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Fabulous furniture crafted from old trees - Urban Hardwoods adds steel to its sleek designs

By Lori Ehrig

What happens when a guy with a penchant for salvaging trees crosses paths with a talented furniture designer?

In the case of Jim Newsom, the former, and John Wells, the latter, a company called Urban Hardwoods is formed. Add to the mix Seth Meyer, a skilled furniture craftsman, and you have the human components of a unique Seattle-based company that transforms old trees into exquisite furniture. Its signature is showing off the natural beauty of an individual wood's grain by using simple furniture forms that allow the wood to be the star of the show.

Newsom's love of wood and passion for furniture-making motivated him to find a way to salvage these trees that would otherwise be wasted. For example, trees cut down because they are in the way of power lines usually end up in landfills or as firewood, something Newsom felt was a terrible waste of natural material.

So he bought an old sawmill in the heart of Seattle's industrial district with the idea of recycling cut or fallen trees in the city and outlying suburbs.

He then formed a network of arborists, developers and the state Department of Transportation that would alert him when big trees were going to be cut down or fallen ones moved. With this notice, Newsom comes to the site to direct the cutting so that the biggest and most interesting pieces can be used. He even takes away the debris, eliminating the cost of hauling and disposal. Hardwoods, such as western maple, madrona, oak, elm, and ash are just some of the species he harvests. Here on Mercer Island, he recently salvaged an old walnut tree with beautiful, rare dark wood that is much in demand.

Three years ago furniture designer Wells heard about the in-city mill and came by to check out madrona planks. Wells has a keen interest in sustainable design, and has taught courses on the subject at the University of Washington. (Sustainable design is designing projects or items in a ecologically-friendly way.) He also has an impressive design resume, having graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and then designed furniture for popular chains like Crate & Barrel.

Newsom and Wells decided to pool their talents and create art in the form of furniture using reclaimed materials.

Urban Hardwoods looks for trees that are at least 1 to 2 feet in diameter at ``DBA,'' which is tree speak for ``diameter at breast height,'' taking into account not just the bottom of the trunk. The trees are then dismantled so that the cuts can yield 8- to 10-foot pieces -- perfect for dining tables. According to Newsom, a well-cut tree can produce up to 10 tables.

The company has caught the eye of interior designers and architects with pieces that are elegant in their simplicity, with a distinctive Northwest feel. Another Urban Hardwoods signature is the inclusion of steel in the design.

Wells explains that ``wood and metal have feminine and masculine qualities and I find the contrast extremely appealing.''

Steel components in various finishes make up legs, decorative crossbars on table tops or sometimes the table top itself, which really highlights the contrast of materials. The inclusion of steel also helps keep costs down, as the wood, even though reclaimed, is more labor intensive to process.

Newsom would like to streamline the operation so that the company could eventually produce more than primarily custom work. He loves this furniture so much that he wants it to be available to customers at a variety of budget levels.

``I just get a charge out of putting a finished piece in front of the customer,'' says Newsom.

Urban Hardwoods product line is represented by Studio G-11 at the Seattle Design Center and is available through interior designers and architects.

You can check out Urban Hardwoods online by visiting www.urbanhardwoods.com or reach it at 766-8199.

Lori Matzke Ehrig is an interior designer. She can be reached at 230-5550 or by e mail at dlehrig@msn.com

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