Megan Offner (R), Ashira Israel (L) and Lindsay Black (C) of New York Heartwoods, wear the Colorant Reversible Denim Jacket, High Waisted Denim pants and Fantasma Top in their workshop HQ in Accord, NY.
North American Black Walnuts (juglans nigra) have been used for centuries as a natural dye source. The leaves, bark and fruit can be extracted and used to color cloth. Walnut bark was used heavily during the Civil War in dyeing uniforms. Traces of Walnut-dyed garments have been found in the Temple of Pompeii as well as Viking settlements due to their abundance. The concentrated extracts of the hulls of the fruit served as our first writing inks. The heavy tannins make for a strong color source that conditions fibers during the dye process, acting as a softening agent while yielding yellow, orange and brown hues.
Tell us a bit about New York Heartwoods and its origin story.
In the 2000's I was living in Brooklyn working in fashion/advertising set design where most things quickly ended up in a dumpster, and renovating houses with standard building materials that taxed my health. So I spent three years taking classes to try to figure out how to have a creative livelihood that produced little waste, was less toxic, and had a positive net benefit for both humans and the environment. The last of these courses focused on regenerative forest management practices and how to mill fallen trees to create sustainable wood products. This was a huge a-ha moment, finally finding a business model that checked all those boxes. Then everything started falling into place for it to happen. Two weeks later I met a sawyer who eventually trained me to us his portable bandsaw mill. Nine months later I started bartering to use his mill full-time as we got slammed by Hurricane Irene. Then came Sandy. We milled and sold thousands of board feet of lumber and slabs. Then the furniture requests started rolling in. I found people who were talented furniture makers to help me with the production. It became too challenging to continue doing everything ourselves so we ceased in-house milling and drying to focus on fabrication. Now, we often tap back into our roots to help people make things from their own trees - working through our clients' design needs, translating them into the lumber and slabs needed, overseeing the milling and drying processes to get the optimal results for us to build with, and fabricating the finished objects. It's so fun and rewarding for everyone involved, to return these pieces to where the trees grow to live on in a different way. And all the sawdust we create gets donated to a horse farm and the wood scraps to a local wood-fired bread maker, so giving back to the community helps us create very little waste. A unique part of our furniture company is that it was born out of, and always goes back to, how we want to work more than what we actually produce. And how we grow, in addition to what we make, is in every way a very organic and co-creative process.
How did you all cross paths?
Seven years ago, our head of production Ashira Israel, who had her own furniture company in Brooklyn and a house in Accord NY, was looking into how she might start producing her own lumber. In doing her research she found NYH, so instead of her starting from scratch she began buying our wood. When the pandemic hit, her work in the city slowed so she came upstate to help me with our tidal wave of furniture projects from the influx of new people to the area. We balance each other's skill sets really well and we were both tired of doing everything ourselves for our own businesses, so we formally joined forces which has allowed us to take on larger and more rewarding projects.
Four and a half years ago a mutual friend introduced Lindsay Black and I when she moved up from Asheville, NC to work for another furniture company. She started coming in after hours to help me with random projects and was always incredibly steadfast, thorough and great to work with. After moving through a couple furniture studios where she lacked the support and community she was looking for, she saw an ad that we were hiring and joined our team. We're better for it. As females in this industry it's such a different experience to work solely as a team of women, and it has been incredibly nourishing for all of us.
What certain projects have come out of working together and this common mission?
Having a strong production team has allowed me to grow our focus on the whole-tree projects. We just finished our largest one to date - all the restaurant tabletops, several stools and a coffee table for Little Cat, a lodge across from Catamount Resort where I scouted and gleaned 19 logs from trees removed for new ski slopes. We also just completed one of our favorite projects ever - a bed, two night stands, three stools, two large bookcases and a coffee table (all pieces from our collection) from a single New Rochelle yard tree. The wood was so weird and gorgeous, the client was over the moon with everything. It meant a lot for them to have a tree that they didn't want to take down continue to be a part of their home ecosystem.
Another favorite project was creating the huge custom wood elements
for Camille Norment's exhibition at Dia Chelsea
. Because the massive sizes and quantities of the lumber needed and the artist and gallery's desire for sustainable sourcing, we found the mills and pine logs cleared for the creation of the Ashokan Rail Trail and had them milled and dried to our specifications. Then hired a team (all women!) to help us surface, tool and finish them to hold acoustical elements for the installation. It was the largest scale project that we've taken on and having a great crew (and client) made it such a blast. The show is up through Jan 7th (definitely go check it out, it's AMAZING), then we're helping the gallery find homes for the lumber so the wood can continue to be used.
Any exciting plans for NY Heartwoods or new projects you are working on?
Ashira, who also has past lives in architecture and contracting, had land in Accord and recently built us an awesome energy efficient, solar powered, wood scrap-heated dream shop that truly reflects our care for the environment and thoughtful design. Ashira and Lindsay have backgrounds in teaching so we're excited to host woodworking classes here starting next year!
With their talents we recently added a couple new beautiful pieces to our collection, including the Crane Cabinet (originally made for a client with oak from their yard tree) and the Clove Bed. I have six more whole tree projects that I'm in various stages of managing, and am looking to do more consulting for larger scale residential and commercial projects looking to sustainably optimize onsite forest resources (I just planted the seed for one in California, fingers crossed!)
Anyone who would like to hear more, has furniture needs (with or without their own tree(s)), or would be interested in our upcoming classes can contact us through our website or via Instagram.