At A New Store Called Workshop, Wood Furniture Is Made From Abandoned Homes

The small store that opens in the Fisher Building Friday will offer benches and tables made of wood.

Not that unusual.

It’s recycled wood. That’s hardly groundbreaking, either.

But it’s wood that was once part of a Detroit house.

In fact, the store owners know precisely which house – out of literally hundreds of thousands of homes that once existed in Detroit – 14151 Bramell, near Eliza Howell Park on the far West Side.

Now we’re talking distinctive.

The store is called, simply, Workshop, and it’s the brainchild of James Willer and Kevin Borsay, two Detroit architects who have branched out into other pursuits over the years.

“It’s beautiful wood,” Willer said. “Solid. Douglas Fir. Nice pink color, a rose hue. You can’t get wood like this now.”

Building materials such as windows and stonework from Detroit’s mass market of empty buildings have long been available, both from underground sources and legitimate outlets, though even above-ground retailers sometimes acquire merchandise that has been harvested illegally. 

In one notable case, dozens of terra cotta lion heads were stripped from the Lee Plaza apartments on W. Grand Boulevard, and some wound up on a new condo project on the North Side of Chicago.

Workshop’s niche is taking the primary material, wood – much of it grown in Michigan – and turning it into furniture that has undergone a rigorous milling process.

The wood comes from Reclaim Detroit, an organization that methodically “deconstructs” abandoned homes -- legally -- and reuses the materials as wisely as possible. The usual denouement of a Detroit home is demolition, with the refuse trucked to a landfill.

Deconstructing a home and salvaging the materials protects the environment and provides jobs, said Willer, who co- founded Reclaim Detroit last year.

But he acknowledged the heritage angle – reusing white pine and Douglas fir grown in Michigan forests then hewn, milled and crafted by our ancestors – is the main attraction for consumers.

“I can talk about saving the planet until I’m blue in the face, but what people like is having a piece of our history inside their house. It’s a huge selling point,” Willer said.

Willer, 39, grew up in Farmington Hills with sawdust in his veins. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were carpenters, and he has worked with wood his entire life. He also studied fine arts, architecture and urban design at Albion College and Lawrence Tech University.

The idea for Workshop came when he joined forces with Borsay to use reclaimed wood while redoing the interior of Stella Good Coffee, left, the Fisher Building coffee shop that is part of the network of cafes and Pure Detroit apparel and artifact stores owned by Borsay and his wife, Shawn Santo.

The reclaimed white pine inside Stella Good Coffee came from a nearly 100-year-old home on Cadillac Boulevard, near Waterworks Park, on Detroit’s East Side.

The house on Brammell was a 1940s-era ranch, Willer said. It was made available when the owners, who also own the house next door, decided to tear it down and paid Reclaim Detroit $6,500 to deconstruct it.

Willer said Reclaim Detroit deconstructs homes in Detroit and Highland Park, only with permission, that are owned by private individuals or Wayne County, which assume ownership of  properties due to tax foreclosure.

At the Friday opening, Workshop’s benches will be priced between $400 and $800, and the dining tables will be $1,200 to $1,400.

Workshop’s space is on the Second Avenue side of the magnificent Fisher Building,  between Stella Good Coffee and a Pure Detroit outlet.

There’s a showroom on the first floor, and, on the mezzanine above, a production area.

“It’s a throwback to old-world retailing,” said Willer. “We do it all in house.”


Workshop, whose hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,  also will carry an exclusive line of products from the Detroit Wallpaper Co.

Workshop’s opening Friday comes just in time for Small Business Saturday, the national effort to patronize local retailers Nov. 30. Workshop is one of a couple of dozen Detroit outlets that are taking part in a companion campaign, the Detroit Small Business Passport, in which shoppers will receive complimentary items or discounts for buying locally.







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