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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Reclaimed trees find new life in modern furniture

At Seattle's Meyer Wells, salvaged urban timber becomes custom-designed furniture.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Meyer Wells

Turning salvaged urban trees into high-end furnishings

Established: 2006

Employees: 32

Clients: Starbucks, Tutta Bella, the University of Washington, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Revenue: More than $1 million

Source: Meyer Wells

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A tree that once stood nearly 40 feet tall now rests in slices that run from root to canopy. Hundreds of shorter slabs stand nearby: maple, alder, red elm, cherry, ash, pine, walnut, black locust.

These urban trees — pulled down by storms, ravaged by disease, no longer wanted or simply too old — are getting new life at Seattle eco-furniture company Meyer Wells. The firm makes one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture from wood that might otherwise be chipped and turned into mulch.

Business partners John Wells and Seth Meyer began in 2006 as a two-man band at a rented Interbay warehouse, with a few logs and a few clients looking to preserve the natural beauty within the wood. Four years later the firm has 32 employees, two more mills and quite a bit more material to work with.

Now the side of the workshop is a holding yard for dozens of trees — some freshly felled, still covered in moss — waiting to be sent south to the company's sawmill in Graham, Pierce County, where the wood is cut and then dried for 6 months to two years in large "ovens" made from old shipping containers.

The 8,000-square-foot building once held an old Navy swimming pool — now covered over with plywood — and Wells and Meyer now have an office in the women's locker room.

Inside the shop is where a tree's transformation really begins.

One wall holds hundreds of slabs of wood, each piece unique. Some have rifts and knots, others are ravaged by black lines of fungus that add another dimension to the grain of the wood.

But Meyer Wells doesn't discriminate and takes whatever timber it gets through relationships with local arborists and organizations like City Tree Salvage.

That unpredictable flow of material can also cause some problems and frustration.

"Wood is a particularly unforgiving medium," Wells said. "We're constantly trying to educate ourselves on how to work with it ... It's a force of nature and sometimes fraught with pitfalls."

Each tree is different, let alone different species, he said, and the process doesn't always go as planned.

For instance, each slab of wood reacts differently when it's stained.

"It's one of the things we're constantly humbled by," he said. "We may use the same finish formula, but even with the same species you can get a huge variation in color."

When customers come with an order in mind, maybe a dining-room table or a nightstand, Wells and his team walk with them among the slabs, like an adoption shelter for needy wood. The customer needs to decide if a knot or rift in the wood is a flaw, or something characteristically beautiful.

Half a dozen artisans will gently guide the chosen specimen through its transformation — sanding, cutting, buffing and staining until it pulses with new life.

At the end of the day, the floor is covered with a layer of sawdust, but a once mighty redwood is now a 30-foot conference table, still exuding its inherent power.

Every aspect of the process represents a conscious decision to go green. Employees work four 10-hour days to cut fuel costs, each furniture piece is stained with eco-friendly water-based products and Meyer Wells follows the trees from death to life to make sure they can be Forest Stewardship Council certified — meaning the pieces promote sustainable forestry.

Susan Marinello, principal and design director at Susan Marinello Interiors, works with Meyer Wells frequently for residential projects, and said the beauty of the furniture is matched by the company's commitment to their customers.

"Sometimes a finished sample can take five or six tries, but they do whatever it takes to get it perfect," she said. "The people that have the privilege of purchasing and living with a piece of their furniture, they get to live with a little piece of soul."

The care put into the pieces is reflected in their prices — they are expensive. A side table costs around $1,000, bed frames fall in the $10,000 range, and a larger conference table or big custom order can be twice that.

But despite the recession, revenue has steadily increased since operations began, exceeding $1 million last year.

Meyer Wells recently signed its largest contract ever — a 400-piece project for the new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus designed by architecture firm NBBJ. The order calls for more than 100 countertops made from recycled, glue-laminated beams, and dozens of coffee and meeting tables in a variation of styles that will be placed throughout the complex.

Wells said the deal was a "company-changing decision." The two partners considered the offer carefully before accepting, because it would require expansion that couldn't be reversed.

Ultimately, said Wells, "We were confident that we could pull it off ... there was just overwhelming excitement."

NBBJ principal Anne Cunningham said Meyer Wells' track record, its eco-friendliness, and the striking beauty of its pieces made the firm appealing to the new Gates Foundation project.

"I don't think you can walk through NBBJ without finding a sample of theirs on someone's desk," she said. "The pieces are very thoughtfully conceived, but what's important is the connection back to our region and the idea that they are being repurposed for such an important project."

Meyer Wells is now looking beyond creating individual objects and more toward integrating its products into an environment, Wells said. The company is now working on establishing its own flooring line, he said.

But the artistry and craftsmanship won't change.

"We want to create a visceral response when someone looks at a piece of our work," Wells said.

Nick Visser: 206-464-3263 or nvisser@seattletimes.com

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