because it’s considered a flaw, but I think these features convey a living material.
Getting away from the throw away mentality is important. I think that means admiring simple elegance over flashy fads. Designers of mass-produced furniture want trends, and they need for trends to change so consumers keep replacing what they have. The answer to the question: “How many times do you want to buy that coffee table?” is paradoxically difficult for most of us to answer when tempted by a short-term bargain. Instead, we say, “It’s cheap and I can just get a new one when it breaks or is out of style.” It is my goal to impress upon my clients the long-term cost benefits of paying a little more for something that lasts.
Works by several graduates of the California school are actually some of the best I've seen.
Absolutely. Learning techniques with tools I didn't know how to use before. Knowing the right way to execute joinery and make things fit together as perfectly as can be. Learning how to sharpen. Now I try to figure out ways to be more efficient, obviously, but not at the sacrifice of quality. I think having gone through the rigors of that program allows me to be more particular about results.
I think it's really important to keep us from living among strip malls and big box stores. The artwork we adorn our homes with is more meaningful and inspiring when we know its story.
I think it makes them feel good about how they live and who they support. Maybe people just innately appreciate things of higher quality. Perhaps this principle of long-term planning cascades into other areas of their life, enriching other experiences.
I find myself always wanting more time [in the workshop] to build furniture for our home. I do enjoy the scenic river, which keeps getting cleaner, going out to eat and spending quality time with some good friends. Mostly, I enjoy relaxing and talking with my wife, Kelly… the one who brought me back to Kent and made me want to stay!