Many artists will tell you they love working with their hands. The shaping, shifting and gradual transformation of an object into something new is, in many ways, innovation in its purest form. This is certainly true for Justin Atsidis, a local artist whose woodworking skills, design sensibilities and dedication to organic materials are synchronized with sweat, splinters and hours of hard work to create something unique to St. Louis: carefully designed tables made from wood that is shaped and crafted for each client.
Currently riding a massive word-of-mouth buzz, his coffee tables eschew the prefabricated, factory-polished and perfectly cut product of stuffy furniture stores in favor of customized creations tailored to the needs of his buyers.
Born in Pittsburgh, Atsidis moved to St. Louis in 1994. Despite his relocation to the Midwest, he has never forsaken the blue-collar Steel City ethos, which has become a key element of his work.
A working artist for just three years, Atsidis has taken advantage of the resources available to him from his day job as a landscaper and arborist. He explained how his access to unwanted and surplus wood enables him to create tables. “I have a wood supplier in Southern Missouri — a historic wood mill that has been harvesting lumber since the Civil War. The wood from there that I have used in making my current tables was cut about 80 years ago,” he says. “Most of the coffee tables I make are made with the premise that the lumber won’t deteriorate at all. Basically, they are all rough cut from oak [or other hardwoods]; nothing about it is perfect, which is the charm of it.”
As the artist explains, making art from derelict wood requires inspiration and a bold spirit to try something new. “Ten years ago, I didn’t own a tool,” he says. “Now, I am building tables that are permanent fixtures in people’s homes. I can’t explain where it comes from; I just know I get great joy in the craft.”
Luckily, fortune smiled on his venture at the right time, allowing him to reach new clients and spread the word about his exclusive creations. “Once I made my first table, I showed it to a couple of guests and they asked if I could bring it over to their house. After they found out that I was working out of my basement, they were generous and gave me their carriage house to use as my woodshop for free.”
Having a source for lumber and free studio space at his disposal allows Atsidis to focus beyond the four-day process of making tables. “Basically, I build them in my space, and then I take them home and let them sit there for a few months and eventually release them to someone who wants them. Then I hand-deliver it to them. They are numbered; I’m getting a branding iron made, and underneath the tables I’m going to brand my trademark onto them so years from now, people will be able to look at it and recognize where it is from.”
Humble and unassuming, Atsidis’s business model is rather old school. “When they buy this coffee table and are enjoying it and loving it in their home, they can pick up the phone and call me if they need a particular oil rubbed back into the top or if they need me to tighten the gaskets. I’ll show up and take care of it; I believe in the old way. When I sell one of these, I do it the old-fashioned way: I look them in the eyes and shake their hand. Then I deliver them and move them into their space and thank them for their business.”
Having no formal training, he explains how his artistic style has developed through the creative process he uses to make tables. “I have a specific, rough-cut style I like to adhere to; however, the excitement starts when I am able to source pieces of industrial hardware. For example, I just completed a 12-foot by 12-foot oak beam coffee table, which is 37 inches long and has a 125-pound bronze gear on top to rest the glass on; it is one of a kind.”
He also reflected on the personal benefits of starting his own business. “When I go and see this lumber, it is almost like I can see the finished product before I put my hands on it. Then when I go to my workspace, I go in, put on some music and let the table evolve in my hands. I also like seeing the excitement in the customer when they have seen my tables and know what I have to offer. That is a reward for all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into making them.”
With a growing demand for his work, Atsidis’s next steps include building a website and expanding his business. To see more examples of his work or to commission a table, contact him via Facebook at facebook.com/justin.atsidis. M