Not many people would use the word contemporary to describe the Rust Belt.
Once the industrial heartland of the United States, the region, which sprawls from upstate New York to the Great Lakes to northern West Virginia, is now associated with the decline of American manufacturing.
As a Cleveland native, James “Deej” Lincoln grew up in the middle of this legacy and wants to be a part of its revitalization. His company, Rustbelt Reclamation, manufactures custom furniture and installations with wood reclaimed from abandoned houses, churches and factories across the Rust Belt.
“In a city like Cleveland, there are over 10,000 structures that are all abandoned and are all wood, and when you start adding more cities like Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit, it just proves how much is out there,” says Lincoln.
To celebrate the region’s history, Rustbelt Reclamation also inlays every reception desk, boardroom table and bar with a 1.5-inch diameter “coin,” or laser etch, with the exact address of where the wood was salvaged. Lincoln says his customers, ranging from hotels and commercial businesses to breweries and restaurants, enjoy this element of traceability—which in turn proves authenticity.
“People are coming to the realization that what really made this country great was how we built things,” says Lincoln. “That’s how we rose to where we are … and I think that businesses like ours are components to bringing that vitality back.”
Rust Belt Revival
In Cleveland, people like Lincoln are known as “boomerangers.” That is, they were born and raised in the city, left for what they assumed were greener pastures, but came back because the city actually has a lot to offer.
“For me, there was also a real appreciation for what Cleveland was built on,” says Lincoln.
In his youth, Lincoln spent years living in San Francisco, California, working for dot-com businesses, where he felt ideas were always thrown around but nothing was physically produced. In the early-2000s, Lincoln returned to Ohio with a desire to work in manufacturing, and became involved with a business that made electromechanical actuators.
“I loved it because it was a tangible product. Metal was coming in one side of the building and product was going out the other, and you could see how it was providing value for the user,” he says.
Lincoln switched to furniture the day he stepped inside the manufacturing facility of Interior Products Company, a commercial cabinetry business that specialized in libraries and corporate interiors. Everything from the sawdust flying through the air to the loud wood saw machines resonated with Lincoln, who once fostered a dream of becoming an architect.
He bought Interior Products Company in 2011, and began refocusing the company as a reclaimed material furniture manufacturer for commercial businesses.
“What we’ve found is there is this premium that comes with using reclaimed material,” says Lincoln. “And if we could combine the authenticity and the story of the material with unique aesthetic and practical application and design, that could really resonate with our customers.”
On New Year’s Day 2013, Interior Products Company became Rustbelt Reclamation.
Rethinking reclaimed wood
Today, Rustbelt Reclamation builds heirloom-quality bar tops, conference tables and full wood installations for bank lobbies, restaurants, bakeries and nightclubs across the United States, all from reclaimed wood.
The company’s “bread and butter,” Lincoln says, is its inventory of red and white oak, which it harvests from construction sites and abandoned buildings across the Rust Belt.
However, the company’s motivation for gathering materials is not only to keep its inventory well-stocked. Rustbelt also strives to save materials based on unique species of wood or the location where they were sourced.
“We have exotic tropical hardwood that came out of salt mines, highway installations and old churches that we’re happy to sit on because we’re confident the right customer will come along [to buy it], and it’s better than having it sit in a landfill.”
A business can also contract Rustbelt Reclamation to build something with material sourced from a specific location, building or species, which Lincoln says can often be the tipping point for many customers.
“Because if I’m looking to buy a communal table for a board room or hotel lobby, I could buy it from a variety of vendors, but this one [from Rustbelt Reclamation] is going to be built custom exactly the way I want it, and it’s also going to have that little extra something which is really the story.”
Rustbelt Reclamation has sourced materials from the client’s hometown, flown to Florida to find locally sourced cypress for a club’s bar top, and searched abandoned factories and churches for the specific species of wood their client requested.
“Whatever the reason, these things resonated with the customer, and by drawing on those connections I think it in turn means something for the customer’s customer because the story carries forward,” says Lincoln. The inlaid coin with the address of where the wood was harvested only adds to that connection, which customers can also customize with their own symbol or brand.
From a design standpoint, Rustbelt Reclamation is now looking to incorporate reclaimed materials in ways that have never been done before by doing more radius, or curved work, and adding cleaner lines, even inlaying quartz onto a wooden tabletop or installing modern features like double-sided, flip-up power outlets.
“A lot of times when I tell people we’re in the reclamation business, they immediately think of old barn wood or industrial factory wood,” says Lincoln. “And course we will continue to produce stuff like that, but we don’t want to get cornered in just one market or aesthetic. We want to get people to second-guess what reclaimed wood is capable of, and I think it incumbent on us, as industry leaders, to push people’s perception on what reclaimed wood is.”
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