The Repurposed-Driven Life

Sonoma County artisans give new life to castoff materials

The Japanese have a tradition of repairing broken pots with a lacquer resin laced with gold, a process called kintsugi. Repairing the pot this way emphasizes the flaw and is considered to enhance its beauty and value. Indeed, sometimes the old, weathered and seasoned can be more beautiful than the new.

According to the state’s official website, Californians generate over 50 million tons of waste each year. Much of that “waste” is made up of wood, metal, glass and other materials that could, like a cracked Japanese pot, be repaired, reused and repurposed. Living as we are in a “use it and throw it away” society, it’s easy to grow complacent about what we toss in the trash. But some in Sonoma County are working to reverse this trend.

Sonoma County artist and designer Seth Richardson is part of a vanguard of creative thinkers who are re-envisioning notions of disposability. After years in the construction industry, he now creates furniture and home accents from reclaimed items.

“I don’t like seeing good material go into landfills,” says Richardson, who frequently scours junkyards and landfills to find material for his creations. “I like to find things that have a story, then help those things retell their story, but with a happy ending.”

In 2011 Richardson started Functional Art, Incorporated, and began putting his vision into practice. His work can be seen mostly in homes, offices, restaurants and tasting rooms. Located on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa, Functional Art is the only business in the district creating original pieces.

Every turn in his studio reveals another surprise. Recently, Richardson built a set of picnic tables using wood rescued from a set of bleachers at a Kansas City high school. Other pieces include lighted wall sconces fashioned from recycled oak barrel staves and a stunning three-dimensional wall sculpture made up of beach rocks and reclaimed seasoned wood.

“I don’t always plan before beginning a project,” says Richardson. “I take existing items and ask myself, what could I do with this—what could this become?”

Sebastopol artist and craftsman Chris Lely and his partner Nick Howard recently started a company, Lely-Howard, creating unique furniture from castoffs, including one-of-a-kind custom tables using old-growth Douglas fir from a recently demolished building in downtown Petaluma. “We love the idea of repurposing,” says Lely. “The old lumber has great character and beauty.”

Lely began crafting furniture when work in the construction business fell off due to the lagging economy. “Suddenly, no one was hiring,” he says. “I began finding things that were lying around and turning them into something else. There’s a real market for this. Lots of people are looking for the industrial, reclaimed look. We use lumber, old carts or metal wheels and make something new and unique. It’s not just something to look at; it’s something you can use.”

This trend toward making and buying items made from repurposed materials has also spurred some businesses to warehouse and supply these materials to craftsmen and DIY-ers. Joel Fox owns and operates one of these businesses, Beyond Waste, in Cotati.

“We take reclaimed Douglas fir and redwood and turn it into flooring and wainscoting,” says Fox. “We were doing salvage work and deconstruction. At the time, there weren’t many people repairing or reclaiming materials. But when we began custom-milling beautiful flooring from salvaged wood, we couldn’t make it fast enough. Our customers love the character and the flaws in the wood.”

Even the Sonoma County Probation Camp, which runs a 24-bed facility for young men ages 16 to 18, has gotten onboard the recycling train. There, the crews learn carpentry and welding by creating benches, picnic tables and fire rings from reclaimed wood and metal, which is then offered for sale to the public and California’s state parks.

“Sometimes,” says Richardson. “I think of that old wedding rhyme—something old, something new, something borrowed . . .” He laughs, adding, “I guess the ‘something blue’ part is how I feel when I let a piece go to its new home.”

Local activist Lauren Shalaby is making plans with Richardson to create a nonprofit in alignment with Functional Art, which will teach at-risk youth how to work with repurposed materials.

“We throw so much away,” says Shalaby, “and much of it goes into landfills or to foreign countries, where they recycle it and sell it back to us. Our plan is to come up with ways to keep those resources here while teaching a new generation about conservation and recycling. Children will have the opportunity to learn craft skills, art, welding, design and carpentry, and see their efforts actually being used in their community. We want to teach kids that they can impart new life to old things.

“We want to build a bridge between the way things are and the way they can be.”

Sonoma County Library