On the Table, Beneath the Surface

By Mike Allen
Photo by Brandon Clower

Buck O’Kelly is wizened and his hands are dominated by knuckles, betraying years of hard work. But his spirit rivals that of artists decades his junior. The veteran furniture builder at Inventia Design talks about wood species, design philosophy, and finishes with a philosophical intensity that borders on mysticism. He and his partner Suzanne Bonham created the elegant wood tables that, night after night, endure the onslaught of steel, ceramic, and glass wrought by the hungry hordes of Le Pigeon. The pair is just one among a legion of small woodcraft design shops flourishing beneath the surface of Portland’s vaunted dining scene.

In Portland’s new restaurant aesthetic, exposed wood surfaces are essential. White linens increasingly give way to polished surfaces highlighting complex grain patterns and deep shades. The warmth, irregularity, and sturdiness of wood echoes the dual biological and aesthetic roles played by the dishes it supports. Like cooking, woodcraft is situated on a ridge between craft and art. Both employ techniques and tools modern and ancient, while the raw materials remain timeless. I set out to find some of the personalities behind Portland’s public furniture and found a burgeoning scene humming away in nondescript warehouses and dilapidated wooden shops. The characters within were (mostly) happy to brush off the sawdust and discuss the philosophies, techniques, and materials behind some of the city’s more recognizable dining surfaces.

The bar at Grain and Gristle is so iconic it threatens to steal the spotlight from the food (which is quite good). Composed of thick, live-edge slabs of Western big leaf maple, the bar was built by Brendan Alvistur of Alvistur Design. “Live edge” refers to the fact that the edge isn’t cut smooth—and this edge looks like a bit of brobdingnagian filigree, the heavy burl sometimes curling back on itself to form hollows. The individual slabs are held together by mortise and tenon joints hidden under butterfly inlays of walnut. It’s a style pioneered by the late Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima, a giant in the American Craft movement whose work was influenced by the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Alvistur has a passion for Northwestern hardwoods, and much of what he uses is sourced from somewhat unconventional sources. Grain and Gristle’s slab, he says, was cut from the trunk of a big leaf maple bound for the paper mill, but it was fortunately too big for their saws. A friend of Alvistur’s, who reclaims wind-fallen and otherwise out-of-place trees, picked it up from the mill and milled it himself.

“This is pretty unusual, with the burl running all the way up and down the trunk. They told me that maple with burl like this is one in a thousand,” he says. “These slabs here were only half of the tree—it was 48 inches at the base.”

Modern milling obviously requires voltage, but Alvistur does nearly as much by hand as by machine. “Machines, from a historical perspective, are just replacing apprentices. All the milling, the straight lining, all the thicknessing, all the grunt work that used to be done by 15 or 20 guys is now done with 240 volts of electricity,” he says. At Grain and Gristle, he carved some of the details and rounded all the hard edges by hand.

He painstakingly cut chalice shapes into relief behind the corbels (the perpendicular supporting members), but if he had to do it again, he says, he might just ply together more sheets of wood. Like every detail that’s difficult about this job, “nobody seems to notice. It’s just an immense amount of work; and there’s a bit of a paradox in that if you’re building right, and you’re building well, it doesn’t look like a lot of work.”

He finished the bar with polyurethane, since big leaf maple isn’t a very hard hardwood and it will have to stand up to a lot of abuse as a bar top. “I think, as the finish wears, it provides character. They were kind of talking to me about refinishing but… I think to keep it polished and buffed out is kind of futile. I’m not into perfection. After I install it, I want it to be perfect. After that, it’s there to be used and abused and take the abuse.

“It’s amazing, the wood available to us in this part of the world… a lot of the places don’t even stock Oregon black walnut. It’s imported from the east—and it’s kind of inferior wood in my opinion,” he says.

 

Back in the days when local walnut was likely the only walnut to be had, the kind of old-growth douglas fir that Justin Rideout salvages from old barns and industrial buildings was just framing lumber. Now it’s sanded, finished, and featured in seemingly every other new restaurant around. Rideout Designs, housed in one of the dilapidated warehouses that line North Columbia Boulevard, is essentially a working museum for local old-growth salvage.

Anyone who has eaten in a few restaurants in Portland has seen Rideout’s work: Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty, Podnah’s Pit, Firehouse, Oven and Shaker, Dick’s Kitchen, Apizza Scholls, Fire on the Mountain on Fremont, Whole Foods… The list goes on, characterized by massive slabs of tight-grained fir, covered with stained gashes, gouges, and nail holes—all preserved under a thick sheet of polyurethane. It’s as if Eduardo Chillida tried his hand with forest products.

The story behind Rideout’s relationship with Whole Foods is instructive as to how a small shop like his can influence the restaurant aesthetic of an entire city: While dining at Firehouse, the manager of the Whole Foods store on Fremont admired the homey aesthetic that Rideout had created and contracted him to build the dining area at her store. “The only instructions she gave me were: ‘I want it to be like this.’ That’s basically how I get all my business,” he says.

A walk through his shop reveals a roughly three-part operation: a design and finish area where ideas are mapped out, a production area, and a cavernous raised storage area filled with old slabs and timbers of all different species, innumerable dimensions, and in various stages of finish. As we walk past rows of grayed and splintered lumber stacked high on the warehouse’s similarly aged wood floor, Rideout explains the inherent value of this older material.

“The trees that they cut down now are juvenile trees,” he says. Younger trees grow quickly, perhaps a quarter to a half-inch per year, creating a loose grain pattern. He picked up a scrap of sanded fir and shows me the grain: It runs straight through the length, and the striations marking a season’s growth are no more than a sixteenth of an inch apart. The color is deeper than modern structural lumber, nearly orange, and the tight repetition of the pattern is hypnotic. In fir, and less commonly redwood, this grain pattern is known as “clear grain” or “clear vertical grain” (CVG). It correlates to the designation “quarter-sawn” in hardwoods and it means that the width of the cut runs exactly perpendicular to the rings of the tree, resulting in a straight grain that is stiffer and more resistant to warping than so called “flat grain” or “plain sawn” lumber which might contain oval shaped patterns where the grain loops back. Most boards cut from a tree can achieve this grain pattern, if it’s first sawn lengthwise into quarters. This older material is cut from stock so large that just cutting straight through the bole yields many boards of CVG lumber. In his estimation that makes it worthwhile to continue utilizing salvage, despite the increasing cost and difficulty of obtaining it.

Which isn’t to say that Rideout’s design decisions are based entirely upon economic factors. He started building with salvage as a kid in upstate New York, doing woodshop projects with scrap that he found because that was all he had to work with. Working with salvage now, as he’s done professionally since the early ‘90s, has been a continuation of those early endeavors. Salvage, and the massive proportions of his pieces, is about more than aesthetics.

“If I see something that a normal person would cut up and make like 20 things, I just make one thing—even though I’m possibly wasting [material]. It makes it something more substantial and something that people will possibly want to keep for a long time. All the furniture and fixtures that they buy for a restaurant is a big veneer of what you want it to look like, and then it gets a hole in it, and it’s trash. It’s going right into the landfill,” he laments.

Buck O’Kelly calls this notion “design sustainability,” and it’s Inventia’s stock-in-trade. Although their business is building custom furniture, they also repair and refinish. So, after they built two alder tabletops for Le Pigeon, they rebuilt the restaurant’s family-style table.

O’Kelly says the finish was getting tired and worn through, unsightly, and the longwise boards that comprise the center of the table were at odds with the breadboard ends, causing buckling and cracking.

He and Bonham applied their understanding of joinery and finish chemistry to the walnut table. Their methodology involves allowing the wood the freedom to move through swelling and shrinking cycles. Their proprietary penetrating finish of oil and wax allows the wood to respire the moisture that it absorbs during a busy night’s service back into the air. The pair also built the two trapezoidal tables that sit at the front of the dining room from alder, O’Kelly’s preferred medium. They look like the antiques of the future.

The grain that patterns Inventia’s philosophy is the futility of resisting the inevitable. Moisture, temperature change, abrasion, and age are unavoidable facts of existence. Rather than fight the forces of wear, they cleverly elude them by arranging a harmonious coexistence. They believe that their pieces will retain value for generations because age will only make them more beautiful, and eventually they become heirlooms.

“The depreciation aspect of it has been obliterated by the fact that the more it’s used, the worse you treat it, the better it looks. That’s part of the design intention, to collect our history as humans, as clumsy beasts. It’s a totem of our life,” O’Kelly says.

When in the public domain, a surface collects a totem of community. The nicks and wear piling atop one another, like the strata of civilizations, record a history of gathering and restoration. The underlying form continues to complement the feast. The serendipitous curves of the bar top at Grain and Gristle echo a cooking style that embellishes the natural appeal of beautiful raw products, the scarred slabs of Podnah’s interior evoke the honest rusticity of barbecue, and the simple elegance of Inventia’s surfaces elevate Le Pigeon’s French classics as imagined by chef Gabe Rucker.

“They’re really into the sensual experience, and so we wanted the table to reflect that. Warm and beautiful. Buttery—we describe the finish as buttery,” Bonham muses softly.

 

It should come as no surprise that Portland, surrounded not only by fertile valley bottomland but also forested mountains, attracts artisans in woodcraft as readily as those in the culinary arts. The difference is in the consumability of the product and exposure of the practitioners. Cooks and chefs now work in open kitchens surrounded by gleaming copper; furniture designers and builders and woodworkers work behind closed doors, in unwelcoming buildings. Their work is largely bound for private homes, only to be seen by a select few. The restaurant is therefore the perfect showcase for their work, as it exists on the threshold between public and private, satisfying the dual demands of function and artistry.

2 Comments

  • November 11, 2013

    Ernest Cooper

    Great article and from one who has been in their shop and seen they’re amazing work I can’t rave about Buck and Suzanne enough. In addition, when I decided to have some custom cabinets made and installed in my kitchen during the design phase I’ve never seen such attention to detail and thought go into a job.

  • November 17, 2013

    Leslie

    It’s so nice to see the word getting out about Buck’s furniture, even though this article was focused on restaurant installations as a way for folks to see the work. You can get a sense of richness and beauty and sheer elegance of Buck and Suzanne’s work based on techniques he has worked out for many years to enhance both the richness and durability of his creations in wood from looking at his website http://inventiadesign.com/ Check out the current work, blog, and archives tabs to see some of this wonderful furniture. From talking with Buck, I understand a lot of his commissions come from the East Coast – wake up Portland to the master craftsman in your midst!