Jeff Libby and Adrienne Wicks are dedicated to creating a sense of sanctuary and authentic connectedness in our homes through their furniture made of salvaged wood. “We want to give new life to these materials,” says Jeff. In their home studio they craft the furniture together, shaping every curve and refining every angle with artistic flair and precision. The elegantly modern furniture designed by birdloft is born in a space permeated with the earthy spiciness of sawdust and stain. With the inventive touch of an alchemist, Adrienne mixes ebonizing solutions and epoxies. Jeff sources materials, searching for lumber with stories, often lugging 20-foot beams until they are cut into manageable pieces. He glues the wood and then connects people with its history through photography and narrative writing.
After graduating from architecture school Jeff and Adrienne started a company in Seattle refurbishing old houses. Noticing the beauty and history of lumber from demolished spaces, Jeff began collecting it in their home. He enjoyed the beauty and texture of the old growth wood, something rarely found in today’s fast-changing world. Though neatly stacked, it began piling up in their apartment. “I didn’t know what I was doing other than I didn’t want to throw it out,” tells Jeff. “I made a birdhouse first. All we had at the time was a chop saw and a drill.” Little by little he carved out more time for his passion.
As time went on, they bought a roomy house in Tacoma and with the added workshop space, they began building custom furniture full time. To address the challenges of working from home they use a series of specialized spaces. They have two wood workshops in the basement, a welding shop, and a gluing space. In a garage donated by a next-door neighbor they air dry stacks of tree trunks that are waiting their turn next to wooden beams gathered from local buildings. It feels like a centennial reunion of old friends. Their various divided workspaces often leave the artists working solo, but they collaborate on every piece. What do you think of this curve? Should it curve a bit more? What about fasteners? How many should we use? They discuss every detail of each design through respirators in the shop or at the computer modeling a new piece. Ideas emerge and take shape quickly because they have each other.
Their love for the elements guides birdloft designers to use sustainable practices combining rough-sawn wood from demolished buildings and stumps from discarded trees, transforming them into curvaceous tabletops with infinitely radiating rings. “Every stack of wood is like a selected bibliography of each building,” says Jeff reverently. For him, each board breathes with memories: walls listening to generations of school kids, the roof that protected a pickle factory near Adrienne’s childhood home. Instead of retiring and discarding these bits they refine the presentation and, preserving the patina of time, allow the wood to tell a new story.
What started as a side job, selling small furniture on Etsy.com, grew into a full-time business as they created bigger tables and shelves. Yet they faced the challenge of many entrepreneurs with a scalable vision: they began running out of physical space for production and capacity for meeting demand. “We worked as many shows and fairs as we could handle,” said Adrienne, “we wanted to figure out a way to grow in a smart way.” Her mind focused on finding a solution until one day, walking around Tacoma, she noticed many vacant spaces and wondered what it would be like to use one of them for an artist studio. Following this thread, they discovered Spaceworks and applied to the program.
They participated in Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program but it was difficult to find a workshop to match their needs. Instead Spaceworks coordinated several furniture businesses to come together in one retail space, called REVIVE. The shop looked amazing but the entrepreneurs had competing visions and REVIVE closed after four months. Nevertheless this experience showed birdloft the value of a storefront. “When we were at REVIVE, we created a space where the community felt like things were happening,” remembers Jeff.
Using what they’ve learned, they partnered with other artists they admire to create a custom design showroom on the corner of Pacific Avenue and S. 9th Street, signing a 3-year lease. The new gallery called Matter combines environmentally-conscious esthetics of three artist-designers: birdloft, Lisa Kinoshita’s Moss + Mineral, and Steve Lawler’s rePly Furniture, all participants of Spaceworks. Though the long-term lease seemed risky, they find it a worthy risk. In their view, downtown Tacoma is about to bloom. The artists collaborate on designing and creating the space together, adding to the modern experience in downtown shopping district.
Though Jeff and Adrienne completed Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise training program in fall 2013, they were still in need of additional business skills and knowledge. When Spaceworks invited birdloft to participate in their pilot business coaching program, they jumped at the chance. As part of this program, titled Creative Enterprise Tier III, they were matched with several carefully selected coaches, including Miriam Works of Works Consulting. “We’re taking a more realistic look at everything,” says Adrienne, “[Miriam] helps us to systematize.” Increasing capacity will require hiring and teaching new employees so Jeff and Adrienne can focus on design. “We’ve done a thought experiment about if we hire someone… what would they do, what would we pay them, and what kind of teachers we would be.”
Tacoma’s vintage buildings remind us of the spirit of discovery shared by pioneers that transformed a lumber town into a major economic hub. The old-growth wood that served as its backbone is still working just beneath the facade until it is uncovered by people with new ideas for our future. Reclaiming the wood that has done its job, birdloft crafts furniture that honors nature and our history. As a new business it took them a while to become deeply engaged in the community but through networking and collaboration they now help shape the destiny of our city. “Spaceworks has connected us with other emerging entrepreneurs and helps us make better, more pragmatic choices about how we are growing as a business and creative enterprise,” says Jeff. “It gives a small business the room and courage to experiment and try what you otherwise would not have tried. This leads to development of independent businesses that are critical to a city. Small, local businesses are the building blocks of a vital city and I think Spaceworks is there to give them the tools to thrive.”
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Photos by Patrick Hagerty
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