Spotlight on Artisanal Timber Craftsmanship

Spotlight on Artisanal Timber Craftsmanship

The Beauty of Bespoke

As I step into the sun-dappled workspace, the air is thick with the scent of freshly sanded wood and the soft hum of tools at work. This is the domain of Ethan Summers, the visionary behind the timber building and woodworking company Oil & Lumber. Here, every piece, from the intricate joinery of a dining table to the rugged elegance of a custom overshirt, bears the mark of Summers’ artistry and meticulous attention to detail.

Summers’ journey to this creative sanctuary was not a straight line. After years in the corporate world, he felt a nagging dissatisfaction – a longing to pursue something more meaningful, more tactile. It was then that he discovered the Japanese concept of shokunin, the idea of mastering one’s craft through dedication and passion. This philosophy would become the guiding light for his transformation from insurance broker to artisanal designer.

As I chat with Summers, I’m struck by the quiet confidence that emanates from him. He speaks of his work with a reverence usually reserved for the masters of old, his hands gesturing animatedly as he describes the process of bringing a vision to life. “I wasn’t getting any gratification out of my corporate job,” he confesses. “So I decided to make the leap. It took me a long time, but I built up the knowledge, the networking, the motions – everything in between – to get to that point.”

Honoring Heritage, Embracing Innovation

Summers’ designs for Oil & Lumber are a seamless blend of his Japanese-American heritage and a modern, streetwear-influenced aesthetic. The Billiam jeans, for example, are built to last, rugged enough for indoor and outdoor adventures, yet with a two-way stretch that conforms to the body. The Black Rock overshirt, meanwhile, boasts an Asian-inspired silhouette that only grows more stylish with wear.

At the heart of these pieces lies a deep reverence for craftsmanship. Summers sources the majority of his fabrics from within the United States, and everything from the cut-and-sew line is created right in Nashville. “I like that because I can control the creativity,” he says, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

But Summers’ commitment to artisanal excellence extends beyond apparel. He also operates Oil & Lumber Design, a custom furniture brand that can be spotted around town at popular establishments like Makeready Libations & Liberation, Burger Up, and Five Daughters Bakery. Later this spring, he plans to unveil a full collection of tables, chairs, stools, and end tables – a testament to his versatility and unwavering dedication to his craft.

Collaboration as Inspiration

Summers’ passion for his work is infectious, and it’s no surprise that he has found kindred spirits to collaborate with. One such partnership is with filmmaker Ben Skipworth and his company, Inkwell Films. Together, they created a short, visually stunning video that captures the essence of the Oil & Lumber brand.

“They’ve worked on some amazing projects with some really cool companies,” Summers says, his admiration for Skipworth’s work palpable. “They did one called Sneaker Broker that I’m a big fan of.”

For Skipworth, the collaboration was an opportunity to let the cinematography take center stage, with the product playing a supporting role. “It was interesting doing something where the cold weather, the location – the whole vibe – was the hero,” he explains. “Ethan’s whole brand kind of centers on mountain, land, and sea. An earthy color palette is a primary focus of the collection.”

The resulting video is a masterclass in storytelling, effortlessly weaving together themes of craftsmanship, legacy, and place. It’s a testament to the power of collaboration, where two creative minds come together to bring a shared vision to life.

The Art of Crafting a Life

As our conversation winds down, I can’t help but reflect on the journey that has led Summers to this point. It’s a story of taking risks, of trusting one’s instincts, and of the transformative power of passion. In many ways, his path mirrors the evolution of his own designs – a seamless blending of tradition and innovation, of heritage and modernity.

“I like that because I can control the creativity,” he says, a note of quiet pride in his voice. And as I leave his studio, I can’t help but feel that Summers has not only mastered his craft but has also crafted a life that is truly his own – one that is both functional and artful, practical and poetic.

For those of us who crave the beauty of the bespoke, who yearn for the warmth and character of handmade objects, Ethan Summers and Oil & Lumber offer a glimpse into a world where dreams and reality converge. It’s a world where the everyday is elevated, where the simple becomes sublime, and where the true artistry of craftsmanship is celebrated in every stitch, every joint, and every perfectly imperfect detail.

A Passion for the Process

As I delve deeper into the world of artisanal timber craftsmanship, I’m struck by the unwavering dedication and creativity of the individuals who have chosen this path. Take, for example, the team at Cushman Design Group. Their collaborative projects with exceptional craftsmen have resulted in breathtaking details that celebrate the beauty of natural materials and the art of making.

One such project featured a reclaimed pine vanity with a Vermont Danby marble counter, set against a rustic Appalachian log-home-inspired backdrop. The chinking between the reclaimed timbers, meticulously applied by mason Dave Osgood, adds a sense of authentic comfort and character. Elsewhere, a custom light fixture fabricated by Iron Glass Lighting of Bozeman, Montana, descends dramatically through the stairwell, its individual enclosed lamps casting a warm glow from the second level to the ground.

These are not just functional elements; they are works of art in their own right, imbued with the passion and skill of the artisans who brought them to life. As Milford Cushman, president of Cushman Design Group, so eloquently puts it, “The manifestation of our collaborative design work frequently includes handsome dry and wet-laid stone, intricate metalwork and custom light fixtures, exquisite timber framing, cabinetry, built-in millwork, and elegant tile work.”

Celebrating the Artisanal Spirit

The reverence for craft extends far beyond the world of timber and furniture. Take, for instance, the work of Jessica Switzer Green, the founder of JG Switzer, a studio that specializes in beautiful, sustainable wool blankets.

Switzer Green’s journey to becoming a full-time artisan is a testament to the power of following one’s passion. After a successful stint in the corporate world, including a role as the former vice president of marketing at Tesla Motors, she found herself drawn to the natural fibers that had been a part of her upbringing. “Wool is just screaming to be put on our bodies and in our homes,” she muses, her eyes twinkling with enthusiasm.

In collaborating with Studio AHEAD on custom fabric for a residential project and their Sheep Lounge Chair, Switzer Green embraced the spirit of discovery and creativity. “You guys were fearless,” she recalls, describing the process as a true partnership where the final product became a shared vision.

The Rhythm of the Landscape

For some artisans, the natural world serves as a constant source of inspiration, shaping both their artistic vision and their approach to their craft. Take the case of Nobuto Suga, a Japanese-born woodworker who has made his home in the rolling hills and forests of Northern California.

Suga speaks reverently of the connection between the materials he works with and the landscapes that birthed them. “Connectivity to place is a very important part of my process when forming and laying out a vision and a direction,” he explains. “Without that connection, I cannot make work.”

This deep respect for the natural world manifests in Suga’s creations, which seamlessly blend form and function. Whether he’s crafting a piece of furniture or a sculptural work, Suga is attentive to the inherent qualities of the wood, allowing the grain and texture to guide his hand. It’s a dance of artistry and reverence, where the maker becomes an equal partner with the material.

The Poetry of the Everyday

In a world that often prizes the shiny and the new, the work of Jeffrey Sincich offers a refreshing perspective. Sincich, a San Francisco-based artist, finds inspiration in the overlooked signage and urban ephemera that populate our everyday landscapes.

His quilted works, which transform these humble objects into tactile, textile-based artforms, invite us to slow down and truly see the world around us. “Signs can be personal,” Sincich muses. “They are used to guide, inform, warn, and sometimes manipulate you.” By reclaiming these signs and imbuing them with the warmth and familiarity of a quilt, Sincich invites us to reconsider their meaning and their place in our lives.

Sincich’s work also challenges the traditional gender associations with quilting, reminding us that the act of creating, of stitching together disparate elements, is a universal human endeavor. “Sexism in the art and craft world is nothing new,” he says with a wry smile. “Is sewing only for women? Is welding just for men? They are both means of joining two materials together, yet they are often associated with gender.”

Embracing the Imperfect

As I delve deeper into the world of artisanal timber craftsmanship, I’m struck by the common thread that runs through the work of these remarkable individuals: a celebration of the imperfect, the unexpected, and the deeply personal.

Take, for example, the work of John Gnorski, an artist and craftsman whose sculptural works and paintings embrace the playful interplay of chance and intention. Gnorski speaks of his fascination with allowing the “subconscious” to guide his creative process, resulting in pieces that are part dreamscape, part tactile reality.

“I try to use whatever technique I’ve developed to allow chance and accident to do their wonderful work,” Gnorski explains. “I know that nothing I could map out perfectly from start to finish will be nearly as interesting as something that transforms in ways I never could have anticipated through the process of the making.”

This openness to the unexpected is echoed in the work of Isaac Vazquez Avila, a San Francisco-based artist whose mixed-media sculptures and paintings are infused with a sense of wonder and discovery. Avila’s practice is rooted in the rhythms of his daily walks through the Bernal Heights neighborhood, where he collects found objects and materials that spark his imagination.

“I like the idea of extending the life of an object or bringing things back to life from obscurity or neglect,” Avila muses. “There’s also the memories I’ve attached to the materials I find, which locate specific times, dates, and remind me of the places where I sourced them.”

The Enduring Allure of the Handmade

As I reflect on the stories and creations of these artisanal timber craftspeople, I’m left with a profound sense of appreciation for the power of the handmade. In a world that often prioritizes efficiency and mass production, these individuals have chosen to walk a different path – one that embraces the imperfections, the quirks, and the deeply personal nature of the objects they create.

Whether it’s Ethan Summers’ meticulously designed clothing and furniture, Nobuto Suga’s reverence for the natural world, or Jeffrey Sincich’s quilted homages to the overlooked, there is a common thread that binds them together: a deep commitment to the art of making, to the rhythms and textures of the materials they work with, and to the transformative power of human creativity.

As I step back out into the world, I find myself seeing it anew, with a newfound appreciation for the beauty that exists in the everyday. The signage, the architecture, the natural landscapes – all of it becomes a canvas for my imagination, a tapestry of stories waiting to be woven together.

And in that moment, I understand that the true essence of artisanal timber craftsmanship lies not just in the final products, but in the way it invites us to slow down, to pay attention, and to find the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things. It’s a reminder that the true magic of the handmade lies not in its perfection, but in its ability to touch our hearts and souls, to connect us to the rhythms of the world around us, and to inspire us to create our own indelible mark on the landscape of life.


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