What Wood You Do?: A Lesson in Sustainable Profits

Two companies. Two ideas. Two ill-fated materials. One impressive way to turn a profit. 
While many of us temporary place some sort of pine in our living rooms to later be picked up by trash companies or -- we hope -- the recycle team, two Denver companies are taking the wood we can’t use and turning it into commercial goods.

Through their RiNo-based company, Where Wood Meets Steel, husband and wife team Ryan Dirksen and Marina Chotzinoff turn felled trees into beautiful, custom wood and steel furniture. Across town, two sisters and a brother-in-law are making memories from trees brought down by the voracious mountain pine beetle (MPB) through their company, Artifact Uprising

We’re aware these are not the only sustainable wood-based companies in Denver. In fact, Denver has a rather robust economy centered around creative wooden and sustainable design. However, in light of the holidays, we strayed a bit form twinkly lights to celebrate a few do-gooders that have found a way to turn wood refuse into memories and furniture. 

This massive dining table was made from a 10 foot long by six foot wide slab of claro walnut. Supported by blackened steel trapezoid legs.Where Wood Meets Steel
Chasing the roar of chainsaws, Where Wood Meets Steel Owners Ryan Dirksen and Marina Chotzinoff left the hilly streets of San Francisco and opened a custom design shop in RiNo that incorporates various types of wood and steel into unique, custom products.

Dirksen, who was a chef in San Francisco, always liked working with wood. Before moving Where Wood Meets Steel to its RiNo warehouse in 2011, Dirksen collected wood by chasing the sound of chainsaws and asking neighbors for their felled trees.

When Dirksen’s material heavy passion nearly squeezed his family out of their home, he Chotzinoff moved the business into a 3,000 square foot workshop.

“A lot of woodworkers buy lumber because it’s easily done,” Dirksen says. “No one takes the time to process trees. There are a lot of lumberyards here. We decided we didn’t want to compete with them. We wanted our own stash.”

Dirksen works with professional arborists, who let him know when trees are coming down. If he can, Dirksen takes the first 15 feet of the tree and brings it back to his shop, process it, designs a custom product such as a staircase, desk or dining room table and sells it to his loyal Denver market.

Dirksen got his big commercial break making custom pieces for Loft 22, a women’s LoDo boutique. Today, he works with 20 clients. Regional clients include MapMyFitness.comR+D Wine and Ross Sheppard Architects. Where Wood Meets Steel has some out-of-state clients and plenty of out-of-state wood, which Dirksen and Chotzinoff collect on stateside road trips. 
“The whole reclaimed and reused thing is big these days – as it should be – and we wanted to get behind that as well,” says Ryan Dirksen with Where Wood Meets Steel.

“The whole reclaimed and reused thing is big these days – as it should be – and we wanted to get behind that as well,” Dirksen says. 

Wood that isn’t used is burned and some materials – the steel components – come from recycled motorcycle parts. Unused steel is then recycled. 

Where Wood Meets Steel has been growing at a 30 percent clip for the last three years, and Chotzinoff’s designs and Dirksen’s creations are part of the “Design by Colorado” exhibit on the main floor of the McNichols building, exalting the artistic aspect of their designs.

“I am a big fan of having a passion for your work because you will do it better,” Dirksen says. 

Artifact UprisingCalendar made from pine beetle kill wood.
The same dry climate that helps Erikson and Chotzinoff process wood is part of the reason Colorado experiences annual summer infernos. Another reason, is the mountain pine beetle, which, according to the United States Forest Service, has destroyed more than four million acres of forest in Colorado and Wyoming since 1996. 

On Oct. 9, 2012, sisters Katie Thurmes and Jenna Walker and Walker’s husband, Matt Walker, launched Artifact Uprising, a photo book company that uses recycled materials to publish family albums, calendars and other photo-based products.  

“We wanted to create something with a voice that could do well but could do good too,” Thurmes says. 

Part of this calling included a commitment to sustainability. The interior printed book pages of Artifact Uprising’s products are 100 percent post consumer product, which is a leap from the 30 percent recycled options offered by larger competitors. The wood used in the clipboard calendars and the 9x12 photo box are beetle kill wood collected by Corbin Clay with Azure Furniture

“We live in Colorado and we spend time outside and we couldn’t sleep at night knowing we’d not done everything we could do to make our best attempt at protecting the world that has shaped so much of who we are,” says Katie Thurmes with Artifact Uprising.
“We live in Colorado and we spend time outside and we couldn’t sleep at night knowing we’d not done everything we could do to make our best attempt at protecting the world that has shaped so much of who we are,” Thurmes says.

The three Denver-based photographers got the idea for the company while trying to solve a problem for their customers. Many of them had thousands of photos on their phones, but no place to put them.

“We started thinking about the legacy of a photograph and realized those stories are best lived when shared,” Thurmes says.

Shortly after Artifact Uprising launched, a German blogger latched onto the concept, driving 40,000 unique visitors to the site during the first month.

“It was exciting, but the little girl in us was like, 'oh my word, what have we done?'” Thurmes says.

Thankfully, Artifact Uprising’s local publisher was able to scale with demand. Two months in and Artifact Uprising has approximately 6,000 users and has been noted by designers, bloggers and photographers with Martha Stewart Weddings, NotCot and Refinery29

“I think we’ll strive to use more waste materials and packaging,” Thurmes says about Artifact Uprising’s goals. “It’s not easy or convenient by any means – recycled fibers are weaker, for example – but if we can look back in five years and say we pushed other photo book companies to push more recycled products, than that’s a success.”
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Ivy Hughes is a Colorado native and coffee shop junkie. Contact her here.
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