In 1993, I followed my beautiful wife Dorothy, and her career, to Vancouver Island. She offered to pay the bills for 5 years while I started a business- without this support, failure would have been certain. Having dabbled in design and furniture making, I couldn’t resist the pull of the rain forest and the seemingly inexhaustible wood supply.
The original business plan was to build one chair per day and make a simple living with my hands. If I built a beautiful and comfortable chair, I believed people would buy them. I worked in the carport, until Dorothy got tired of the mess, then opened a little workshop at Whippletree Junction, a tourist stop near Duncan, BC. I named it Pickle Ridge Rustic Carpentry, later it morphed into Live Edge Design. I built with supple bent willow, small alder and cedar trees and the business grew and helpers were hired. I was right, people liked the chairs and bought them, more importantly, I discovered they liked the experience of seeing them made.
I discovered early on that many people made their living pushing paper, but inside, they were like me, with a need to create with their hands. Thus was born the rustic furniture course, a weekend where anybody could build a chair or a bench they could be proud of. The course became a major part of the business. It was soulful to help people create something they never thought they could and glow with pride at the outcome.
The first bit of real notoriety we achieved was through outdoor furniture and garden structures, building fences, gazeboes, and arbours. We did the Seattle and Vancouver garden shows, winning awards for our displays. Our swing was called the best thing at the whole show in the Seattle newspaper. I did a circuit of the garden clubs with my slide show and trellis building demonstration. Unfortunately, the company overhead now makes it too expensive to make the outdoor structures, but if I ever retire, I plan to dust off the plans and have another go at the outdoor pieces that I loved to design and build.
In 1996, when Live Edge Design was still called Pickle Ridge, I had been teaching furniture building at the wonderful Crescent Lake Lodge in Washington’s Olympic National Park. They gave me a lead for a new school that needed some furniture; the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center on Bainbridge Island (now called Island Wood) .
The number they gave me turned out to be the private and confidential cell phone of Island Wood co-founder Debbie Brainerd. After an awkward conversation about how I got her cell number, she agreed that we made cool furniture and I agreed that she had a visionary project; Island Wood would provide underprivileged Seattle kids a camping-in-the-woods experience accompanied by an environmental education. Later they would add graduate studies programs in environmental science, having the grad students mentor the inner city kids.
Debbie suggested I set up a meeting with the architecture and design firm Mithun, who would be sourcing nature inspiring, environmentally friendly bunk beds for Island Wood’s on-site accommodation. I built a miniature bunk bed out of sticks, with a climbing tree to get to the upper bunk and branches to hang clothes on, then I pulled on my best jeans and went to visit Mithun. I was ushered into the board room and showed my mini bunk bed to a panel of architects and designers. They Loved it. An order followed for 96 bunk beds and a host of other items.
Early in the design process, I was informed that my bunk bed design needed to follow the national bunk bed safety code and would have to pass an inspection by a licenced bunk bed inspector. I poured over all 45 pages and learned that 50 kids per year die because of bunk bed safety hazards, and none are attributed to the obvious; falling to the floor from the top bunk- this may hurt, but is rarely fatal. I redesigned the bed to meet the code, then flew in an official inspector, who passed the bed after putting 400 pound weights in various locations and made certain the smallest bodies couldn’t fit through any spaces. To this day I have not seen another log bunk bed that would pass the code, and it makes me queasy to think about the possible consequences.
Prior to the bunk bed job, we had successfully built furniture out of alder logs with the bark left on, but none had used logs that thick. About a month after installation and just before the center was due to open, I got a call from the project manager to say that some of the bark had started to fall off. The thick logs had taken too long to dry and the bark was no longer adhered to the wood beneath. I told Debbie and her husband Paul that if they wanted the bark on, the beds needed be replaced, but that it would bankrupt me to do so. The best I could offer was peel all the bark off. We took a crew down, hired some local help, worked 14 hours a day and slept on the bunk beds. The beds were ready for the opening, but did not match the original bark-on vision. When I apologised about this to Paul and Debbie, they said “No need to apologize. Every contractor and supplier made errors on this project. You were the only one who fixed yours without complaining or trying to charge extra for it.” They went on to order more pieces and gave us great referrals. Owning up to and trying to fix our mistakes is a hallmark of the company to this day.
When the “school in the woods” was complete, it was amazing; energy, water, and sewer self-sufficient. But the details were even more amazing. Any trees cut from the building site were to be used in the project, making the place feel like it was made from the forest. The contractors were only allowed to disturb 1 yard of the forest around the building perimeters. This resulted in the impression that the buildings were simply dropped into the forest. The contractor said it couldn’t be done, but then somehow did it anyway.
The design of the rooms and the bunk beds were the result of interviewing the very same 9 year old Seattle kids that were going to use them. What did they want their camp to be like? A little window lined up with each bunk so every kid could see out without getting up. A tiny light above each bed let a kid read without disturbing others wanting to sleep. A drawer the size of their pack or suitcase at the foot of the bed so every kid knew where their stuff was. The result was magical, as anyone who has ever stepped foot on the property will tell you. We still feel privileged to have played a part.
The only resort at one of the nicest spots in Canada, Chesterman’s Beach in Tofino, The Wickaninnish Inn was expanding in 2004. BBA Design of Vancouver had the design contract and wanted to create an image of true West Coast Design. The lodge was to feel like the ocean could crash right into your room, and to look at the bits of driftwood in there, perhaps it already had. Though we were already using slabs from logs we found in the forest as tabletops, I had recently discovered George Nakashima’s designs and began to fall in love with the Japanese contemporary natural style. BBA asked us to make some Nakashima-like pieces as well as numerous other original designs for the lodge using logs and driftwood. The work we did there ushered in many other West coast resort customers who for the first time felt like they could get a truly unique West Coast look.
One of the other craftsmen working on the Wickaninnish was Evan Sadler who owned Sadler Fine Furniture. We struck up a friendship and business relationship and he earned my respect for his unrelenting dedication to quality. Around this time, our workshop burned down. In the morning as we were all standing around in shock staring at the smouldering remains, the technician arrived to install our new smoke detectors.
We had an order for 280 chairs due for a new resort in Montana, our largest chair order to date. The timeline was short and we had no wood or equipment due to the fire. I phoned the customer and asked for an extension, but they declined saying they needed them to open on time and had customers booked in. I called Evan and asked if we could rent some space from him. He accommodated us and we worked feverishly and got the order done on time only to have our customer delay shipping for a month. After a couple months of sharing workspace, Evan and decided to merge our companies. Our common area of interest was Tables made from large slabs of west coast maple.
The outside edge of a tree has many names; bark to the common folk, wane edge to the sawyers, cambium layer to the scientists. To us it was the “live edge”, named for the organic, life-like “motion” of the aesthetic as well as being the exact point of growth for the tree, thus alive. We chose Live Edge Design for the name of our new combined venture partly because we thought it was vague enough that it would still suit us if the design direction of the company shifted. Ironically, the name caught on and has become the main generic term for the genre.
In 2009, Evan left the company to buy a plot of land, build his own house, shop, and farm. I was a bit jealous until I saw how much work it was. He still borrows the Live Edge shop once in a while to make things for his projects or to finance the next stage. We have Evan to thank for instilling the great sense of quality in our operation.
We wanted to make furniture from big slabs of salvaged wood. Could we find someone to sell us salvaged wood and trust where they got the wood? Would someone be able to mill the super wide slabs to our specifications? And finally, could we find someone to properly dry gigantic pieces of wood? Right away we found out that no-one knew how, nor wanted to spend the time necessary to dry the big slabs, so we bought a kiln and started to teach ourselves. Eventually we started sourcing our own logs to avoid damage to the live edge, and milling them to make sure the orientation was perfect. The result is that our company cuts the salvaged log, mills it into slabs, dries the wood and about a year later makes it into a great piece of furniture.
Going back to my recollections of how much people liked watching our chairs get made, we developed a shop tour. Now a customer can visit our shop and see every process of building a table, then pick out the wood they want for their very own table.