Christian Thomas Designs’s Olneyville studio is small but bright, located on the first floor of a converted brick mill with colorful murals climbing the wall abutting its parking area. Inside is filled with heavy duty tools, saws and large pieces of reclaimed wood in the process of being (or soon to be) meticulously sandpapered, lacquered and attached to metals and other fixtures to create pieces of furniture that uniquely marry not just the historical with the modern, but the natural with the industrial.
The son of a carpenter, Christian started playing with using reclaimed wood as early as 12 years old, using his allowance to pick up pieces for new projects. A Lincoln native, he spent brief stints at URI studying biology and CCRI studying business before ultimately following in his father’s footsteps. Four years ago, he made the tables for East Side restaurant Tortilla Flats, and found it so enjoyable that he started designing furniture as a side hustle to his carpentry work. Although currently focused primarily on furniture making, Christian Thomas Designs remains a design/build company.
In addition to repurposed woods harvested from various sources, Christian also often uses live edges in his pieces. A beautiful, curving wooden sink counter in his studio bathroom is a perfect example. He prefers to “let the materials do their own talking” when creating his pieces.
“Reclaimed wood has a history,” he says. “I like big chunky materials, and I spend a lot of time on my finishes. I keep it really simple and contrast the metal and wood mediums.”
Although the designs might be “simple,” the materials and processes are not. Often, it can take many applications of finishes to reach a desired result – especially when fluctuating year-round New England temperatures and humidity levels must be taken into account. Wood can be very temperamental, and Christian is constantly experimenting. His favorite material is Heart Pine, which many avoid because it is notoriously difficult to work with. His new production line will have names of beloved family members attached to various pieces – something new, and a way “to celebrate the history behind the wood and people.”
Christian does his own materials sourcing and creating, but it’s his girlfriend Hue who manages operations and marketing in addition to a full-time research job at Brown University. It was thanks to her hours of internet searching that the couple found out about (and won) a DESIGNxRI grant, which provided the money and resources necessary for him to focus on the company full time. Resources came in the form of marketing, development, planning and other workshops, as well as the support network of 17 other grant winners and the “phenomenal” volunteer mentorship of industrial designer and RISD faculty member Justin Sirotin.
The couple considered using the grant money to relocate to a larger space or start a showroom, but thanks in part to exorbitant Providence rents, decided to focus on growing the business for now; at time of interview, a professional photographer was coming in a few days to create a catalogue for the new line. A workshop visit in May from Mayor Elorza was invigorating, and Christian Thomas Designs will also be featured at the September 16 Design Week kickoff event at the Arcade Providence.
“It’s a struggle, but we’re living the dream,” says Hue. “Although we’re definitely looking forward to an upcoming vacation.”