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In an era where so many people seem to promote fast consumption and the “cheaper is better” mentality, it’s refreshing to get to meet someone who’s all about celebrating and preserving the best of the past. Jim Dietrich is the man behind Breukelen Tafel, a furniture company that produces handmade (and beautiful) statement pieces using only reclaimed wood. Get to know Jim and the fascinating stories behind crafting his furniture.
Hi Jim! Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and where do you currently live?
I grew up in Akron, Ohio. I lived in Seattle and San Diego for a bit and moved to Carroll Gardens, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I was an entertainment attorney/executive at Sony Music for about five years. I got laid off during the “Great Recession,” and without any thought, planning, or deliberation, I started to make furniture.
What is the best thing about living in your neighborhood?
Community and inspiration. My grandfather used to say “iron sharpens iron, as one person sharpens another.” There are a lot of artists and innovators in Brooklyn and anytime you start to make limits in your head about what you can or can’t do, you’ll start talking to someone and they’ll tear the limits down. For example, I had tons of scrap wood that I thought there was absolutely no use for, but this session musician down the street took it and started making custom bass guitars out of it. Now he has a side business making musical instruments out of reclaimed wood. Bam.
Breukelen Tafel is a cool name for a shop. Is there a story behind it?
It means “Brooklyn tables” in Dutch. I liked how it sounded and I thought it honored the history I’m trying to respect by using reclaimed wood. “Tafel” is also an important word to me because it’s kind of a richer stronger European word for table, and connotes a place where feasts are held and relationships and friendships are strengthened. i.e. It’s more of a “space” in a home versus just a piece of furniture.
How did you get into the furniture design business?
I needed a table and built one and just kept going. True story.
Your furniture is crafted exclusively using “ghost wood,” so how would you explain what that is to a first-time buyer?
I guess “ghostwood” means wood that has seen a lot of history. Wood that has “ghosts,” or memories of the brownstones, barns and forests that it came from. All of the wood I use is old growth, meaning it wasn’t planted by man but grew naturally in forests that were here before Europeans started settling America. Which makes it rare is in the sense that you can’t find it in nature anymore, but only in buildings. And because it grew in a different climate and environment than exist today it looks remarkably different than wood that grows today.
Most old growth wood grew during the Little Ice Age, a cooling period where winters were longer and summers shorter than today. So old growth trees grew a lot slower than trees today. They grew in thick forests where they had to fight for sunlight, water, and nutrients with plants and trees of other species. This made them super dense and gave them a beautiful and rich grain that doesn’t exist in modern wood.
The sound of a Stradivarius or the look of a Chippendale dresser or Shaker table owes as much to the appearance and structure of the wood that came from these growth patterns as it does to craftsmanship and art. In contrast, 95% of commercially available wood today grows in corporate owned, species-homogenous plantations where trees grow rapidly on chemical fertilizers and have access to unnatural amounts of water and sunlight. A lot like hot house tomatoes or cows on antibiotics.
Do you have a favorite location/type of building to source wood from?
I source most of my wood from Brooklyn brownstones. New York City is literally the largest depository of old growth wood in the world. And when brownstones get renovated most of it ends up in landfills. Which is crazy, because it’s not like it’s just okay wood that kind of maybe should/could be repurposed, it’s like literally the best wood that exists and can’t and won’t be found in nature again. I’m pretty much always looking for interesting wood. I get a lot of great stuff from barns that are being torn down in PA, NY, and Ohio.
There are a lot of artists and innovators in Brooklyn and anytime you start to make limits in your head about what you can or can’t do, you’ll start talking to someone and they’ll tear the limits down.
If you could source ghost wood from any place in the world, where would it be?
I would love to get my hands on some West Coast old growth wood. Douglas Fir, Sequoia, cedar.
Describe the piece you’re the most proud of.
I recently made a modern-ish Mid-century style table for a loft in Bed-Stuy that I was really proud of. It was my most honest work to date, and it really honored and preserved the history and feel of the wood, but really fit kind of seamlessly into a modern kitchen.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning your own business? And the most challenging?
Working alone a lot can kind be a drag. And there are no safety nets. But it’s great to be true to your vision and make stuff and not be in meetings all day. There’s very little wasted time.
Don’t forget to check out his corner for the latest pieces on sale that bring the past into your present