I am so excited, and beyond thrilled, to be launching a big part of my dream for this blog; the promotion and introduction to amazingly talented crafts people and entrepreneurs. So without further ado….
I would like to introduce Jonathan Szczepanski from White and Red Works, LLC. Jonathan and my husband, Chris, and I worked together during Jonathan’s consulting days at Acumen Solutions. About 10 years ago, Jonathan left consulting to start his custom furniture business. Chris contacted him a few years ago about making a desk for us out of a vintage pinball machine. While he was delivering the desk, Jonathan and I began commiserating about the creative business, and have stayed connected through social media ever since. One of these days we are going to just grab a cup of coffee and talk it up! (We will literally talk shop.)
Jonathan’s work consists of pieces mostly constructed from wood, but he has made quite a few others from “unique” materials or heirloom items, for example, our pinball desk! He has built a secretary desk centered around a stained glass window from a client’s grandparent’s house that was being demolished. Some siblings hired him to make memory boxes out of the family’s old kitchen table that kept getting passed from house to house. He also loves making pieces out of trees that have come down, or need to come down, from a client’s property. Those are always special projects to him.
Although Jonathan started making custom furniture as a business about ten years ago, he has always made things out of wood. He says, “I just love the material.”
Growing up, and before White & Red Works, Jonathan was a self-proclaimed, “jack-of-all-interests”. Starting when he was a kid, he has always loved watching the woodworking shows on PBS like “The New Yankee Workshop” with Norm Abram, and “The Woodwright’s Shop” with Roy Underhill. These shows got him interested in making things. He was originally going to study architecture in college (me too!), but after he went to an information session on the career, where he was told that most architects design HVAC systems for most of their careers (wow, what a dream crusher!), he changed his mind and decided to study studio art at the University of Maryland.
Szczepanski really enjoyed the technical side of the many art disciplines, but especially loved drawing and bronze casting. He explains that in casting, he found that he really enjoyed the process of making the sculptures as much as completing the final product – sometimes more so. It was problem solving. How was he going to make what was in his mind a reality?
It was through studying art that he realized something important. He found that in art, you can do whatever you want a lot of the time. With this discovery came a new door, if you will. He explains, “When I knew I could do whatever I wanted, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a direction. I didn’t have a problem to solve.” So he shifted his focus slightly and started taking more design classes.
“Design to me is visual problem solving. I get a list of requirements – it has to be this tall and this wide, or it needs to hold a certain sized item, or I need to make something, but I have to use an old medal as a pull on a drawer – and I design to meet those requirements,” says Szczepanski. He adds, “The creativity comes out in trying to figure out the best way to accomplish those requirements.”
While in college, Jonathan was hired as a part-time graphic artist by a web design company. They liked the maps that he drew for his school newspaper (this was before Google maps, or even MapQuest. YIKES!). He then moved onto some consulting companies as a web designer where he was tasked with figuring out what the clients wanted visually, and how to make the website achieve that.
He worked in web design for about fifteen years, but it got tiring. He says, “I loved the people that I worked with, but the clients, the client jobs, and the technology started to grind on me. Designing something to increase click rates by 5% isn’t too exciting.” He found that clients would redo their sites every year or two, so there wasn’t any permanence. The technology would totally change every so many years, so he felt like he had to start from scratch in his technical knowledge all the time. Finally, he says, “I just had enough.”
He says, “One of the great things about woodworking is that it all builds upon itself – all of the knowledge, all of the techniques – they all build upon each other, so nothing is wasted.” In the tech world, he felt like he could throw out his books after a few years. Said almost proudly (or was it sentimentally?), “In woodworking, I have a larger and larger library in my shop, and many of the books I keep referencing over and over again.”
He had already built a workshop at his home, and was building projects here and there. He asked his wife how she would feel if he gave up consulting, and tried to make a go at being a custom furniture maker. Said with all seriousness, “God bless my wife Alice, because she knew this was an itch I had to scratch and said, “Sure. We’ll figure it out.”” He left consulting and started making furniture out of his workshop in his yard. At the beginning, he was freelancing as a web designer to make ends meet until the furniture business grew, but eventually moved 100% to furniture.
As he said before, Jonathan loves the challenge of being handed a unique item and having to make a piece of furniture around it. He gets inspiration from looking through furniture and design publications. Interestingly he says, “I find them better for me, as compared to the web, because they have been looked at by editors. Someone with an eye already has given it a thumbs-up.” (Sounds pretty brilliant to me.)
He also just likes to walk around the city to see what will inspire him. He explains, “Sometimes I’ll see something – like a bridge, or a lamppost, or a stone walkway – and try to think of ways to incorporate them into a piece of furniture.” (Yes please!)
For example, he is currently trying to find ways to incorporate string in interesting patterns into his work, like on the end panel of a sideboard. He says, “I haven’t had a client bite yet, but I’ll find some lucky person to give it a go.” (It could be you!) He also says that non-furniture things inspire many of the ideas that he has. “It’s all design, so it can work from medium to medium.”
Professionally, in the short term, Szczepanski has a “gigantic” project that incorporates multiples that is taking a lot of his time. He says, “I need to stream line the whole process and become as efficient as I can. This will involve new tools and new processes that, while somewhat redundant, are very exciting to me.”
Long term, he wants to make really one-of-a-kind pieces; things that people just don’t see everywhere. He says, “I’m not talking crazy stuff, but really interesting takes on furniture, that mean a lot to my clients.”
When asked how his reality is different from his dream, he exclaims, “Sawdust EVERYWHERE!!! I never knew I was going to have to change my clothes during the day so many times. “ He goes on to say that he knew it was going to be tough, but when you really need to complete a project so you can pay your mortgage, it can really take the joy out of it sometimes. He adds, “I also thought I was going to have more people that I knew as clients.” He found that many people would say, “I love your furniture! I’d put it in my house,” but once he started making a go at furniture professionally, so few of those people ever contacted him.
I asked Jonathan what he was most proud of professionally. Without hesitation he said, “I do everything myself. I talk to the clients to find out what they want. I design the pieces. I choose the materials. I build the furniture. I do the finishing work. I deliver it to the client. My pieces never leave my hands until I unwrap it for my clients.”
Personally what he is most proud of, he says is, “That people like me, I guess. I don’t think I ever had a nemesis, or someone who hated me. I generally get along with everyone. Even if I don’t agree with them, we can usually find something in common to connect over.”
When asked what he would like people to take away from this interview, he said, “Craft is real. It’s not a trend. It’s not something you just do on the weekends. It can be a real career. Craft people are real people, trying to make a real living. All we need are some people to understand that, and help some of us out by purchasing locally made things instead of something from a big box store that you throw away in a year or two when it breaks.” He goes on to say, “Invest in a craftsperson, and that investment will last a lifetime.” He says, “I always tell my clients, I want their grandchildren fighting over who gets grandma’s dining room table.”
I am privileged to own one of Jonathan’s pieces. I am privileged to know him. As a fellow crafts person, it’s so nice to have people in my life that get me and have a “twisted” mind like mine that likes to untangle the knots of design that clients present. And for the record, were I to have a little show like “Fixer Upper” (in my DREAMS!), Jonathan Szczepanski would be my Clint Harp.
Contact Jonathan directly at: Jonathan@WhiteAndRedWorks.com
1 Our desk made from a vintage pinball machine!
2 Table to memory boxes project – beginning.
3 Table to memory boxes project – complete.
4 Jonathan in his workshop.
5 Jonathan’s first project that he made when he was 4 year old!
6 Bookcase made out of his client’s tree. O…M…Goodness. Gorgeous!