June 4, 2013
Jeff Soderbergh’s new Wellfleet showroom gives Cape Cod residents and visitors a chance to see—and feel—the unique pieces the furniture maker crafts from locally sourced reclaimed wood.
Text by Lisa E. Harrison Photography by Dave Hansen
“It has to pass the sexy test.” That’s the short answer furniture maker Jeff Soderbergh gives when asked how he determines a piece is finished.
He runs his hand across a small, round tabletop propped on a workbench in his Middletown, Rhode Island, studio. To the untrained hand it feels perfect. The wood is as smooth as—likely even smoother than—a baby’s bottom, as the saying goes. “Nope, it’s not done yet,” says Soderbergh with a grin. “I want my pieces to be really tactile and inviting. The best compliment that you can give me is to tell me, ‘I can’t keep my hands off your furniture.’”
His pieces are not only sexy to the touch, they also come with a sexy story. Sourcing has always been an integral part of the process. When Soderbergh started building twenty-three years ago (his first piece was for his girlfriend; her parents soon wound up as his second clients), he’d hunt for reclaimed and antique materials far and wide, even importing wood from Europe. Today he’s committed to foraging for materials—wood, metal, textiles, glass, stone—within driving distance. “I’m making things a lot harder on myself,” Soderbergh admits, “but it has a much more regional feel and a more responsible carbon footprint.”
As he rifles through the wood piled here and there in his studio, Soderbergh brings each stack to life. He points out chestnut from Pennsylvania destined to become the sliding doors of a laundry room. There are pickle tanks he found in Massachusetts, made from California redwood and cypress, and gorgeous white oak and black locust from the hull of an 1885 racing schooner. He gestures to a grayed stack of planks sun-washed in memories. It’s Coney Island boardwalk.
Nearby, Soderbergh has laid out four eight-foot-long, two-inch-thick planks on a workbench. The oak flooring from a Pennsylvania dairy farm will become one of his signature harvest tables. The boards are heavy, rough to the touch, with a lovely yellowed patina. The artist explains with a smirk: “Cows peeing on it for 100 years makes this beautiful color.”
A subtle sense of humor and a dose of surprise resonate in Soderbergh’s creations. He toys with the unexpected, fashioning custom furniture from a fire escape, a manhole cover, even a street grate. “I have an anthropology background,” he says, “so I’m fascinated with a sense of discovery, and I want to share that enthusiasm.”
There’s humor in his work but the accolades he gets are serious. Soderbergh has been touted in magazines across the country, including House Beautiful which, in 2010, featured his Vanderbilt dining table in its Kitchen of the Year. Designed by Jeff Lewis from Bravo’s “Flipping Out,” the stunning eleven-footer, which sits on a chrome base, is made from reclaimed southern yellow pine rafters and beams from the Vanderbilt family stable in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Soderbergh also recently completed a large-scale design-build project (using the Coney Island boardwalk wood for floor-to-ceiling louvers, reclaimed driftwood for a table with a solid bronze base and oak from the 1800s for the walls) for the new Tommy Bahama flagship store in New York City.
Though he continues to pay homage to the past via his clever creations, his aesthetic—and business model—are decidedly present day. His newest venture, a seasonal showroom in Wellfleet, is housed below Karol Richardson, the boutique his wife, Natasha, co-owns with her fashion-designer mother.
Visitors who followed the crushed shell driveway last summer were met with a sign that read, “Welcome—this is a place to start a conversation.” Shoppers would pop in, listen to a soundtrack peppered with The Black Keys, John Coltrane and the Rolling Stones, browse the furniture, maybe even eat lunch at the dining table. “Then I would get a call: ‘We were in your store and we want a table like that, only bigger,’” remembers Soderbergh.
This summer, the showroom will grow in size and scope. Soderbergh will amp up the inventory to include benches, dining and coffee tables, mirrors, interior details, sculpture and cabinets, and he’ll showcase the work of Rhode Island artists Peter Diepenbrock and Tom Deininger. “The showroom was a total experiment,” he admits (one equally inspired by expanding his market reach and giving his two young boys the same Cape Cod experience their mom enjoyed), “and the people loved it.”
Turns out, even his summer plans—beach, surfing, sushi at Mac’s with his wife, plus plenty of time to meet with clients and dream up new projects—pass the sexy test.
Jeff Soderbergh Custom Sustainable Furnishings