- Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton
Slabs of immaculately hewn maple, walnut and arbutus await delivery in the loading bay at Duncan’s Live Edge Design. Nearby, contemporary, resin-infused countertops are contrasted with the clean simplicity of a rustic dinning room table. All are works of art that infuse an otherwise nondescript industrial park with a sense of magic that lures visitors to ponder the inspiration and skilled craftsmanship at the heart of each piece.
“No tree is firewood in our eyes,” says designer Stephanie Farrow. “No two pieces are the same, and I love working with the challenges of each piece.”
Stephanie says it isn’t uncommon for projects like these to start as a vague idea concealed in someone’s mind or as a rudimentary napkin sketch. The exciting part of her work, Stephanie says, is helping clients transform their visions into the finished products that will occupy honoured places in homes and workplaces.
Part of her job at Live Edge involves touring visitors and potential clients through the company’s site. Each tour starts outside near the mill. Participants stand surrounded by 12-foot long slabs of maple, solid cubes of wood milled from massive roots and gnarly wooden hulks whose origins stir the imagination. Along a wall are uniformly cut lengths of alder, a common species found across Vancouver Island, are laid out to dry along a low shelf. They’re destined to fuel a surging demand for woodsy bed frames, chairs and coffee tables.
There’s no missing the remnants of a 200-year-old maple tree, though one could be forgiven for questioning if the truck-sized mass could possibly have come from a single tree. The tree’s massive bulk was hauled out of a peat bog in a farmer’s field near Chemainus last year.
“The biggest crane they could find on the island wasn’t big enough,” Stephanie says.
The farmer, who’d grown attached to his tree over the decades, visited Live Edge Design to determine what could be done with the big old maple now that it had become a hazard and required removal. That’s when the farmer learned about oneTree, a bi-annual exhibit conceived in part by Live Edge president John Lore and the Bateman Foundation. Every two years, craftspeople submit concepts utilizing material from a single tree. The resulting exhibit is intended to highlight a variety of works that share a common origin.
“These works are from the same tree so you can see the grain running through all of the pieces. It will become a really great memorial for this special tree,” Stephanie says of the upcoming oneTree show set for November 2019.
An impressive portion of the wood held in the Live Edge yard originates from a single client who Farrow has worked with since she joined the company in early 2018.
When the Cowichan Valley family realized they had to remove two large maple trees on their property for safety reasons, they visited Live Edge to get some ideas about ways to use the wood to complement their family home. The pair of towering trees produced 30 slabs, six cookies and a unique stump, offering Farrow plenty of material with which to exercise her creative might.
“To date we have used the majority of that but still have approximately 10 pieces left that we refer to as Round 2,” she says. “The design process was very involved. We had the spaces measured, and we tried to design the pieces that reflected the beautiful landscape around the space.”
A piece dubbed the “Horizon Headboards,” for example, reflects a view of the lake and mountains from the homeowners’ bedroom. In the games room, furnishings including the coffee table and end table are built from the same portion of the same tree, giving all the pieces in that space a similar grain, tone and pattern.
“You can actually see the flow in these pieces,” Stephanie says.
While the milled lumber dries in the yard and kiln for up to eight months, Stephanie is hard at work indoors bringing ideas to life. Images of the raw materials are uploaded to Photoshop, where different permutations are laid out for clients to consider. The work may be undertaken with a mouse and keyboard, but the wood’s inherent character is what drives the creative process.
“You have to allow the wood to do more of the designing because you can’t force it to do something it’s not going to do,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll be working with something and discover it’s just not possible.”
Whereas ill-fated projects would have once been tossed to the scrap heap, the Photoshop age gives designers such as Stephanie an unprecedented degree of creative freedom and room to experiment. Being able to show a client how an idea will look and work has the added effect of bringing some of the more outlandish ideas closer to reality.
“With wood going in all sorts of different directions and the use of metals and glass, sometimes we need to test the physics of an idea beforehand,” she says. “We often have to send a video to show that it just isn’t possible.”
The end result, however, is always a work of art that stands as a source of pride for the client, designer and each of the craftspeople who contributed to the project. The essence of each project is ingrained in their collective memories long after a piece heads out the door for delivery. Stephanie says she always feels a strong sense of pride when she comes across a Live Edge piece in situ months or years after it was built.
“Wood has a grounding effect; it keeps spaces natural. Materials like stone and wood have a natural element that balance out the synthetic elements,” she says. “I fall in love with everything that comes out of here, and want to make sure they’re amazing for years to come if they have our name on it.”
Tours of the Live Edge facility are available year round Mondays through Saturdays at the company’s production and design facility south of Duncan at 5195 Mearns Road. For more details visit liveedgedesign.com. The oneTree runs from mid-November to mid-February at the Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria.