Artisans render unique furniture from rust and grit and grime

The Seattle TimesMarch 5, 2014 

It’s barely 5 p.m. on a week night and the buzzy Rock Creek restaurant, in Seattle’s artsy Fremont neighborhood, is already filling up. But Michael Marian is in no rush to claim a spot.

He’s outside, peering at the miner’s grate atop the front stairs and the barn wood below them.

“If the boards on the front popped out, I’d replace them,” he said. “But in the summer, they’ll dry up and shrink.”

Once inside, he and his business partner, Travis Farber, sit at the bar, looking at everything but the menu.

“See how that bottle is leaning forward a little?” he said, eyeing the shelf he built behind the bar. “Need to fix that.”

It’s a familiar exercise, and one Marian performs all over town, now that his company, Marian Built, which brings new life and purpose to reclaimed materials, has caught fire faster than a barn in August.

“People are getting sick of Ikea,” Marian said. “Someone said, ‘Man is again creating the imperfections that only come from handcrafted pieces.’ It doesn’t look like a machine built it. It looks like people did it.”

In a place where the term “handcrafted” applies to beer and booze, cheese and crullers, bass guitars, and leather bags, Marian, 33, is creating the kind of furniture on which you want to set them all.

And as the local culinary scene has exploded, so has Marian’s relatively young furniture-making business, thanks in part to his acquaintance with architect Jim Graham, one of the principals at Graham Baba Architects, the firm largely responsible for the prevailing restaurant aesthetic in Seattle.

When Graham originally asked Marian to build tables at the new Via6 building downtown, the maker fitted reclaimed wood tops with steel bases, and used miner’s grate (used for sifting through rocks) for the doors on the restaurant’s wine rack. (“It’s still got a couple of rocks in it”).

After that came jobs at some of the most talked about restaurants in the area: The Hollywood Tavern, Westward, Brimmer & Heeltap, Rock Creek, Barnacle, and TanakaSan.

Many restaurants are using reclaimed materials, of course — the pews from a Baptist church at Witness; the basketball and bowling alley floors at places like Hitchcock and even Starbucks — but Marian considers his work art on which you dine.

The materials, to him, are an extension of his appreciation for things that came before us, and that will carry on long after — just like the words of men long passed that he loves to quote:

Pablo Picasso: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The Marian Built shop — located along a bumpy stretch of asphalt and light-industrial businesses on Shilshole Avenue in Seattle’s Ballard, neighborhood — also is a throwback. The planer is 70 years old. The joiner is 105 years old, and came from the wood shop at the New York City Parks Department, which used it to make the benches at Central Park. (“I haggled with the guy until he was blue in the face,” Marian said.)

The band saw is from the 1940s — World War II era, Marian likes to say — and indeed, when he throws the switch, it sounds like a prop plane taking off.

“We’re going back to a classic way of building things, but applying new techniques,” Marian said. “We’re just trying to be as efficient as we can while still maintaining traditional craftsmanship.”

Marian started the business in January 2011 after the construction work at which he made his living dried up in the recession.

It was rough going for a while, but in April, the operation moved from “a tin shack on the other side of Ballard” to Shilshole Avenue.

The spaces allows them to keep up with their restaurant work — but also continue creating for homeowners who want something they can’t get anywhere else.

Marian’s eye developed early, when he started building houses with his father, Gabriel. He learned to weld at age 9 and bought his first welder — a $500 Miller Thunderbird — when he was 12.

He recalled trips to Value Village with his mother, and picking up “buckets” of stainless steel silverware to practice on.

Now, he stops at junkyards and yard sales with his fiancee, Kelley Goad.

They don’t fake anything, Marian said. They don’t purposely distress anything, or beat wood with chains.

“All this stuff we build out of reclaimed stuff, it has energy about it,” Marian said,. “It has a feeling that you can’t duplicate.”

There’s lumber from houses, the sides of barns in Ephrata. Gym flooring. One project was made with wood that was underwater and frozen — therefore, preserved — in the back of his building on Shilshole.

Most people might not think much of what Marian finds — but to him it can be the start of something beautiful.

“The art is always inside you,” he said. “You just have to find the medium with which to express it.”

Even if the medium is rusted, dented and left to die in a field in Sedro-Woolley.

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