Woodworker and furniture designer Matthew Holdren keeps a map of the U.S. hanging in his studio, in a warehouse space in Uptown New Orleans. Usually it gets another pin whenever he sends a piece somewhere new, but lately he's had his hands full, finalizing a loan for a new live-work space in Central City, working on a pair of restaurant interiors, and redoing the interior of a vintage Airstream a client plans to rent out on Airbnb. Among other projects.
It makes intuitive sense to trace Holdren's tracking of where his commissions end up to his interest in the history of the wood he works with. "I always think about the journey of this material," he says over the phone. "I find little engravings or even just the chisel marks of Roman numerals," left by early American sawmills as assembly instructions. In some pieces, he preserves the dowels and corn cob sections New Orleans homebuilders used to plug up boards they recovered from barges that came down the Mississippi. Salvage is Holdren's thing, and often he's not the first one to do it with his materials.
"I love design and I love building and I love history," he explains, "so I've found a really good balance with that. It all makes sense." His interest in reusing wood goes back to working with planks provided by his father, who built Ski homes in the Vermont town Holdren grew up in. Holdren completed four treehouses between the ages of 7 and 16, often fastening planks with nails he pried out of them, and supplementing them with wood he gathered in the forest. (He just completed a fifth, in a pecan tree behind his shop.)
Holdren also spent one early adolescent summer helping his father build the family a new home, which on his part mainly consisted of observing, getting material, sweeping up, and hammering a few nails here and there. Between that, and the influence of his graphic designer mother, as well as that of the grandfather who "taught me to hustle," there's a fitting origin story for someone who started making furniture without any formal training, and five years in, is getting to the point where he has to turn down projects.
In our salvage-heavy design environment, Holdren's furniture doesn't really conform to what you might expect to see in a Portlandia sketch. In place of ragged edges, there are clean lines, and a feeling of austerity you could attribute to his love of Shaker furniture. The patinas from exposure, stains from nails, and circular marks from sawblades stay, occasionally joined by thin layers of leftover paint. If you think he stained a piece, it's probably because he cut into a board to expose a deeper layer of blond.
"I try to educate myself as much as I can," he says, "but I really also pride myself in my ignorance, and what just comes out of me. I think it's important to kind of hold on to that. I'm always pushing myself to not do the obvious, and not do the reclaimed furniture shabby-chic thing. I'm really trying push into the world of pretentious modern furniture people, but at the same time, say 'This is old material that I pulled out of a dumpster. Look at how beautiful I can make it. Look at how refined it can be.'"
It was a girlfriend who first suggested he build a bookcase for a friend of hers, and later introduced him to Etsy, after seeing what he had built for himself, through the sheer necessity that came from moving to New Orleans in 2006 "with basically nothing" and needing furniture for his apartment. His first year or so in the city was spent working with a contractor doing renovations, restoring old Victorian front porches and the like.
After the bookcase, he starting to push his own furniture, mostly via Etsy and through word of mouth, and later through a booth at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Before he developed the solid contractor relationships that now provide him with most of his wood, he would driving around looking for crews renovating some of the city's old shotgun-style homes. "When I found one," he says, "I'd go up to the guys working on a house and say 'Hey, is that coming out, is this coming out? I'll save you some time.'"
During the sort of hand-to-mouth years of getting his business off the ground, where "every day was this delicate balance of trying to pay your bills, trying to get the money together for the next tool you need," an acquaintance offered him a trade of sorts: build a salvaged-wood studio in my backyard and you can live in it. Holdren worked through an abnormally cold New Orleans winter ("the toilets froze over"), and after completing it, lived and worked there for about six months before he'd had enough of living "basically exposed" in someone else's backyard in a high-crime neighborhood. The structure (pictured above) is now an event space, and the thought of it is kind of bittersweet. "Its like how my dad won't go back and see our house he built in Vermont. It's one of those things."
Five years in, an increasing stream of local commissions is providing much steadier footing. He works with a few guys that are basically full-time employees, including a best friend he grew up with in Vermont and played in a band with in Philly, who works as a sort of foreman. These days, Holdren does less of the material prep-work than he used to, but is still generally working ten-hour days, seven days a week. With interior projects, he's always directly involved in the installation, because "this is my public offering. Everyone's going to see this. Everything has to be perfect."
Holdren has done a mixture of furniture and built-out sections for four New Orleans restaurants so far, including The Franklin and MiLa, and now has two interiors projects currently in the works, including the restaurant of the International House, a boutique hotel.
On projects like these, he thinks of himself "less as someone who's just fabricating and installing, but as an interior designer in many respects." In some cases, he has a more of a back-and-forth with clients than the architects or interior designers involved, and he readily admits to having a bit of a chip on his shoulder about who's getting the lion's share of the credit for that kind of work. He can name one instance where a pair of remotely working architects were less than respectful, but in his words, "it was fine, because I kind of get off on that." When all a plan says is "wood-treatment siding," he has a blank canvas.
His work on the International House with interior designer LM Pagano, who regularly works with clients like Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp, has been a highlight. "She really treated me as a peer, and we did this together, as collaborators. It was the first time I got to deal with someone at that level."
His first restaurant project was a place called Booty's (above), and how he conveys his collaboration with the owners on the bar paints an exciting picture of what it's like to be a Holdren client: "'You see this material? Everybody does it vertically. We're going to turn it sideways, and it's going to be the front of your bar, and we're going to put this steel on top of it. But it's not going to be stainless steel. It's going to be dark, and it's going to be cool.' And they went for it. At the end of the day, my aesthetic is what's prevalent in the space."
Aside from restaurant sections and furniture, he's produced kitchens, wet bars, and bathrooms for homes. An 8-by-20-foot conference table for Tulane University is currently in the works. Acquaintances have suggested hiring more people and putting together a production line, but Holdren's version of success looks more like "bringing my prices and my clientele up to the point where I can have two or three other people in my shop and just live comfortably. I would like to work in my shop as much as I can. I know I need to pay my dues. I'll get there."