you've been out furniture shopping lately, then you know what a pain
in the ass it is finding anything that isn't poorly built and falls
under the “reasonably priced” category. Going to the box
store and purchasing cheaply priced build-it-yourself material that
breaks in a few months. Or going to an actual furniture store and
seeing how a bookcase will run you $2,000, followed by
the annoying gauntlet of approvals stores are now putting people
through just so they can do a payment plan. It
makes the whole experience long for the days of using a giant cable
spool as a coffee table.
--- But over in Sugar House there's a couple who are now building their own pieces of woodwork furnishings for kitchen, living and play. Under the title of Pith Woods, Zack McGowan and Emily Smith have been producing artistic hand-crafted fixtures, slightly cheaper than what you'd find in a major store that last a bit longer than assembly line products. Within the past year they've become a regular at Craft Sabbath and even have their pieces popping up at localized shops. We got a chance to chat with them about their works as well as thoughts on local arts and crafts.
Zack McGowan & Emily Smith
Gavin: Hey guys! First off, tell us a bit about yourselves.
Emily: I’m a college dropout with a boring day job moonlighting as the co-owner of Pith Woods with my very creative business partner, Zach McGowan. Zach and I live together in Sugar House with our five year old and our two big shop dogs.
Gavin: Zach, how did you first take an interest in woodwork and carpentry?
Zach: I spent some time working in finished carpentry and picked up a few woodworking tools along the way, eventually amassing a small but functioning shop in our basement. The exotic woods we use really got me interested in building furniture; I thought I could make really interesting pieces with such unique species of wood.
Gavin: Did you take up any college or professional training for it, or were you more self-taught?
Zach: Aside from some basic on site job training, I’ve picked up the trade on my own. It’s been more challenging than I thought it would be.
Gavin: What was it like for you learning the craft and honing your skills?
Zach: I’ve really only been at it since January of this year, but with my background in carpentry I was already familiar with a lot of the techniques used. It requires boundless patience which doesn’t come naturally to me. There’s a lot to know about durability and strength when dealing with exotic woods and the glues we use.
Gavin: Emily, prior to meeting Zack, what had you been doing around town and in college?
Emily: I’ve always been passionate about writing and at that time I was attempting to decipher a way to make money with just my writing and future English degree. I still haven’t quite figured it out, thus the boring day job.
Gavin: How did both of you meet up and eventually spark up a relationship?
Emily: Zach and I have been acquaintances for years, but didn’t really know each other until we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s New Years Eve party a couple years ago. We’ve been bumming around together ever since.
Gavin: Where did the idea to start up Pith Woods come from, and how did you come across the name?
Zach: I’ve always wanted to start a business and had been tossing around a few plans when I came across a wood cutting board a friend had gotten at a Farmer’s Market the previous summer. It was a decent board, but lacked creativity. I knew how they were made and figured I could make some unusual boards using less traditional woods. This summer we decided to make the move to a new location in Holladay, a much larger shop space attached to our partner Justin Greenwell’s house. Justin had taken over the website development and accounting prior to the move and Blake Johnson had taken over assisting in the shop.
Emily: Zach initially started making cutting boards to give as Christmas gifts last year and we wanted to include some information about the different species used in the boards. I came across the word "pith" in my research, which refers to the center of the tree where the heartwood (the brightest, most colorful wood) we use in our pieces comes from. We found it fitting.
Gavin: What was it like for you starting out and deciding what you were going to design?
Zach: Talking about and designing the pieces was both the most fun and most challenging part of the startup process. We were overwhelmed with ideas for creations from the start and I went through a lot of trial and error learning to work with the exotic woods. It was a little tough to stay focused on the smaller works when I had so many bigger projects planned, but we needed to make smaller items to get us started in sales.
Gavin: What's the process like for you both in creating a new design, from concept to finished product?
Zach: When the shop was still located in our basement, Emily was helping with the gluing and cutting quite often. She played a big part in the design process in the beginning and assisted me with our first few pieces of furniture. This summer we decided to make the move to a new location in Holladay, a much larger shop space attached to Justin’s house. Justin had taken over the website development and accounting prior to the move and Blake Johnson had taken over assisting in the shop. Blake’s been an incredible help in speeding up the process of adding stock and that’s really allowed for more creativity in the smaller products.
Gavin: Do you usually have an idea what it will look like or are you prone to scraping and changing things around?
Zach: I tend to talk out the general design of the piece with Emily before even sitting down to sketch. After I work through the basic layout with her, I sketch the idea and focus on the intricacies before we build. Once we start the actual construction of the piece I don’t typically do much reworking of the design. The smaller items are more malleable throughout their creation and once in awhile I’ll completely divert from the original plan.
Gavin: How did you get on board with Craft Sabbath, and how did it work out getting that kind of exposure?
Emily: I picked up a flier somewhere for the March 2010 Craft Sabbath and after checking out the surprisingly young and hip crafters involved, we decided to try and get involved. I had no idea there was any kind of alternative craft market like it in Utah and it’s been exciting to see it grow so much in this past year. Being involved in Craft Sabbath funded Pith’s startup and gave us the traction we needed to prepare for the Farmer’s Market. September’s Craft Sabbath will mark its move to our new home in the Main Library.
Gavin: What made you decide to move into doing furniture pieces, and how different is it for you from creating the smaller works?
Zach: Eventually, making the smaller stuff became much less of a challenge. I had been tossing around an idea for a table top before we started making the cutting boards and once I started using more of the imported species I became more interested in making larger pieces. Designing and building the furniture pieces is a much lengthier and detailed process.
Gavin: Recently your works were added to the floor room of Artists & Heirlooms in Ogden. How did that opportunity come about?
Emily: Tami Crowley, who runs the shop, is a family friend who graciously offered up a spot in the gallery during Ogden’s First Friday Art Stroll.
Gavin: Are there any plans to expand into bigger pieces and sets or sticking mainly to the smaller works for now?
Zach: We love any chance to work on bigger projects, but currently focus most of our time on the smaller works to keep up stock for the Farmer’s Market and Craft Sabbath. Once the Farmer’s Market ends in October I’ll be starting another bigger piece, possibly sooner if the opportunity comes about.
Gavin: Going a bit local, what's your take on our art scene, both good and bad?
Emily: We’re a city with a large art community that receives a disproportionately small amount of attention from the majority of its citizens.
Gavin: Same question as the last, but this time about our local craft community.
Emily: Salt Lake has a much larger volume of creative talent than I think we get credit for. Being involved in Craft Sabbath has been a great opportunity to see all the different ways that talent manifests itself in our town.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make them more prominent?
Emily: People getting involved, even at a minor level, helps increase the art/crafting scene’s presence in the larger community and I think more focus from the public would encourage more diversity in the scene.
Gavin: What's your take on events like Craft Sabbath, Craft Lake City and the Beehive Bazaar, and what they do for the local craft community?
Zach: For Pith, finding an underground, "rebel" craft market was a stroke of amazing luck. These types of markets help change people’s ideas of crafts and are expanding these mediums to a very different set of people than you normally expect to see knitting or making jewelry. It makes for some really cool and unique stuff.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourselves and Pith Woods over the rest of the year?
Emily: It was really interesting becoming involved in the crafting world. Etsy was our first sales outlet and I’m ever so grateful for the site’s ease of use and welcoming community. I’m excited to say that it will no longer remain our only online storefront starting September 13, when PithWoods.com launches. Justin has been working long hours and developing an ulcer over the site’s development and it’s looking pretty dope.
Zach: Emily’s taking a step back from managing the business as we’ve brought Justin on board to take over that roll and we’re excited to have the new site launching this week thanks to his efforts. We’ll be traveling to various festivals and shows through the Winter and Spring and we’ll be continuing to build new pieces, of course. Look for us every month at Craft Sabbath and through mid-October at the Farmer’s Market!
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Emily: Be sure to check out next week’s Craft Sabbath at our new home in the Urban Room of the Main Library, from 1-5PM on September 12! Also, we owe a huge thank you to Meg Griggs for getting Craft Sabbath into our amazing new space and a thank you to NoBrow for housing our beginnings.
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