The storm season is upon us, and the Island has already been slammed by some resounding blasts of wind and rain, which is exciting for John Lore.
He would be happier if it blew even harder during the next gale, because that’s when he gets to head out with his truck and chainsaw, to salvage any blowdowns that he then turns into majestic pieces of furniture.
“Virtually all my furniture is made from urban salvage,” he said. “And about half to three- quarters of it is salvaged the week or so following a big windstorm. The first big wind usually topples lots of trees, but it depends on the rain, too.”
He was a bit disappointed with the payoff from the last storm, however. “I only got one tree.”
The woodworker’s modest 1946 home in the Duncan area is filled with the art of trees, pieces he has made over the years — tables, sideboards, benches, cupboards, a floor-to-ceiling work station, bed, dresser, dining table and chairs — and one of the first armchairs he ever constructed out of alder branches, a couple of decades ago, which he calls his Peace River chair.
John and his wife, Dorothy, bought their 2,500-square-foot house in 1993 and live there with their daughter, and Dorothy’s mother.
“We came here from Calgary in December and looked at a lot of houses,” said Dorothy. “Then one day our real estate agent told us this house had just come on the market and we went right out to see it. We walked in and it felt like home, but we decided we’d better come back and see it in the daylight. The next day we arrived and saw the gorgeous view and said this is it.
“We haven’t done much to the top floor yet, but we put in a full suite in the basement and we have lots of future plans. But we have always embraced the style and age of the house as it is, and we don’t want to make it too modern,” she said. “It’s a period house.”
They refinished all the floors or laid new ones, added two sets of French doors and put on two decks and a new roof.
One of the home’s interior walls was solid pine and they left it that way. “Most people have taken that off by now, but we thought eventually it would come back in,” John said hopefully.
He built the handsome back deck 15 years ago in a rustic style, with cedar limbs, but he created fine furniture in the master bedroom (excluding one small stool), including under-bed storage drawers that glide silently in and out.
All the pieces gleam like satin.
“A woman asked me if she could touch a piece at a recent show, and when I said yes, she then asked if she could lick it,” he recalled with a laugh. It’s hardly surprising, since the finishes often look like toffee or glow like honey.
John’s half-hectare garden is filled with interesting wood pieces, too, ranging from a double swing and lounging chairs to a tall, narrow wood shed with twig swing doors.
As if the home and garden weren’t filled with enough wooden furniture, its walls are covered with photographs, paintings and even calendars depicting trees. One of the most arresting is a framed, triple-fold-out photo page from National Geographic showing a mammoth, snow-dusted, 3,200-year-old giant sequoia in California, with a tiny climber at the top and another on the ground, looking like an ant.
Two of his tree paintings are by local artist Coco Jones, and one is called “Tree of the eternal optimist.”
“I’ve always been inspired by big trees,” said John, who is president and owner of Live Edge Design and will open his 5195 Mearns Rd. workshop and studio on Nov. 5 and 6 as part of the Cowichan Artisans studio tour. (see sidebar)
The woodworker likes maple best because it displays nature’s great artistry in the depth and dimension of its curling figures, the fiddlebacks (so called because the patterned wood is often used for the backs of violins) and unique patterns in the grain.
He said the spalted markings and burls are caused by disease or bugs that attack the trees, and other figures are induced by stress. As a tree gets taller and heavier, the grain in the lower part can buckle.
It’s that kind of sensitivity that makes John appreciate live-edge furniture.
“It’s an ancient way of doing woodwork that’s been around for centuries, particularly in Japan, but we are one of the first to re-popularize the idea in North America,” he said.
“I once had a lady come up to me at an interior-design show and after caressing a table for about 15 minutes, and running her fingers along the raw edges, she said: ‘Thank you for reminding me that wood comes from trees.’ ”
Although the opposite reaction is sometimes true, too. Occasionally, he’s had a fellow come up to him and comment that the furniture would be really beautiful if he could just square up the edges. “I tell these people that I can do that for another $1,000 and yes, I’ve done that a few times.”
He is always keen to rush out and salvage a tree that’s toppled, and can also get big slabs from a lumber mill or wholesaler, but there are a few strokes against that idea.
“First, it’s not salvage. It’s been processed with huge equipment, so it’s often really beat up along the edges. And large producers are not used to drying pieces of wood that size, and don’t want to tie up their kilns for as long as it takes.”
He has five small kilns and says it can take the better part of a year to slowly dry a big piece of wood.
Why bother? “That’s why it stays flat.”
The other big element relates to sanding, which he says takes 80 per cent of the time with furniture. Unlike factories, which often have production lines, in his company of 25 employees, one individual does each piece from start to finish.
“We did try for a while having one person do one process, but people got bored or got repetitive strain injuries, so now each piece is done by one person. Each piece has a plaque and paper bio of its creator.”
When John isn’t making furniture for his own house, he is sending it to Korea, China, Australia, Switzerland and England for prices as high as $20,000 for a dining-room suite.
He recently made a 10-metre-long table for an outdoor classroom at UBC, but most of his business in North America is related to hospitality.
He frequently supplies Hilton Hotels, the Four Seasons, Tigh-Na-Mara Resort, Wickaninnish Inn and works for designers such as Victoria-based J.C. Scott, who says John is passionate about respecting trees and wood. “He has been leading the way on two fronts for decades, longer than anyone else I have worked with — first, the sustainable sourcing and fabricating of wood, and second, he has helped to create the new West Coast aesthetic of natural and bold wood furniture,” Scott said via email.
“He started the ‘Live Edge’ movement on Vancouver Island and continues to lead with initiatives like the One Tree Exhibition, where designers and artists focus on showcasing what can be produced from just one tree.”
John contends that maple will always be his favourite wood.
“It has a few things going for it. It’s fast-growing, grows very large, is plentiful and is always falling down. These trees have a beautiful colour and figure and every tree is different, which is why it’s never become a commodity, because it has no consistency.
“But for art wood, it’s fantastic.”
Cowichan Valley artisans open studios for free tour
What: Cowichan Artisans Studio Tour
Where: Cowichan Valley
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 5 and 6
Free and self-guided. Maps at cowichanartisans.com
The tour features a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the best artisans in Cowichan Valley create their works, whether they be custom furniture and marquetry, silver jewelry, watercolour landscapes, glass mosaics, ceramics or functional pottery pieces.
Eleven artists in all — including award-winning craft artisans and folk artists — will open doors to their studios and galleries during the same hours, so visitors can visit and browse for a full two days, while perhaps savouring local libations at nearby vineyards.
John Lore, owner of Live Edge Designs, said his studio will display all kinds of “weird and wonderful prototypes,” and one-offs, everything from large charcuterie boards to end tables.