When I was a kid, I would not shut up about owning a crazy driftwood throne after seeing one being sold out by the Oregon Coast. (My folks refused to buy it). I’d spend hours in my dad’s garage, sawing and hammering together his leftover planks and two by fours. Then in high school, I took a furniture making class, which upped my game on the table saw, but also helped me produce some regrettably cheesy sun-and-moon end tables. I currently have a burl table fixation that my friends tease me about.
When I heard about Reason furniture design from a local designer, I knew I’d found a fellow wood junkie in designer Jacob Ruch. His creations are one of a kind, utilizing the weathered shapes and textures he culls from builders’ supply outlets or construction site leftovers. His use of old wood has the vintage handmade feel I love, but his style is also modern and refined.
Inspired by Jacob’s reconfiguration of builders’ castaways, I decide to commission a small writing desk from him. Even if I don’t carry the furniture designer DNA, I could at least find out what living that dream might entail.
I first meet Jacob at his Mission studio, a corner build-out in CELLspace that’s the size of a storage closet. He says he likes working in confined spaces. It’s part of his larger mantra of being able to make something out of nothing.
Large planks, rails, and chunks of wood line the walls here. Douglas fir is the most common material Jacob finds, since most homes are built from it. But he used old oak handrails for a recent stool, and a general contractor gave him a large piece of redwood for free.
Jacob is a solo artist on paper, but his network extends to the community at large. His motto is to keep all parts of the production chain “local and family.” So he’ll collaborate with a metal worker, for example, to create the base of a table. Jacob is a super mellow, humble California artist kinda guy. I can see that he’s easily forged a place with local designers, even though he’s been in business for less than a year.
As a flea market hound, I like the way Jacob sees art in others’ scraps. He says his father was a builder who never threw anything away, much like my hobbyist woodworking dad. His great uncle Reason Ruch, for whom Reason is named, was also a very resourceful craftsman. Jacob carried their ideas with him. “I like very low waste,” he says. “I started using salvage because I don’t like seeing things thrown away.” He’s benefited from recycling in more ways than one: His tools came from a fire sale at Hillsdale High School after he heard it was shutting down its woodshop class.
He adds that in San Francisco a lot of the discarded “trash” is really treasure. This city has a high number of luxury homes compared to other places across the country. “Without luxury homes, beautiful materials don’t end up in salvage yards,” he explains.
Now that I understood how Jacob works, we agree to meet again so he can teach me the art of scavenging for quality parts.
When I return to Jacob’s workshop, he’s suffered his first on-the job injury – plowing two fingers into a table saw blade. He’s stitched up now, though, and ready to get back into his projects, which include a couple elegant drip coffee racks made from the support rings of an old chemistry set and reclaimed hardwood flooring. They’re branded with his Reason logo. (Jacob brands all his work, using a device he bought off a confused rancher who asked the designer what kind of cattle he owned.)
We hop in Jacob’s truck and head to Building REsources in Bayview. When we get there, I can’t believe I’ve never been to this industrial wonderland before. Set against a perfect San Francisco skyline, the yard is covered in piles of used materials. There are hills of sinks and sink parts, skyscrapers of shower doors, mountains of wood, stacks of toilets and tiles, and pools of broken glass and marbles. It’s as if the city had suffered a massive tornado and the apartment rubble settled into distinct sectors here.
Jacob throws on gloves and heads over to the hardwood flooring castoffs. As he pulls out various pieces, he explains the detail he’s seeking. The tighter the grain, the older the wood, the more of a beating the piece can take. He says most of the really old trees are protected now. The old growth wood has been “entombed” in the frames of homes, though, and is good recycled material. He pulls out a couple different cuts, making sure there aren’t any stray nails in them and that the wood looks nice as is. He doesn’t like to refine the pieces too much.
I think about my favorite interiors in San Francisco – Outerlands, Four Barrel, The Riptide – places that use unusual slabs of trees for tables, countertops, and wall designs. I ask Jacob if he’s noticed people really getting into the woodsy aesthetic. He says rough-looking pieces are pretty big right now. “I love working that way, but I separate my stuff from the rustic look,” he adds. “I do delicate pieces with a lot of reclaimed wood.”
I poke around in the piles until I find a thick plank of redwood with a light coating of faded turquoise paint. Its surface has been shaped by knots and dents, and there’s nothing else like it in the yard. Jacob shoots me a grin and asks, “Did you just find your tabletop?” The piece is so unusual, and tinted in my favorite color, that I have no choice but to take it home. I put it in Jacob’s pile.
A REsources worker drives by in a forklift and asks if we need any help. With his nose ring and cowboy hat, the guy has down the Mad Max of Burning Man look. His style fits the off-the-grid vibe of Building REsources, which extends to its pricing. Jacob explains that the employees estimate on the spot the worth of whatever you pull up to the register, so it’s a smart idea to get on their good side.
Among the regulars here is a sweet Blue Heeler named Huxley. I follow the dog into a small building as Jacob searches for rusty screws and bolts. Inside, I chat with Bill Brooks, a long-time and very affable REsource employee.
Bill says the 15-year old nonprofit attracts all kinds of characters, especially since the city allows people to work off tickets for misdemeanors here, but mainly there are a lot of artistic types on staff. Then he gives me an involved lesson on the way things used to be made. He pulls out old doorknobs and light fixtures, pointing out the integrity of the brass items over the new stuff that’s only brass coated and falls apart much faster. As someone who has always appreciated an aged aesthetic, I like the idea that there’s value in more than just the way these parts look.
After hearing all about doorknobs and REsources’ community garden, I say good-bye to Bill and find Jacob just as he’s about to pay. The cowboy charges him $75 for all the wood and bolts – not cheap, but he does let Jacob use his power saw to fit the longer pieces in the truck. As we pull away, Jacob says he likes working solo. “It’s easier to stay progressive,” he explains, “when you can turn on a dime.”
I return to CELLspace two months later and Jacob has turned my old redwood plank into an amazing writing desk. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind design, with two Douglas fir planks holding the top up at a 45-degree angle, so the piece has an almost A-frame shape. A couple rust-colored bolts hold the planks together, and the desk has been finished in a clear coat (just in case that turquoise paint was lead based).
The desk fits both the Reason aesthetic and mine. It’s rustic and weathered on one hand, and thoughtfully artistic on the other. I set it up prominently in my living room, enjoying the creative jolt that comes from owning a piece of furniture I had a tiny hand in creating.
Give me an excuse to return to Building REsources – and access to a garage space that I can mess up a little – and perhaps new wooden tables will overpopulate my place once again.
Reason furniture design takes commissions personalized to your taste. You can look at samples of Jacob’s work at his website. Depending on the order, the cost for commissions ranges from $300 to more than $3,000 and usually takes a couple weeks to complete.
If you’re already handy with furniture making, Building REsources is an incredible resource for raw materials, and a great way to make sure nothing goes to waste in this city.