Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
Across the street the French Broad River is starting to fill with kayaks and canoes, and Carrier Park is littered with dogs, bikes, and kids basking in the fresh sunlight of spring. Down the road the River Arts District is bustling with artists, galleries, restaurants, and patrons. In between and slightly tucked away is a small industrial park and home to Brian Boggs Chairmakers. The simple façade of the building reveals little of the artistry and craftsmanship that is brewing within.
Through the front doors are high ceilings and a few offices. The sound of buzz saws and machinery hums in the background, a fitting soundtrack as you enter the serene gallery at the top of the stairs. The long room is dotted with an assortment of chairs and a few tables showcasing different styles and textures. Immediately through the door sits a seemingly simple chair on a pedestal. This chair is 33 years old and signifies, both literally and symbolically, the beginning of Brian Boggs’s journey in chair making and woodwork.
Turning a Tree into a Chair
Brian Boggs knew from the early age of eight that he would be an artist. Growing up in Kentucky as part of a family of horse farmers, Brian learned his fair share of trades from carpentry, to cutting tobacco, to general farm work, but there was always art that pulsed through his veins. As a child he enjoyed playing in the woods and was always attracted to drawing and painting trees and landscapes. It wouldn’t be until years later that a realization would occur that trees and art were a part of his true being and these early days would be the blueprint for his future.
In his 20s Brian accidentally picked up a book called The Fine Art of Cabinet Making. Intrigued, he delved deeper into this strange discovery. As he read through the pages, his excitement started to grow and a light bulb not only went off but sparked an electric current of new possibilities.
“It completely changed my thinking about functional cabinetry having a potential for artistic expression. It had never occurred to me to put those two together. It really was an exciting point in my perception of self.”
So Brian began tinkering with wood. His experimentation started out as frustrating and the quality of wood and work was less than stellar, but he knew there was something there, something beneath the surface that he just had to tap into. It would be another book that would really reveal his true passion and talent lying within. This book was found on his father’s coffee table and was titled Make a Chair out of a Tree, written by John Alexander.
When Brian was in high school he was a wrestler and over the years he had always enjoyed a certain amount of hard labor in his work. He liked physical activity and using his muscles. Suddenly this book unearthed a new concept for him, a perfect fusion of art and physicality. Utilizing his body was one component and realizing the sculptural element of a chair was the other. One look at the cover of this book and his life would take a new path.
“Immediately something came together from everything I had invested in myself as an aspiring artist.”
The book talked about how to take a log and rip it apart by hand to turn it into a chair. At the time Brian was working on building a studio for a client who happened to own a craft gallery. The client overheard Brian talking to a coworker about his new venture and told him to show him his product. Of course Brian had nothing to show as of yet so he got to work using the book as his guide. He ventured to the log yard in search of oak for his first project, but found it to be too expensive.
“I tell you what, I have a couple of hickories over here I’ll sell you cheap,” said Melvin from the log yard, as imitated by Brian using a deep southern accent.
He delivered the logs to Brian for $100 and said he could pay him back when he started making money off of his chairs. Brian affectionately recalls these logs as being the finest hickory logs he has seen to this day. He counted the rings and found them to be 350-375 year old trees. Brian points to the chair that sits by the entrance. That chair, still holding strong today, was the first of hundreds constructed by hand, using a flattened screw driver and less than $50 worth of non-electric tools. Brian took that finished product back to the client and has been filling orders ever since.
Eventually, he got more proficient at his craft, to the point where he could construct a chair in less than 10 hours from log to finish.
“It was an organic evolution and kind of a stumbling upon experience. At that time I just wanted to see if I could do it, and then within a couple of years I really wanted to make a living doing this.”
When Tree Meets Human
Now that Brian had successfully found his calling he began to hone his craft. The first step was customizing his tools. Working on a budget he started experimenting with different techniques to better his tools for more efficiency. His intuitive designs made sense not only to him but also to woodworkers in general, and he would eventually sell the rights to a large company that sells his creations internationally to this day.
He felt he had an intimate knowledge of wood from his years of splitting logs and began to build his own machines. This was a period of exploration and experimentation with a deepening appreciation for the basic element he was working with.
“You feel it, you smell it, you’ve got the fibers in your fingers. With that kind of understanding of wood, I was able to envision designs from a tree fiber standpoint, not the lumber standpoint.”
This was when his perception of building and creating began to evolve. He started to differentiate between an industry focused on making furniture out of lumber and the business of making lumber out of trees. To Brian, this process was missing a purpose that was so important to him and his ideals.
“They are feeding a market for everyone that buys wood rather than an ecosystem where the end product is visualized and the tree is selected and dismantled into the ideal components for that visualized product. It’s not what can I do with this board, but what can I do with this tree? And then how do I take this tree apart and put it back together to fit this human?”
Soon he would find an industry that aligned with his beliefs and ideas in an unexpected way, and this would lead him down a different path toward the music business.
Brian discovered that his process of extracting a chair out of a tree had striking similarities to parts of the music industry. He was specifically captivated by luthiers, makers of string instruments. He recognized that the luthier trade is about creating a sound and that there was a very distinct process. Luthiers had evolved and refined this process on a level that resonated with Brian as akin to his own process of chair making.
“In the guitar arena you have centuries of evolution in sound and quality of instrument and that tradition is very rich, particularly when held beside the furniture world, which in my experience is fairly Neanderthal compared to the refinement of the luthier trade. When you look at the path that our company has followed, it is more aligned with the luthier history than furniture history.”
Originally Brian’s chair making was traditional and old fashioned, but he has developed a sense of refinement of his own over the years and now strives to transcend furniture that is just something to look at. He has researched and conformed his art into functional furniture that reacts to the contours of the body. His wife, Melanie, describes their values as comfortable, durable, and sustainable.
“The furniture industry is not taking advantage of the breadth of opportunity of how you can serve the human body. It’s not just a look. There are ways to make it comfortable beyond what most people experience. “
This has led them to their developing relationships with musicians through the creation of their new line of chairs called Sonus chairs. For these, they actually brought musicians into the design process in order to create a chair for optimal performance, comfort, and support. They studied what guitar players needed, how they move and sit.
“Sonus began as a musician’s chair, but really it is a human beings’ chair and designed for the ultimate ergonomics for sitting.”
The Chair Business
The Sonus chair has been such a success that they have further developed the line into dining chairs. The business as a whole hosts an array of furniture designs from dining to leisure and from indoor to outdoor living spaces. A tour of the facility reveals repurposed vintage machinery, kilns for drying the wood, and Brian’s own mechanical creations. He has mastered the intricacies of wood and its properties. He knows that wood is always moving and can describe the varying moisture content with ease. He constructs each of his pieces with these aspects in mind.
Brian’s goal is to maintain the integrity of the tree. When they buy logs, they saw them in a specific manner so that they can recut the wood true to the grain. For any piece that they have created he can point out the patterns and describe to you how they assemble the chair, doing it in a way that the patterns merge and the rings continue around the chair coinciding with the natural flow and movement of the wood.
The assembly is meticulous and the natural swelling of the wood is what locks the joints in place. Manufacturing companies do not have the resources to construct the materials in this manner, therefore the quality and endurance are not the same. This attention to detail and advancement in production is at the heart of Brian’s business.
He has travelled to Honduras for their precious mahogany wood source. There he has developed programs for training craftsmen with sustainability and forest management in mind.
“As we develop as a species there seems to be a natural proclivity to refine whatever aspect we are focusing on. Because we have the ability, we therefore have a responsibility to refine our life.”
Melanie Boggs, Brian’s wife, is an integral part of the business. After years of working internationally she brings her experience in art, graphic design, and communications to the table. She has lived in capitals and countries around the world, but to her and Brian they have really found a home in Asheville.
“Unconsciously I came to Asheville to be rooted. This town is vibrant enough that I don’t want to go anywhere. The focus now is to be more involved and find local collaborations and become active participants in the community.”
Brian and Melanie speak about Asheville, its artists and entrepreneurs, with high regard. Even though they ship almost 95% of their finished pieces nationally they would love to work with more local companies. Currently their unique barstools can be found at 5 Walnut Wine Bar, and are in the works for the new Smokey Park Supper Club, the container restaurant on the French Broad River.
They have found that a burgeoning industry has emerged in fine dining, and restaurants and hotels are increasingly focusing on details such as seating. Whereas historically, bar and dining seats might be the last item on the budget and purchased second hand right before a restaurant opening, Brian and Melanie know how important this detail is and feel confident that this is the perfect market for their future.
[quote float=”right”]“We are seeing an appreciation for refinement in the eating experience across the nation, but the seating side of it hasn’t been addressed yet which is a screaming opportunity for us.”[/quote]
The downside of Brian Boggs Chairmakers is that once you learn Brian’s process and sit in his chairs, he may ruin your sitting experience for life. Each dining and rocking chair, stool, swing, outdoor seat, or office chair you encounter from that day forward will never live up to the quality you have now learned to expect. His knowledge and passion for what he does is obvious as he moves his way through the workroom, touching each piece of wood with affection and telling its story. He remembers where each log came from and treats it with the utmost respect. He understands its gift to his creative possibilities. Like a colleague or a family member, he reveres each piece of wood with love and admiration, and every piece that he creates reflects this.
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