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May 112009

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

Only a few years ago, you couldn’t give old wood away. Dilapidated barns and falling-down sheds were a nuisance to most people who owned them; they’d actually pay you to come haul the stuff off.

Boy, how things change. Daniel and Amy Balog find it ironic, and exciting, that reclaimed wood has become fashionable. The Tennessee-based furniture makers are riding that trend simply doing what they do best – reusing old things and creating cool, utilitarian designs.

With 11th Hour Furniture, which uses 100 percent reclaimed wood for its striking mission and shaker-style furnishings, they aren’t jumping on the trend-wagon or trying to get rich off materials that were given to them (by nature and by neighbors), as many reclaimed-wood designers are doing. They’re after something different, aesthetically and otherwise.

“We want to get everybody a table. There’s a lot of guys out here that only want to sell one or two  a year and charge $12,000. I want to sell 200 and charge $800. That’ll help the environment, and it’ll be nice and you can hand it down to your kids and grandkids,” says Daniel, a lifelong recycler who studied design and sculpture at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

The artist and his wife, a geologist, went into furniture design after moving their family to a plot of land Daniel owned outside Pikeville, TN, several years ago. Then in 2006, the couple segued into something that felt more, well, natural to them – starting 11th Hour, which mostly harvests its wood from old barns in the area, and whose provenance can often be traced through generations of the same family. The company also follows strict, self-set green guidelines – working with local or regional woods; using non-toxic finishes (typically Mike Mahoney’s Bowlmaker brand); running an energy-efficient workshop; purchasing carbon offsets from, and of course recycling all scraps.

But unlike many other reclaimed-wood workers, they start from the ground-up, literally and figuratively – ascertaining the customer’s needs and designing pieces to spec, even offering to take the client on-site to check out the source.

Other designers of note who fit this category but are substantially more expensive include Live Edge on Vancouver Island and Hudson Furniture in New York City.

“Our whole thing is truly green from the harvesting of the wood to the time they come pick it up. We try to use everything we can of the barn,” says Daniel Balog, explaining that wood considered flawed by some designers has a peculiar beauty to him.

“It’s all a mystery to us. …  Some of the (salvaged) pieces are not good looking, but when we start matching them up – and a lot of them have bee holes and nail holes – it just works. I’ve got 10,000 feet of harvested wood in back of the shop (locals now call them to offer wood). Or if the client wants to come out here, they can pick them out” – something encouraged by the Balogs, who also give discounts to clients who pick up their own furniture.

“We have a lot of customers lately from New York that are really into the white pine and not a lot of knotholes,” he says, “but the majority of people that want it say, ‘Build me a table. I don’t care what it looks like or how many beeholes it’s got.’ …  We know the people that have these barns, so we have this whole history around it. We can say, ‘It’s the Blankenships’ old barn, they were third-generation millers.’ Or, ‘It’s the Evans’ barn’.”

But there’s more to the reclaimed-wood movement than its greenness or trendiness. It’s the epitome of holistic design.