Furniture Has Root Cause
Robin Wade doesn’t do anything halfway. When he got into boating, he earned a master captain’s license. When he fixed up the house he grew up in, he gutted it. When he needs wood for his furniture design business, Robin Wade Furniture, he finds gigantic trees that have fallen within a 60-mile radius of his studio and hauls them back.
Wade didn’t even dabble in woodworking until he renovated the A-frame on a creek where he grew up. He learned as he went along. He credits his thirst for knowledge as a side effect of growing up with severe dyslexia, which went undiagnosed for years. Once it was diagnosed, his interest in learning went into overdrive and hasn’t stopped since.
He started the furniture business after retirement yet swears, “I’m just a babe in this.” The results beg to differ. See how he takes a tree from ground to table.
Wade grew up in Florence, Alabama, with a professor mom and a father in architecture. His home was a 1,600-square-foot A-frame that his father designed on a creek in the woods. “My mom was a real neat freak. Everything was minimal, uncluttered, and the house was full of midcentury modern furniture,” he says.
The house is a stone’s throw from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House. This had a tremendous impact on Wade’s design style and the way he looks at the meeting of nature and architecture.
His furniture has an organic feel, as Wade often preserves the natural edges on at least two sides of each piece. The combination of straight lines and live edges results in a look he calls rustic modern.
“I haven’t found a better artist than nature,” Wade says. He preserves the natural color of the wood — “the way God made it” — and does not use stains.
The furniture starts with sustainably harvested trees. One came from the historic 1840s plantation Barton Hall, where it fell during a storm. By chance, civil rights photographer Charles Moore stopped by and ended up documenting the tree harvesting. This photo shows Moore and Wade with the tree.
This is a closeup of the same tree. Once a tree is hauled back to the studio, it is cut into natural-edged slabs with an in-house sawmill. (When Wade learned that most sawmills cannot handle the 60-inch-diameter logs he prefers, he just found special equipment. “Ignorance has been my greatest advantage,” he says.)
Next, the natural edges are debarked by hand with a knife, and the slabs are placed on a rack. They dry there for one year per inch of thickness and are then put into the kiln for a final cure.
Wade’s studio is a “slow” studio. “What’s the rush anyway?” asks Wade. “It just makes sense that if furniture takes weeks, months or years to make, the customer would in turn value it more, keep it longer, and there would be a slowdown in the chaotic mass consumption of our natural resources.”
For the final steps, Wade and his team use hand and power tools to bring the furniture to life, then finish each piece with a hand-rubbed oil blend.
This thick slab patiently waits to dry before staring its new life as a piece of furniture.
Wade’s intent is to capture and preserve “the tremendous beauty and flowing form of the trunks and branches from which they are crafted,” he says. He also sees beauty in the way the pieces are engineered. Thus, he left the screw heads in this piece showing on purpose. “To me it makes it more real,” he explains.
Wade’s creations caught the eye of architect Phil Kean, who designed the 2012 New American Home Builder’s Showhouse. Kean sought out Wade to furnish the home with several pieces.
“When Phil Kean first directed me to cut the natural edges off this dining table, I was sick,” admits Wade. “However, once I saw the way it fit into the clean lines of the house, I understood. It also helps highlight the beauty of the flaws in the wood, the grain and the dimensional joints.”
This desk is from the same showhouse. It juxtaposes the straight lines of the side piece with the natural edges on the main desktop slab.
Wade is a big admirer of George Nakashima. “Nakashima highlighted the beauty of joinery techniques by bringing them to the surface instead of trying to hide them,” he says. Wade extended this rectangular joint past the edge to draw more attention to it and to emphasize the natural beauty of the live edge in contrast.
This yin-yang coffee table is another piece in the showhouse; it’s a great contrast to the white walls and clean lines of the home.
In addition to using only trees that he can sustainably harvest, Wade will travel a maximum of only 60 miles to get them. Keeping his work’s impact upon the earth minimal is very important to him, as is the work of The Sustainable Furnishings Council.
Wade, left, has been working to help the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama, which was flattened by tornados in 2011. He is making a piece of furniture from a tree that came down during the storm to raise money and awareness for the cause.
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