Who doesn’t like a journey that begins with a surfboard?

Technically, the journey began a few years earlier, when North Vancouver native and recent university grad Jeff Martin emerged with his diploma and a big gaping “What now?” planted right before him. He knew he liked working with his hands and he knew he liked working outdoors, so landscaping seemed a possibility. That gave way to framing and more specialized carpentry, and his focus and work ethic soon saw him running crews and managing projects.

jeff martin portrait DOTYPhoto by Carlo Ricci.

But, an itch. An itch that doesn’t love the rampant waste in the construction industry. An itch that maybe wants to channel a bit of creativity into the grinding business of earning a living. An itch that gets scratched ever so slightly by a small shared workspace in Vancouver’s 1000 Parker Street studios, where he gets to interact with the wood he handles all day on his own terms. First up comes a full wooden surfboard, then some canoe paddles and, finally, something akin to an aha moment. This comes in the form of a request from his then girlfriend/now wife. While you’re down at the studio messing about with your water implements, do you think you could see about making some furniture for our place?

jeff martin joinery cabinetPhoto by Ben Barber. Martin’s Bronze Shaker table honours the clean lines of the Pennsylvania original while updating both the materials and functionality. 

And so, he does. He’s actually pretty good at it. But, more than that, he loves it. All the things that drove him crazy about his old job—the wasting of materials, the planned obsolescence in so many of the projects—have no place in this new passion. He realizes he’s something of a wood nerd, relishing every difference in the native Pacific Northwest species he’s working with and spending an inordinate amount of time (and money) sustainably sourcing trees. Ones that have fallen or are sick, and that, with the application of his time and vision, can emerge from his studio as objects that are built to last—both in form and function—for a good, long time.

jeff martin joinery tablePhoto by Ben Barber. The Neolithic series explore the use of the classical columnar shape in a variety of contemporary expressions.jeff martin neolithic tablePhoto by Ben Barber. 

That reverence for trees is evident in all of Martin’s work, but it doesn’t manifest itself in a slavish devotion to natural forms. Judge Zoe Garred of Article noted her “joy in seeing Martin use innovative materials to great effect,” and this hands-on work is on full display in his search for visual rhythm in his pieces. In the Neolithic series, that means taking “an ancient form of architecture—the column—and scaling it into furniture scale.” Or his Painted series, which sees the woodworker approaching his own credenzas with a fine art eye: “I don’t use traditional paints, but slow-acting chemicals that sometimes take three days to take effect.”

painted credenza jeff martinPhoto by Ben Barber. Both the Painted credenza and the Suede credenza use paint, bleaches and oxalic acids to alter the appearance of the wood.painted credenza blue jeff martin joineryPhoto by Ben Barber. 

That was 10 years ago. Eight years ago he moved to a bigger space, and five years ago he hired Daithi O’Beag—now studio director—and they moved into the even bigger space he currently occupies. But, notwithstanding that 95 percent of his work is shipped to either Europe or the U.S., he’s never left the creative confines of 1000 Parker Street. It works for him in a way best illustrated by his wildly successful Excavated Vessels line. His popular wooden credenzas need steel bases cast for them, and large sheets of cork are a necessary element of that process. Looking at these sheets headed for the landfill, Martin thought there had to be another use for them. So he ambled down a few doors to Brad Turner, a neighbour at the studios. “I had no idea that Brad was a huge star in the glass world; I was just looking for some guidance,” he laughs. And with Turner’s advice, Martin has himself become something of a small sensation in the glass world by creating one-of-a-kind pieces using the cork moulds.

And the surfboards? “There are still a few of them kicking around out there,” Martin confides. “They really weren’t that good.”

gobi bed jeff martinPhoto by Ben Barberexcavated jeff martin cabinetPhoto by Ben Barber. excavated table jeff martinPhoto by Ben Barber.Martin’s first love is working with wood. He still makes classic pieces like the Excavated table and credenza and the Goby bed, but he lately started experimenting with the finishes on these pieces. 

Q&A with Jeff Martin

Who do you admire most as a designer?

Thaddeus Wolfe in glass, Takuro Kuwata in ceramics, GT2P for their work with lava, Steven Haulenbeek and Max Lamb for their experiment-based practices.

If you weren’t a designer, what job would you be doing?

Aiding in the recovery of our oceanic health somehow.

What classic object is most in need of a redesign?

The drill. Most drills these days look like fancy toothbrushes or razors, with angular rubber and bright colours. Just a good drill with metal casing, a good motor and a right-angle shell so you can use the drill body as a guide for plumb drilling.

What’s your dream project?

Designing a chair out of mushrooms that anyone in the world can grow on their own for less than $5.

What do people often get wrong about design?

That a designer has to stay in one lane. There is nothing stopping someone from playing in fine art, design, architecture or whatever else at the same time.

jeff martinPhoto by Carlo Ricci