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Studio Visit: Surname Goods

Using ethically sourced lumber salvaged from all over New York, Tim Skehan and Steve Bukowski bring a new level of awesome to woodwork

by Gabriella Garcia
on 16 January 2015
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In a world in which IKEA furniture is ubiquitous and lifestyle goods go in and out of style like a choppy tide, a company like Surname Goods is a breath of fresh air. Originally founded in Brooklyn in 2011 by Timothy Skehan and Steve Bukowski, Surname Goods specializes in making handcrafted wood products using reclaimed lumber all ethically sourced in New York. Now four years into the game, Surname Goods offers a diverse collection of home and lifestyle pieces, all stemming from a desire to make unique bicycle products to supplement their love of cycling. “The idea was to start making metal bike goods and accessories that we wanted to use," Bukowski tells CH, "but we really underestimated what we were getting ourselves into, so we started focusing on using wood instead.” After perfecting their style in Skehan's basement, starting with their wooden Fastback Fender, they decided to make a business out of it.

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Bukowski and Skehan initially met while attending Cleveland Institute of Art, where they first collaborated on a project that would eventually become Bukowski's thesis. "We were called Urban Growing Collective, and we were basically doing a publication on different aspects of sustainable practices for urban farming," Skehan recalls, "so sustainable practices have always been on our list." When they both took the plunge and moved to NYC, Bukowski and Skehan decided to keep working together, with Urban Growing Collective forming the strong principle behind their future work. "That idea was one of the core concepts when we started working together here, especially with the wood side of things," Bukowski explains. "We wanted to do it all in an ethical manner and make sure we were low-impact."

Though ethically sourced lumber has only recently entered the mainstream design lexicon, Bukowski and Skehan found a well-established reclaimed wood trade in New York. "There are a lot of people in NYC who have been in this for a long time, who have gotten more established and more visible because of a growing consumer consciousness," says Skehan. Surname Goods mainly works with two suppliers—M. Fine and Re-Co— both based in Brooklyn. “It was actually a really big surprise when we discovered M. Fine," Bukowski says. "We were like, ‘Oh my God there’s a reclaimed lumber store and that’s all they sell... and they’re right off the L. How did we miss this this whole time?’" While M. Fine focuses on pre-cut wood salvaged from deconstructed buildings, Re-Co harvests trees from the city that would be otherwise chipped and thrown into a landfill—between the two suppliers, Surname Goods is afforded a lot of creative flexibility.

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After a year working together in Skehan's basement, Surname Goods was invited to join NYDesigns, CUNY's Long Island City-based small business incubator, in a matter of happenstance. "A friend who is now my neighbor was connected to CUNY and used to work with the former director of NYDesigns," Skehan explains. "We just heard it through the grapevine that way and we ended up being a really good fit for the space.” With NYDesigns' fully-equipped workshop at hand, Bukowski and Skehan were able to take Surname Goods to the next level. "Basically we got bored with what we were doing," says Bukowski. So the two pedaled past bike accessories and started crafting everything from writing desks to copper flasks. "We basically decide on new projects based on need or want," Bukowski explains. "I wanted a flask, so I made a flask! Then we posted it on Instagram and it was really well-received, so we started making more of them.”

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Style-wise, Surname Goods strays away from the rough unfinished aesthetic that usually comes to mind when considering reclaimed lumber, opting instead for cleaner, more polished designs. "What we do is a little different; we try to turn salvaged wood into something that looks like new lumber," Skehan explains. "We're trying to provide a finished product which is ethically sourced, and the wood just happens to be reclaimed.”

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As self-taught woodworkers, the team is constantly researching new methods, often revisiting traditional joinery and finishing techniques that have faded away in the face of mass production. Though they note that the labor intensiveness of some of these techniques makes it impractical for most fabrication, they employ a CNC machine to work around tougher processes. "With our background in CNC machine making, we’re able to think around some of these more complicated techniques and figure out a streamlining process for manufacturing," Skehan explains. "We can make things quicker, more accurately and more repeatable. It saves a lot of time.”

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In essence, Surname Goods is trying to reconnect their customers with the idea of investing in pieces that are not only made with care, but also have stories to tell. Whether its coasters made of wood salvaged from the hurricane-ravaged Coney Island boardwalk, or frequent collaborations with their friends at Horse Cycles that could only come out of casual conversation over beers, everything that Surname Goods offers has true New York soul. "People want to buy those heirloom items that will last their entire lifetime, and are growing conscious about where these things come from," Bukowski says. "People want to feel good about what they own."

Surname Goods is based in Long Island City. They will be exhibiting as part of Capsule NYC, 19–20 January 2015.

Images by Karen Day

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