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Whit McLeod's customers tend to fall into a couple of categories. There's the green audience, who like that all of his furniture is handcrafted from reclaimed materials. Wine aficionados covet his pieces made from old oak winery barrels. The design crowd admires the earthy, refined-rustic aesthetic of McLeod's line, its perfect function and fresh, contemporary take on classic Arts and Crafts style.
Then, he says, "there are the people who just like to sit in a comfortable chair." He's got them covered, too.
McLeod, who lives and works in the Northern California city of Arcata, a hub of environmental awareness deep in redwood country, has always been a tree guy. He grew up in Marin County, in a 1962 Douglas fir house designed by Joseph Esherick, a founder of UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design (and a nephew of the great wood sculptor and furniture maker Wharton Esherick). Around the home were beautiful antique wood objects McLeod's father, a commodities broker, brought back from business trips to Japan-a tansu chest, a hibachi-all straightforward and unadorned, yet soulful and functional.
He began making things in wood as a kid, and went on to earn a college degree in wildlife biology. After stints working on a chemical tanker ship and at a fish cannery in Alaska, he returned to California and spent three years with the U.S. Forest Service inventorying old-growth Douglas fir forests along the Pacific coast, an experience that raised his eco-consciousness long before "sustainable" became a buzzword. By the late 1980s he had set up his wood shop and found steady work making custom presentation boxes for wineries in the region. Then in 1991 the Italian Swiss Colony Winery modernized its facility and offered McLeod three dozen gigantic, century-old tanks made of the highest-grade white oak. The windfall opened up a new direction for his work.
"Man, something good had to be done with that material," he recalls. "That was kind of the start of it."
Ever since, McLeod and his team of craftsmen have been taking apart discarded vintage vino vessels, steam-bending their quarter-sawn staves to desired shapes, and turning them into handsome chairs, tables and other pieces inspired by Stickley, Wright and Morris (it's fitting, he points out, that these designs are being rendered in woods milled during the Arts and Crafts era). Historical features, such as original hand drawknife marks, are lovingly preserved, and the wood's provenance is stamped on the underside of each piece. Though wineries are his signature source for oak, McLeod also scours demolition sites for scraps of redwood, Douglas fir and copper. Like his furniture, McLeod's philosophy is simple and enduring: to "add something beautiful to the world without taking anything away."