A story from duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay’s annual Home Design Issue.
Wood works its magic in mysterious ways.
Nine years ago, Zoe Bocik was recovering from cervical cancer. A trained musician (she had studied and performed flute professionally), she decided she needed to learn the harp. She and her soon-to-be-husband, Rob, found one on Craigslist.
“I laid in bed for the next two weeks with that harp on my chest and I think it just woke me up. I was handling this wood, this piece of art that made sound, and it was the most beautiful healing thing.” Two weeks later, she told Rob, “‘I want a coffeetable. I want to build things.’”
And that table was the root of what would become Funktionhouse Urban Lumber & Furnishings — a St. Pete-based business that turns “waste trees” into beautifully crafted desks, dining tables and more.
Brad Kent grew up around wood. His father was a shop teacher in Buffalo, NY, and his grandfather ran an antique shop out of the house Brad grew up in. Brad helped with the refinishing for many years, and when he was 20 opened his own furniture store. Later he sold that store and opened an ad agency, which is still in operation after 23 years.
A few years ago, he discovered — or rather, rediscovered — the power of wood. A friend of Brad’s told him of a venture he was pursuing in Nicaragua, recovering logs “from the depths of the waters, kiln-drying and milling the finished slabs.” He wound up purchasing much of his friend’s inventory and securing new vendors from Central America, and Live Edge Slabs, LLC, was born — a joint business run by Brad Sr. and his son in Tarpon Springs that sells slabs and custom-designed furnishings to customers all over the country.
What is a “live edge slab?” Think of it as a tree “slice” whose perimeter retains the original shape of the trunk. Lumber that’s had its edges squared off is “dimensional,” Rob Bocik told me; Funktionhouse and Live Edge deal in both kinds.
Live edge is certainly on trend. You see it in homes and designer showrooms, restaurants and bars; a search for “live edge furniture” on Etsy turns up over 10,000 results. Brad Kent, who says his customers range in age from 27 to 54, attributes the uptick to millennial tastes: They’re not interested in the antiques he grew up with.
“Millenials don’t want hand-me-downs. They’re about keeping natural things in the house — and up cycling is important.”
Both Funktionhouse and Live Edge stress the importance of sustainable practices. Kent sources the bulk of his wood from Costa Rica, where the government “restricts the living daylights out of deforestation.” Rob and Zoe Bocik’s business model was based from the start on using “the most eco-friendly, renewably resourced, responsible wood we could find.”
But the appeal of live edge may lie in the inherent fascination of the wood itself. Each tree, each slice of wood from that tree, each piece of furniture from that slab tells its own unique story — like the stories of the craftsmen themselves.
The Funktionhouse Facebook page is alive with Rob Bocik’s enthusiastic announcements of new arrivals: Eastern red cedar, African mahogany, Moreton Bay chestnut (the latter two retrieved from the Henry Ford/Thomas Edison estates in Ft. Myers after Hurricane Irma).
He wasn’t always this knowledgeable about trees. A former Chicagoan, he’d spent most of his career in insurance adjustments and contracting when he met Zoe, whose sister was his next-door neighbor. They had just begun to fall in love when Zoe learned she had cancer. It was his research that introduced them to the concept of “urban lumber” — recycling waste trees from urban environments.
Research is a forte of theirs. Zoe proved herself to a prospective employer at the Bill Young Marine Science Complex by learning everything in a college chemistry text — in a month. To make that first coffeetable, she read library books and watched woodworking videos, took things apart and put them back together. She taught herself to play the harp — and eventually made one. And Rob keeps on adding to his lexicon: “I come into one or two new trees every year that I haven’t heard of.”
The business grew out of what might have been desperate straits. Zoe had been working in data collection for the fire department when she became ill, prompting a decision to quit. Then eight months later, after she’d recuperated, Rob was laid off from his job.
“That was actually the catalyst for Funktionhouse,” says Zoe. The couple began posting pictures on Facebook of wood they’d found, and people started calling to ask if they could get some. “So,” says Rob, “we started cutting it up into little blocks and putting it into USPS flat rate shipping boxes and shipping it around the world.”
In the early years, before they’d established relationships with tree companies, they sourced wood by heading out to county brush sites in their pick-up; Zoe would clamber up to the top of woodpiles and kick logs into the back of the truck. Their workspace was ad hoc, too; they’d saw up lumber in the backyard of their former home in St. Pete’s Old Southeast neighborhood, until they decided they needed to move their business elsewhere (and stop annoying the neighbors).
Their work spaces have evolved over the years, from a parking lot to an old KMart to a live/work arrangement in the Warehouse Arts District. At present they’re happy to be partnering with the more-than-a-century-old Anderson Lumber, near their home on the edge of St. Pete and Gulfport. Rob mills, dries and sells his lumber there, and Zoe has a small garage studio nearby.
“This is his domain,” says Zoe during a visit to the lumberyard. “He’s house proud.”
The Funktionhouse motto — “We go from tree to table” — is embodied in two projects in particular. When artist Jane Bunker and her husband, photographer Mason Morfit, decided to build a home in Gulfport, they brought the Bociks a mango tree that had been on the property, and Zoe created a dining table from it whose location in the house corresponds to where the tree once stood. Zoe valued the connection and the project so much that she kept part of the tree and made it into a table for herself and Rob.
Another project offered a challenge both technical and emotional. A retired Navy captain in Belleair commissioned Zoe to create a table from a redwood that had stood in front of his childhood home in California, where his twin brother had recently died. Two weeks after his death, the redwood had been struck by lightning, and the captain shipped Zoe a log from the tree to make an 11-foot table.
“I couldn’t make a mistake,” recalls Zoe. “I was holding my breath.”
Funktionhouse is not taking commissions at the moment. Zoe is focusing instead on her own artistic pieces, and was recently invited to join the new Brenda McMahon Gallery in Gulfport. Meanwhile, you can browse the stunning images on their website or see the fruits of their labors in homes from here to NYC, including the “Idea House” of interior designer Michael Mastry in ONE St. Pete.
As Zoe says, “We’ve sprinkled our sawdust everywhere in this town.”
Brad Kent’s Live Edge Slabs website is fully attuned to the sensual charge of wood. “FEEL THE GRAIN” reads the invitation on its home page, glowing golden atop giant closeups of polished wooden surfaces, of tables both dimensional and live-edge. Elsewhere on the site are page after page of Costa Rican slabs with exotic names like Monkey Pod and Parota, and a gallery of images showing designs like the “river desk,” in which powdered pigment and epoxy are swirled together in a frame that gets sandwiched between two halves of a slab.
When we speak over the phone, Brad is headed to Vermont. The bulk of his wood may come from Costa Rica, but he’s ever alert to sources inside the U.S. “People have these huge walnut trees that are at the end of life and starting to fall. We want those slabs!”
His passion is palpable, not just for the trees but for the tools of his trade: Ecopoxy (“environmentally friendly, high in soy, low in chemical resin!”), Odie’s Oil (“no solvents, food-safe, water and heat resistant!”), even the sandpaper his crew uses (“800-1,000 grid”). And though he’s been in business a relatively short time, he can predict the potential uses of a slab before he puts it up for sale.
“I’ll say, ‘I’d like that to be a desk.’ And if a slab comes in that’s 30 inches wide and 17 feet long, you can pretty much gather that it’s a commercial bar that’s going to buy that piece.”
And buy they have. The Flute & Dram champagne bar on St. Pete’s Beach Drive has a slab. Caddy’s on the Beach “has a bunch.” He’s also seeing more and more customers buying slabs for their kitchen islands and bathroom counters.
He stresses that his Tarpon Springs HQ is “a working woodshop, not a fancy showroom.” But shopping there sounds like a lot of fun.
“We start flipping through slabs like they’re a deck of cards,” he says, keeping spray bottles of water handy to mist them down for customers. “It’s not until you wet them down with water that you know what the grain patterns will look like.” And if you’re not looking for a table, you can opt for something smaller but equally striking — a Live Edge Slabs charcuterie board.
A team of five mans the workshop: “Guys in their mid-20s who love lifting wood,” says Brad. “They’re lumberjacks.”
The location might seem a bit of a trek for those of us at a distance from Tarpon Springs, but he says many of his customers make a day of it.
“People come here from Lakeland and Naples and then have lunch on the sponge docks.”
Wood as a tourist attraction. Why not? It’s kind of magical.
Funktionhouse: 727-286-0589, funktionhouse.com.
Anderson Lumber: 666 49th St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-321-3111 andersonlumberstpete.com.
Live Edge Slabs, LLC: 526 E. Lemon St., Tarpon Springs, 727-409-5005, liveedgeslabs.com