Furnituremakers Turn Concepts Into One-of-a-Kind Realities

The Wood Extension creates a Signature Collection to show what a full-service custom shop can do.

By Sam Gazdziak

After 20 years as an artisan, Scott Johnston has made everything from a pair of custom chopsticks to an "Old-World" Italian library. "If you want the standard, buy it from a manufacturer or a showroom," he says. "But there are always going to be clients out there who are looking for something that's a little more unique, more personalized to fit their image and lifestyle, and that's what we do. Our niche is really understanding the function and visual impact of the piece to its setting, and making their concepts a reality."

Johnston and his partner, Marie-Michelle Sacco, are owners of The Wood Extension, a custom furniture shop in Tarzana, CA. He says that their passion is designing and creating custom furniture to complement their clients' image and lifestyle.

"Because of our high business morals, no 'knock-offs' are produced," Johnston says. "We have built a reputation of design integrity and quality without compromise." To date, they have never reproduced a single design.

Sacco's background lies in art history, so she likes taking Old-World flair and combining it with today's function. Johnston says his imagination can go pretty far abstract. "We make a good team, because we always bounce ideas off one another," he says. "Whatever I may suggest she may be able to modify or change it to improve it, and vice versa."

In designing furniture, one of the questions Johnston and Sacco ask themselves is, "How far can we take the standard and push it to add a little twist, a little flair, that gives it more character?" In one case, it involved making an Oriental screen with that was gold-leafed with a hand-painted mural. The panels of the screen were doors that opened up for a china hutch.

Prices at The Wood Extension can start at $1,500 to $35,000 or higher, depending on the piece and the work involved. "Every client knows what a particular piece is worth to them," Johnston says. "Whether a client makes $40,000, $400,000 or $4 million, the challenge is always designing a piece to fit a target price."

The majority of what they make is from wood of all species. In addition, Johnston says they seek out artisans in metal, stone and glass, and combine their skills. For example, one crescent-shaped vanity they built was round in shape and had ribbon mahogany, three brass grille panels, a 3/8-inch solid brass plate top and a stone basin.

The skills of The Wood Extension's artists are partly demonstrated in their 14-piece Signature Collection brochure. The pieces originally came from a series of design showcase homes where their furniture had been displayed.

 

This 18th century Italian revival unit, entitled Conoscenza di Vita ("Knowlege of Life"), took Scott Johnston and Marie-Michelle Sacco of The Wood Extension two months to complete. The detailing was made with ornamentation composition, then gold leafed and antiqued.

"The collection came from us wanting to let people know that there are artists out there," Johnston says. "We sign and date each piece. That is still very important to the clients, that they're getting something original that's handmade by the person they hired."

One of the most imposing pieces in the collection is an 18th century Italian revival library unit, called Conoscenza di Vita ("Knowlege of Life"). It is made of Philippine ribbon mahogany and is 7 1/2 feet wide by 7 1/3 feet high. To give it a unique look, the glass in the doors bellow (referred to as pillow glass) between the iron mullions.

The Regalia chest also goes against standards. It is an Old-World style chest with camphor burls, concave corners, fluted columns, carved bun feet and a marble top. But, by adding an Auton lift mechanism, it turns into a pop-up bar. The interior light illuminates additional mirror, marble and fluted columns. "We designed this bar to show that pop-ups can be used with more than just TVs," Johnston says. "We designed it so that it belongs in the room. We let it look like a piece of furniture rather than just an oversized box."

In a more modern vein, the Crescent Heights piece is a crescent-shaped entertainment center with curved pocket doors and centered steel columns. The columns open up to let the doors slide in and then close behind them. The center can hold up to a 48-inch TV and eight additional pieces of audio/visual equipment and has storage for up to 2,000 CDs.

The Wood Extension's clients are primarily in California, but the company is starting to advertise nationally and has gotten customers from around the country. Johnston says the company also works with many top interior designers.

Johnston says he has taken many steps to educate interior designers through hands-on seminars, to "understand the relationship between budget, design, materials, construction, finishing and craftsmanship. Changing one of them will affect the others," he says.

Johnston feels that many interior designers are not aware of what a full custom shop can do for them. "Or, they've been bombarded by so many other guys who say they can do anything but can't," he says. "We did the brochure to show them that each piece is totally different from the next in design and style. And it's only a small indication of what we can do.

"Because of being able to take the brochure and market it and mail it to our clients/designers, the brochure has opened more doors for us. Now, customers say, 'Oh, you do do everything.' It's not just verbalizing it; now, they can visualize it," he adds.

Johnston's 800-square-foot studio serves as The Wood Extension's workshop. In addition, they have a furniture showroom which can be seen by appointment only.

Most of The Wood Extension's equipment is from Delta Woodworking Machinery, including a Unisaw with an Excalibur sliding table. He added a drop-in plastic piece on one wing of the Unisaw for his routers. A 15-inch planer, radial drill press and drum sanders are also used. The hand tools are Porter-Cable.

The Wood Extensions does finishes in lacquer, shellac or hand-rubbed oil or wax finishes, whatever the piece calls for. "We learned our finishing techniques from an old master who recently passed away," Johnston says. "He would say, 'You can hide the quality of material and craftsmanship with a good faux finish, but selecting the right woods and other materials and finishing them to enhance their natural characteristics is its own art.'"

Johnston says that they can complete a project in two weeks to eight weeks, though others can take longer. The partnership is split evenly. Both build and design the pieces, and Sacco handles the marketing, while Johnston handles sales.

When not building furniture, The Wood Extensions also provides a full design service. Johnston says that most designers hire people to do renderings of furniture, but they do not cost out the project, leaving the job only half done. He says, "Our job is to put design and cost in line and up front by designing, engineering, estimating cost and providing mechanical drawings for the clients' concept.

"Clients go to designers thinking that they know how to design furniture. A small percentage of them do. But the client needs to hire a professional furniture designer/craftsman like they hire professional interior designers," he says. "It doesn't mean that the two can't work together, because they should. But it's the craftsman who takes the concepts and makes them into a reality."

 

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