Imperfectly fine

Seattle artisans render unique, handcrafted furniture from 'rust and grit and grime'
Michael Marian welds part of a desk together at his shop in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.(Ken Lambert/MCT

SEATTLE — It's barely 5 p.m. on a weeknight, and the buzzy Rock Creek restaurant in Seattle's artsy Fremont neighborhood is already filling up. But Michael Marian is in no rush to claim a spot.

He's outside, peering at the miner's grate atop the front stairs and the barn wood below them.

"If the boards on the front popped out, I'd replace them," he said. "But in the summer, they'll dry up and shrink."

Once inside, he and his business partner, Travis Farber, sit at the bar, looking at everything but the menu.

"See how that bottle is leaning forward a little?" he said, eyeing the shelf he built behind the bar. "Need to fix that."

It's a familiar exercise, and one Marian performs all over town, now that his company, Marian Built, which brings new life and purpose to reclaimed materials, has caught fire faster than a barn in August.

"People are getting sick of Ikea," Marian said. "Someone said, 'Man is again creating the imperfections that only come from handcrafted pieces.' It doesn't look like a machine built it. It looks like people did it."

In a place where the term "handcrafted" applies to beer and booze, cheese and crullers, bass guitars and leather bags, Marian, 33, is creating the kind of furniture on which you want to set them all.

And as the local culinary scene has exploded, so has Marian's relatively young furniture-making business, thanks in part to his acquaintance with architect Jim Graham, one of the principals at Graham Baba Architects, the firm largely responsible for the prevailing restaurant aesthetic in Seattle.

When Graham originally asked Marian to build tables at the new Via6 building downtown, the maker fitted reclaimed wood tops with steel bases, and used miner's grate (used for sifting through rocks) for the doors on the restaurant's wine rack. ("It's still got a couple of rocks in it")

After that came jobs at some of the most talked about restaurants in the area: The Hollywood Tavern, Westward, Brimmer and Heel Tap, Rock Creek, Barnacle and Tanakasan.

Many restaurants are using reclaimed materials, of course — the pews from a Baptist church at Witness; the basketball and bowling alley floors at places like Hitchcock and even Starbucks — but Marian considers his work art on which you dine.

The materials, to him, are an extension of his appreciation for things that came before us, and that will carry on long after — just like the words of men long passed that he loves to quote. Picasso ("All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."). Churchill ("Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.").

The Marian Built shop — located along a bumpy stretch of asphalt and light-industrial businesses on Shilshole Avenue in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood — is also a throwback. The planer is 70 years old. The joiner is 105 years old and came from the wood shop at the New York City Parks Department, which used it to make the benches at Central Park. ("I haggled with the guy until he was blue in the face," Marian said.)

The band saw is from the '40s — World War II era, Marian likes to say — and indeed, when he throws the switch, it sounds like a Cessna taking off.

"We're going back to a classic way of building things, but applying new techniques," Marian said. "We're just trying to be as efficient as we can while still maintaining traditional craftsmanship."

Marian started the business in January of 2011 after construction work, at which he made his living, dried up in the recession.

It was rough going for a while, but in April, the operation moved from "a tin shack on the other side of Ballard" to Shilshole Avenue.

The space allows them to keep up with their restaurant work — but also continue creating for homeowners who want something they can't get anywhere else.

Mark and Caryl Andrews hired Marian to build them a table that appears on Marian's website as "The Adams Table." Eight feet in diameter, it is made of reclaimed wood from a Seattle warehouse, set atop a metal base.

"It looks like Sputnik," Caryl Andrews said of the base. "You know the metal part of the rocket ship that crashes into the water on 'I Dream of Jeannie?' It's a 120-pound metal base."


The tabletop alone — buffed and lacquered to a blinding sheen — weighs 350 pounds and took three men to move into the Andrews' Gig Harbor home.

It's art, it's absolutely art," Caryl Andrews said. "When somebody walks into the house and sees it, we have to take 20 minutes to tell the story. It's got big divots in it."

Marian asked if they wanted them smoothed out. They said no.

"You can go to a furniture store, but nobody is going to have this table," Mark Andrews said. Of course, at $7,800, not everyone can afford it. But Andrews said it was "40 percent cheaper than the biggest round table we could find."

The couple also enlisted Marian to make a kitchen pantry featuring a 300-pound, vintage fire door hung upon hinges from 1910. It slides on a bracket to reveal shelves made of metal from cars and license plates.

"I call his work art because I think he's an artist," she said. "These things came from an old burned-out warehouse and someone was going to toss it. But Michael made it something beautiful. And now I see him everywhere, which is a true testament to his work. I don't think anyone explodes on the scene without deserving it."

Erin Lea hired Marian — a high-school friend of her husband's — to build an odd-sized dining room table from reclaimed material for $3,200.

He came back to her with a sturdy marriage of various woods, set upon sewing machine legs. Marian even set the table as he was building it to get the dimensions just right.

"It's old barn wood and old floor wood ... I can't remember what he said," recalled Lea, who lives in Madison Park. "I still don't know much about furniture, but I know I like it."

Rock Creek owners Eric Donnelly and Christy Given wanted a "rustic, natural feel" for the place, named for a fly-fishing river in Montana.

They visited Marian's shop "and were blown away by everything," Given said. "What people think is junk is gold to Mike."

So the plow blade was waxed and lacquered and turned into a divider. A saw blade was installed at the top of a welder's dream of a screen between the bar and the dining room. The area below the bar is made of corrugated metal from a dairy farm in Sedro-Woolley. ("I had to wade through six inches of cow shit to get it," Marian remembered.)

"His eye for things out of the ordinary that come together is completely amazing," said Donnelly, as he walked around the upper dining area, where the handle on the door to the private dining room is a tractor clutch.

"All these gears were just in piles, and (Marian) can visualize how it's going to look and make it look elegant," he said. "And it was just laying on the floor! Seeing that, seeing through the rust and grit and grime is amazing."

They don't fake anything, Marian said. They don't purposely distress anything, or beat wood with chains.

"All this stuff we build out of reclaimed stuff, it has energy about it," Marian said. "It has a feeling that you can't duplicate."

There's lumber from houses, the sides of barns in Ephrata. Gym flooring. One project was made with wood that was underwater and frozen — therefore, preserved — in the back of his building on Shilshole.

Most people may not think much of what Marian finds — but to him it can be the start of something beautiful.

"The art is always inside you," he said. "You just have to find the medium with which to express it."



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