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Material Alchemists at Fin Art Remaking Denver's Interior Spaces

Nothing that Fin Art has done exactly looks the same, which is their goal.

At Old Major, their most intensive culinary project to date, they designed and built almost the entire interior, from the  lighting and bar, to the reclaimed walls and seating.

Rob McGowan and Ben Olson are the Co-Founders of Fin Art.

As the art of making furniture evolves, one standout Denver duo dreams up the bones of some of the city's  most iconic interiors. Fin Art has its fingers in all sorts of new projects in the city, from brewpubs to hostels.
Every 50 years or so, the worn-out flooring is ripped out of railcars  and replaced. Rob McGowan and Ben Olson, Co-Founders of Fin Art, are often there to pick up the pieces, for both the material and the history that permeates it. 

McGowan and Olson grew up together. They've been friends since middle school and went to college together in Boulder. After graduation, Olson moved to Denver in 2005, and McGowan soon followed. They shared a small Capitol Hill apartment and a dislike for their jobs, and one day, they started building furniture for the fun of it. It started with a coffee table made from old piping, then a couch. They had virtually no tools, but the collection slowly grew with the commitment to their hobby.

"By the time we decided to move out of there, we moved to Baker so we could get a house with a garage," recalls McGowan. "We set up shop, started building and quit our jobs to do it full time."

That initial venture -- named Capsize Design, ironically -- fell apart due to an unworkable relationship with other partners. So they scrapped it, got jobs as bartenders and got back into building once they got back on their feet.

In 2008, the duo moved to yet another house, and Fin Art was born. "From there, we made sure it was just the two of us," explains McGowan. "We started working on some different projects, and invested the time to figure out how to paint and spray finish things, which was a huge step for us. That was when we started getting into reclaimed objects."
 
As of April, McGowan and Olson quit their bartending jobs to focus on Fin Art full-time. Olson felt this was a necessary step. "We had the choice to fully move forward into something we could see ourselves doing forever, and we picked that choice," he says.

Defining Denver's landscapeAt Old Major, their most intensive culinary project to date, they designed and built almost the entire interior, from the lighting and bar, to the reclaimed walls and seating.
 
Fin Art's current studio was a necessary upgrade from the tiny garage in the back of their house. "We were building two receptionist desks out of airplane wings, and each piece was about 7 feet long -- it took up the whole shop," Olson recalls. "We drove by this place and knocked on the door. It was a big financial leap for us, but we just jumped into it. The studio is lived-in, comfortable even, with lengths of walnut, found objects, stacks of weathered wood, and an array of tools. A pair of airplane wings are suspended from the ceiling, waiting to take shape. 
 
Fin Art's business started with commissioned pieces sold directly or through local-focused shops. Then they started re-imagining interiors for the likes of Buffalo Exchange, Fancy Tiger and Matthew Morris Salon. They made one of their first marks in the restaurant world when they built six tables out of old conveyor systems for Linger. At Angelo's, they made a bar out of barn wood and siding from aging livestock boxcar trains. At Old Major, their most intensive culinary project to date, they designed and built almost the entire interior, from the  lighting and bar, to the reclaimed walls and seating.

McGowan and Olson see their cycle of success as a combination and luck and the many hours spent honing their craft. "We spent so much time trying to build things that were interesting, pieces that would work in so many different homes," explains Olson. "Incidentally, our design and approach have always been good -- but the final product just got better and better. A lot of it was about persistence -- and all of the money we made would go back into the shop, whether that was  buying better tools or increasing our space and manpower." 
 
A year ago, they brought on employees to take on some of the increasingly burgeoning business. Even with additional help, they've remained selective. The process usually revolves around focusing on one project, getting it out the door and setting their attentions on another. Right now, they're signing on to an even larger space where they'll be able to improve output and work on projects simultaneously. 
 
"Our day to day is just getting things out the door," says Olson. "I think we work for that end result -- a lot of people do, but for us, it's seeing the look on people's faces when we show up at their door with something they've been waiting for. That's the driving force, and it's exactly what we want to be doing."
 
The aesthetic of Fin Art is partially indebted to a creativity with materials that they see potential in. A lot of times, McGowan and Olson will buy materials that have no real destination. Clients can range from those who know exactly what they want and want they want used, to those who place trust and flexibility in Fin Art's artistic license. For the latter, previously sourced items will cause a lightbulb effect when planning a later project. "For example, " explains Olson, "if someone wants us to build a bar, we usually have an arsenal of things to choose from. It's a good system -- we have a backstock of badass shit." 
 
And having these things laying around ultimately ends up helping the creative process. A lot of materials come from warehouses, scrapyards, and people who source them, but one of the illusions often associated with reclaimed furniture is that it should be cheap. In all actuality, none of the materials they use are free, and working with older material often makes for more work.

"We just made shelves with new walnut, and they took about twenty minutes," says McGowan. "When you're using old wood, nothing's straight, nothing's flat, and it takes much more sanding, prepping and finishing. It's definitely not a cheaper route, but you end up with a piece with far more personality and originality."
 
Waiting in the wingsNothing that Fin Art has done exactly looks the same, which is their goal.
 
The look of a Fin Art piece or collective design is hard to describe -- even for the duo that started it. Attention to projects like Old Major's interior often solidify the desire to remain a versatile brand. "To a point, that's our aesthetic," explains Olson in regard to Old Major. "But really, we change gears a lot between projects -- the new Masterpiece Deli is walnut and black steel, with modern and clean-cut lines. We don't want to be pigeon-holed into the reclaimed niche. It's mostly that we try to build timeless pieces that are entirely dependent on the project and the space, things that mimic older shapes and feelings." 
 
As a result, nothing that Fin Art has done really looks the same -- every project is entered with fresh eyes, and each has its personality independent of other spaces. 
 
Currently, Fin Art is working on a host of new projects: Station 26 Brewery, a 1960-era firehouse that will make use of a stack of boxcar flooring for a bar, tables, and shelving; Former Future Brewing Company, a former medical marijuana dispensary with more futuristic design intentions and an airplane-wing bar; Masterpiece Deli's flagship store, a blueprint of future stores down the road; Denver Deep Dish, a new spot built out of an old LoHi bar; a Boulder retail shop owned by McGowan's brother that will sell curated home goods from around the world; and a forward-thinking hostel on 20th and Larimer streets in which they'll build 50 bunk beds. 
 
"You end up finding parallels between the things we end up doing," says McGowan.  "You can feel it -- it's very warm, masculine; people can tell we did it which is great exposure on it's own." 
 
And the process of connecting those parallels is still a different adventure every time -- in the end, a large part of that is figuring out how to put the pieces together. "My dad was a cabinet-maker at my age," explains Olson. "he keeps telling me that it's great to have these projects, but to make sure we're always doing something fun and interesting; to make sure this doesn't become a machine. 'It will keep your lives more challenged.' That's why every now and then we'll powder coat something new or try some different shapes. Sometimes they aren't great, but other times we wonder why we haven't done something like that all along. It's one big experiment. "

As they continue their work, leaving piece by piece of themselves throughout Denver's homes and gathering places, they make a mark on it's look -- and, more importantly, on its feel. 
 
"We want everyone we work with to be successful," explains McGowan. "It's worth it to contribute to the aesthetic and to making the community stronger -- make sure it will continue to be an incredible place. Then it's a snowball effect. If we're helping to make Denver look better and taste better, it will bring more national attention to Denver, more people will come, more restaurants will open and we'll get to work with some of them. And it's good that there are other companies like us doing this, too -- it just means there's a lot of work to be done here."

Read more articles by Samantha Alviani.

Samantha Alviani is a freelance writer and contributor to Confluence and Westword.
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