Cover Story
Reuse, Repurpose, Remarkable
Grace Lim 
Making beautiful furniture by recycling salvaged wood.
advertisement[x]

The Japanese art of kintsugikin meaning “gold” and tsugi “repair” – is an interesting one. When a piece of pottery breaks, instead of discarding it, precious metal such as liquid gold, liquid silver or lacquer dusted with powdered gold is used to rejoin the broken pieces to make it whole again. Each piece is unique as each ceramic shatters differently, and the resulting irregular patterns are enhanced.

This topic comes up when I drop by the Art of Tree (AOT) showroom one morning to meet with its owners, Jeffrey Yang and Joey Woo. They offer me a glass of cold water, and I am about to set it down on one of their beautiful tables when I request for a coaster.

“That won’t be necessary,” Yang smiles. “The philosophy behind our furniture is that even if you break it, it can still be turned into something usable. One of our staff once dropped a slab on a table and it broke in half. When I restored it using resin, the table actually looked more beautiful than before – just like the kintsugi.”

For those in the furniture or woodworks industry, the husband-and-wife duo are familiar names. They sell wooden furniture, mainly dining tables, coffee tables, benches and stools, made from salvaged wood. The venture began when Yang, who was in the business of exporting ornamental fishes, got involved in exporting driftwood. Through this, he stumbled upon a sawmill that was processing salvaged trees.

“Salvaged trees have interesting character. They are irregular in shape and a lot of them have imperfections and cavities. When they mill the trees, what you see is a very unusual expression of art, and I was very attracted to that. It got me thinking about what I could do with them,” Yang recalls.

He had learned woodworking from friends in the industry. He discovered the resin technique on the internet. Resin is used to fill up the gaps and cavities in the pieces of wood to both reinforce and beautify the slabs. Yang and Woo currently source the wood from sawmills that receive discarded wood from town council contractors after a land clearing or from an uprooted tree.

Currently, they work with timber from ‘city trees’ – trees that grow faster and have large canopies for the purpose of providing shade. They include rain tree, acacia, angsana and tamarind trees.

“It takes anywhere between three and six months to cut the tree in the sawmill and get it ready for processing because we need a holding period to let the moisture content in the wood drop first. Then there is sanding and resin work, styling, cutting, trimming and reinforcements to minimise cracking. It takes about three days to finish a piece, but if it is more complex it can go up to three months. After that, it is ready to be marketed.”

Here is where Woo comes in. As the managing director of AOT, she takes care of business development, sales and marketing. Currently halfway through a two-year sabbatical from her corporate job, she explains that she made the decision to take the break to spend more time with her family and expand AOT. The couple, who have been married for nine years, have two children, aged seven and four.

“I was pregnant with my younger boy when we started AOT, and I wanted to make an effort to be there for my kids. We’re busy with work during the day, so we spend every minute we can at night with them,” she says.

 

Hand in hand

Asked about their working dynamics, they both burst into laughter. “It’s difficult. We’re both very different people, and that definitely has caused some friction,” Woo says.

Yang adds: “For instance, I work creatively and this then results in a less structured demeanour. Joey is the complete opposite of me. When she sets her mind to do something, she will get it done very methodically with processes in place. But I think our differences make us a good pair.”

They usually disagree on a new piece of furniture. “I look at products from the point of view of a customer. It may look pretty in terms of design, but it also has to be functional. If it isn’t practical, it’s not easy for me to market it. Jeffrey may not necessarily agree with me on this point,” she says.

Woo quips that the person who makes the final decision also has to bear the consequences. “There’s a lot of listening involved, and I’m glad to have my husband as my partner. Certain arguments cannot be helped, but it helps that we have greater acceptance (of our differences) and we learn from each other every day,” she adds.

They both make it a point to separate business from home life – once they leave the office, their attention is focused entirely on their family.

The husband-and-wife team behind Art of Tree finds beauty in discarded wood

 

Making a mark

The end of Woo’s sabbatical is coming up soon and she expresses that she has no plans to return to her former job. She has bigger dreams for AOT and goes on to explain that there is more to what they do as they want to give back to the community.

“Most of our customers know that we work with salvaged wood, and for those who don’t, there’s a happy look on their faces when they find out. We want to

raise awareness about salvaged wood being aesthetically pleasing. We bring to light the fact that there is another option besides cutting down trees. Perhaps this will help curb illegal logging as well,” she muses.

They are talking to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) to work with the salvaged wood at its facility. “The essence of AOT is not merely about business and profitability. Part of our mandate is to give back, so some of our proceeds go to the rehabilitation of nature. We have donated to the Association for the Protection of Natural Heritage of Malaysia, which is organising a run this March and we have pledged to plant 1,000 trees,” says Yang.

 
“The logging activities in Malaysia are not well regulated nor sustainable. What we are trying to do is offer a better alternative. The question we should be asking is how efficient we are in tapping into our current resources before we cut down trees. We try to be a business role model for others to follow,” he adds.

As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and Yang certainly sees beauty in the unwanted wood.

“When I look at the ring, I’m drawn in by its natural beauty and the fact that they are part of a tree that we don’t often see. It’s like being close to nature. People don’t expect salvaged trees to be so beautiful, and to see the mesmerised expressions on the customers’ faces when they walk into the showroom never fails to give us joy.”

“That’s why we named this place Art of Tree – the art takes precedence over the tree and we want to create that paradigm shift in the customer mindset for a better tomorrow,” Yang concludes.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 274.