Industrial designer Robert Hendrick was on a tech career track out of college until two things happened that changed his trajectory.
First, he bought a company that maintains and rebuilds railroad tracks. Then he started spending Saturdays building stuff with his father, Jim.
"I'd always been fascinated by trains and loved the history of how they were so instrumental in the industrialization of America," says Hendrick, of Nashville. "Dad was a construction exec, and the carpentry shop was a weekend diversion. He was always salvaging some interesting artifact from a building that was being torn down. When I saw some of the scrap rails, I realized there might be some beautiful things we could make with them."
The two launched Rail Yard Studios in 2010. Using century-old railroad steel and hardwood timber, they make one-of-a-kind chairs, desks, tables, beds. Some of the rails date back as far as 1898. Each piece is numbered using a salvaged date nail that's been scavenged from the tracks themselves.
Many wood furniture artisans are interested, as the Hendricks are, in honoring the provenance of their material, whether it's repurposed, recycled or just reimagined as something that can be used in the home.
That creative respect makes for some beautiful and intriguing pieces.
Naomi Neilson Howard, founder of the company Native Trails in San Luis Obispo, Calif., uses staves and barrels from nearby wineries to make bathroom vanities for her Vintner's Collection. Her Cabernet model has a deep, warm patina, the result of the oak soaking in red wine for several years. The pieces have an Old World, weathered quality.
This spring, Howard added the Renewal series to her line, a departure from the more rustic pieces. She molds tightly grained, compressed bamboo into contemporary vanities such as the Halcyon, a curvy, wall-mounted piece fashioned from two proprietary varietals, Caramel Bamboo and the darker Woven Strand Bamboo.
Fred Strawser and David Smith have an eponymous Brooklyn shop selling refurbished and repurposed furnishings whose components started life back in Rust Belt factories. With its mix of heartland craftsmanship and modern high style, the shop has attracted the attention of design enthusiasts as far away as Japan.
For examples, a medical cart from late 19th-century Toledo, Ohio, gets a walnut top that used to be a leather worker's work surface, and is ready for action as a hip new desk or console. Industrial-chic side tables are made of thick, lustrously finished slabs of reclaimed wood with wrought-iron, hanging machinist's baskets instead of shelves.
Sarah Reiss is a Dallas-based artist, furniture designer and writer, who found her inner craftsman when buying a fixer-upper. She invested in a jigsaw and some other equipment and built a wall out of interesting reclaimed lengths of wood. The striking result -- a colorful, textural geometric piece of art -- caught the attention of design bloggers, and her business took off.
"Piecing a wall together is like a long-form improvisation with a permanent outcome. I think that's pretty cool," she says.