The Maker of All Things is a God of details. He has written the story of love and care into every species and specimen, and we have the privilege and delight to uncover that narrative. Sometimes we even get to participate in the act of creation.
The makers and creators among us carry forward the pleasure of shaping stories through their own creations, and John Mitchell, owner of Oak Hill Design Company, celebrates that freedom.
Entering into the Business of Creativity
John comes from a family of self-employed brick masons and construction workers. “I grew up knowing that if you worked hard and could do what you do very well, you could be successful,” John says. While steady paychecks and benefits provide a sense of comfort and security, John wanted to strike out on his own. After his wife, Julie, opened Fig & Oak, John began to use his artistic talents to design repurposed furniture and home decor to sell in the store. The two of them would visit thrift shops and flea markets for unusual finds, and John would turn someone else’s junk into another person’s treasure.
As the store grew in popularity and sales, John’s craftsmanship began to catch the eye of friends and neighbors, who solicited his handiwork. Word spread, and more individuals began asking if John was available to design new pieces or complete renovation projects, including a custom dining room table for a neighbor (ahem, this writer), and a full-scale renovation of a historic downtown building. In May of 2020, right at the start of a global pandemic, John officially left his full-time job to begin Oak Hill Design.
At first, John was understandably worried about how the pandemic would affect demand for his work, but the government shut-downs and changes in the way people were doing business actually made it easier for John to complete many of the projects he had planned at the time, from a custom conference room table to a neighbor’s complete kitchen makeover.
“I’ve always been passionate about making things,” John says. “I love when someone trusts me to use my creativity to complete their project, when I can direct someone to a design or to something I would like to try because I think it will be a more distinct piece.”
The Resurrected Life of Reclaimed Wood
“Isn’t it just wonderful, how during the tree’s afterlife, its former hunger and yearning transmogrifies into the enduring structural integrity known as wood. Wood is a tree’s life history become something so solid that we can hold it in our hands…” writes novelist David James Duncan. “Right here in the world where every living thing dies, a fallen tree’s integrity remains so literal that if a luthier adds strings to it, we can turn the departed tree’s sun-yearning and thirst-quenching into the sounds we call live music.”
Duncan would likely appreciate another resurrection of a tree’s lifespan in the art of using reclaimed wood. Reclaimed wood is high quality, “upcycled” wood that is left when an old barn, factory, warehouse, wine cast, retired ship, or any other wood-made product reaches the end of its lifecycle and needs to be torn down. That wood has spent decades air drying, acquiring character and showing color you can’t achieve with virgin wood.
This is one hallmark of John’s work. “Reclaimed wood,” he explains, “especially wood that is older than 40 or 50 years old, is of a higher quality than the wood that is being harvested today. That in addition to the fact that some pieces of wood just aren’t available any longer makes it more enjoyable to produce pieces with this wood.”
Uncovering the Stories of Reclaimed Wood
“I also like having a story behind the materials I use,” says John. “It’s way more interesting to be able to say, ‘This wood is from the Jim Beam barrel storage barns that burned down,’ than it is to say, ‘I got this at the local big box store.’”
During one renovation project, John discovered the customer’s wood paneling was actually solid maple. Rather than ditch the planks he had to take down for the renovation, John kept the material for use later on. When completing the bar area of the customer’s kitchen, John sanded down and refinished the maple planks to incorporate them into the countertop. This attention to detail is a defining quality of John’s work, and the pieces he creates become talking points for his customers from that point onward.
Craftsmanship Creates Connection
“It’s cool being able to make something, do something, and give something to people they love,” John says. When you live in a small town, you run into the same people all the time. You visit the same places. Your friends become your customers. It’s a pleasure to be able to create something for your friends and neighbors to enjoy.
Some of John’s favorite projects are the ones where he’s been granted artistic freedom to design something unique. “The dining room table with legs made with ‘W’s comes to mind—it was also one of the first commissioned pieces I got paid for. I also just completed a bar for South Street Grille,” John says. “They had a general look they wanted but were pretty open to my creativity, so I created a Shoshugibon bar (a Japanese process of burning cedar as a preservation measure), with a two-tone ash bar top, and hidden lights that illuminate the face of the bar. I also just finished my first ‘fine furniture’ piece, which was a commissioned bookcase made out of Walnut.”
Small business ownership comes with its own set of challenges alongside the pleasures and delights. The uncertainties can be challenging. “There’s a lot less predictability,” John says. “It requires a lot of faith that everything is going to work itself out. But somehow, it always does.”
That faith carries both John and Julie forward. “I love that we both love what we’re doing. We can both express ourselves and our creativity.” It’s talent put to great use.
Visit Oak Hill Design Co. on Facebook to follow John Mitchell’s works-in-progress.