As you enter the white, wartime victory home on the east side of Guelph, you’ll quickly encounter several stand-out pieces of furniture, contributing to its charming décor.
A lampstand sits nonchalantly in the corner, fashioned from an old wooden telescope stand. A coffee table rests in the nook of an L-couch, pairing thick industrial metal frames with cascading grainy walnut, sealed with tung oil. A well-travelled picture frame, made from Hawaiian Koa wood, sports a band poster from an almost forgotten show.
Odd Years musician, AJ Johnson makes cool furniture and his home is his showroom.
When he started building furniture, “it was mostly out of necessity,” he recalls with a smirk that quickly erupts into a laugh. “I would see something – like I need a table here, so I figured I would build it.”
AJ’s shop resides in a detached building in his backyard. For most homeowners, it would be considered an ample-sized garage, perfect for storage. But of course, no cars, lawnmowers, or old canoes to be found here. Instead it’s filled with high-performance Festool electric saws, routers, planers and ongoing projects that keep him busy when he’s not moonlighting as an indie rocker. A pin-up calendar is tacked up in the corner – a token his wife insisted on as an ironic way of being that guy who works in his shop. There’s also a saw-dusty radio on top of a shelf – because that’s what you listen to when you’re making furniture.
AJ’s fervor for design is equal parts wood and found objects. Sometimes it’s sourcing offcuts of maple. Other times it’s scoring an old fire extinguisher from a tucked away pawn shop. And every once-in-a-while, it’s a little bit of both. Like the time he found an entire bowling lane on Kijiji. “Bought thirty feet – so a full lane – then cut it down, then forklifted it into the trailer.”
That ten-pin lane, by the way, now painstakingly stripped apart, resized, resealed and reassembled, has a second well-trodden life as the upstairs bar at Baker Street Station in Guelph.
AJ’s strategy for design – or at least the beginning stages – is simple and constant. He’s a real looker (wink). “I look all the time,” searching antique markets, used stores, re-stores, consignment shops, back alleys and of course, the world-wide interweb.
“You gotta always be on the lookout. Finding a re-store in Hawaii was the best part of the trip.” He looks at his wife and laughs as they recall their honeymoon – probably not THE best part of the trip, but close enough.
When asked what he specifically looks for, AJ offers a single word: “Whatever.” And it becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t some half-assed, flippant response, but a genuine thoughtful answer that alludes to his belief that just about anything could inspire his next piece.
“Sometimes I’ll see something and buy it, not knowing what it’s going to be. Like one time it was this top cast iron part from an old drill press. I just knew it was going to be something. It turned into a lamp base with copper pipe and wooden doweling.”
AJ also likens his approach to design to the way he goes about writing music. Long-time musician, AJ has drummed for some of Canada’s most influential artists including Jim Cuddy, Hayden Desser, Cuff the Duke and Minotaurs, while also fronting his own adroit rock ensemble, Odd Years – but that’s for another Spotlight.
“Something musically pops into my head and then gets worked out. It comes when you’re not expecting it.” And it goes the same for his furniture projects: “I have this thing … I just see it – and the design goes from there.”
Before we leave, AJ wants to show us one last signature piece that was sourced and brought back to the shop before he had worked out its next fate. Matching bedside tables crafted out old wooden multi-stacked mailboxes – not unlike the style of old library card holders from the days of the Dewey Decimal System. “I knew it would be something at some point.”