"Gigantic trees and rain forests were a part of my natural surroundings," says sculptor Gabriela Valenzuela, who grew up in Costa Rica. "I remember being six years old and marveling at the guava tree in my school yard." After a stint as a clothing designer in Manhattan (at Go Silk, she helped start the washed-silk trend of the 1980s), Valenzuela returned in 1996 to Costa Ricaand to its trees. She started carving and polishing driftwood into bowls and sculptures, then moved on to using old stumps dug up from behind her house. Today, Valenzuela hasn't left the world of fashion behind entirelyshe designs wood jewelry for a prominent Parisian companyand beauty remains the primary reason she creates her curvaceous, polished serving pieces, furniture and vases. "I love wood in its natural state, with the age and patina showing," Valenzuela says. But she's also taking a political stance. Costa Rica has long been a leader in environmentalism, and Valenzuela models her business on those principles. She uses only wood that has been recycled or comes from areas reforested with indigenous trees such as cortez, genizaro and zebrawood, each of which has a distinct, prominent grain. Valenzuela is socially conscious as well: Her company, Heartwood, supports the local economy by hiring area craftspeople to execute her unique designs. "When I create a salad bowl," she says, "I feel like I'm bringing out the wood's personality" (place mats from $65, bowls from $62, from Shelter; 323-937-3222).
City Wood, Country Table
"When you do renovation," table maker Ralph Gorham says, "you rip this out, you rip that out, and sometimes you think, 'Hmmthat's a nice piece of wood.'" For more than 15 years Gorham was a general contractor in New York City, where he built the popular restaurants Coffee Shop and Live Bait. One day he stripped the paint off a beam he'd just extracted from a warehouse and discovered it was Mississippi heart pine, well over 150 years old. "It was gorgeous wood," he recalls. "I knew this was an extremely rare commodity." That gave Gorham an idea: He amassed a cache of antique mahogany, pine and douglas fir from jobs in Harlem, Manhattan and Brooklyn and began a company called Brooklyn Farm Tables, to offer customers "a piece of New York," as he puts it.
At his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Gorham works with beams that can weigh more than a ton, and from which upward of 500 nails may have to be removed, before the wood can be sawed into two-inch-thick planks. The boards are then painstakingly aligned to make symmetrical patterns of the wood's grain and knots. A variety of legs and pedestal or trestle bases is available; surfaces can be rough-hewn or smooth. Finally, the made-to-order tables can be stained or (Gorham's preference) sanded, sealed, waxed and left natural. His in-laws Maury Povich and Connie Chung are among his most loyal collectors ($3,000 for a three-by-six-foot table; 718-797-2679 or www.brooklynfarmtable.com).
"A good spoon can be a small wonder of thoughtful composition," woodworker Kent Scheer says of his Norwegian-style tasting spoons. He hand carves some for sampling sauces and soups during cooking and others as sculptural objects. But in truth, all his spoons, with their spare contours, beautiful curvature and finely balanced bowls and tails, fit both categories.
Scheer began wood carving in his mid twenties when he moved to a cabin in the forest near his family's Minnesota farm. Wondering how he'd make a living, he found the answer in the trees: creating wooden bowls and platters. Then, browsing in an antiques shop, he happened upon a broken tasting spoon made by a Scandinavian immigrant at the turn of the century, which became the prototype for his own designs. Scheer prefers working with birch, he says, for its straight grain and clarity: "I'm more interested in shape than texture, so I use wood that has no character." In addition to the spoons, Scheer makes wooden toys at the Lost Toy Shoppe in Wadena, Minnesota ($40 to $300 for spoons; 218-631-3084 or www.losttoyshop.com).