Ben McBrien designs furniture and accessories using found wood

Ben McBrien makes a wooden bowl at his studio.
Ben McBrien makes a wooden bowl at his studio. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2012

To Ben McBrien, carpentry gigs used to be something to supplement a professional surfing career. After graduating from high school, the Manahawkin native didn't go to college. He went to Hawaii. "I moved backward," he says, "through the typical path of a designer."

McBrien learned the mechanics of carpentry from his father, a former home-builder. "I've been making stuff since I was old enough to carry wood," he says. On a surfing trip to California, he tagged along to estate sales with a friend obsessed with vintage modern. "I started thinking about making this furniture," McBrien says. "I started reading about it and educating myself." Six years ago when he married and moved to Philadelphia, he started McBrien Design Carpentry and quickly earned a string of residential and commercial jobs by word of mouth. Surfing became secondary, although it's still just under the surface — McBrien uses the words awesome and gnarly freely and flees his Kensington workshop as often as he can for the Shore.

Last fall he was driving with his wife when he had a vision of Farmhaus. "I said, ‘I'm going to start this company, and it's going to be rustic modern.'?" He explains that this look — his look — is a result of experimentation, or "copying and copying and copying and messing around." He didn't do design school — "I have no credentials to back up any of my ideas," he says. "I make things because I like to" — but he is inspired by the icons.

He just sold a dining table whose free-edged top is a nod to George Nakashima and whose finger-jointed trapezoidal legs allude to George Nelson's Slatted Bench. The table's name is "George." With Farmhaus, McBrien's goal is to work on smaller pieces like this one — to build stand-alone pieces of furniture instead of entire kitchens. "I want people to appreciate the little things," he says. He wants people to appreciate the wood.

McBrien routinely fills and empties the black Ford van parked outside his garage workshop in Kensington with scraps — 300-year-old barn wood from a firewood pile in Lebanon, thousands of feet of leftover boards from a millworker friend, joist beams from a Polish theater in Fishtown. Back in his studio, McBrien tries to leave it be as much as possible. "Farmhaus is just scraps," he says. "One of the most inspiring things is how bad the wood looks in its raw form, but a millimeter under the surface is this awesome wood. It's an awesome revelation every time."

Practice makes perfect:

The house he shares with his wife and two daughters in Fishtown was his guinea pig. "Everything was a test case," McBrien says. When they first moved in (pre-kids), he set up a table saw in the living room and fixed up the house from there. Eventually the table saw moved to the basement and then to an off-site workshop.

You've seen him before:

Designer Tim Shaaban hired McBrien to help realize the rich woodwork at the Center City restaurant Jamonera that sets off Marcie Turney's squid-ink black entrees and deep-red sherries. He also worked on Noble: An American Cookery, Sumo, University City's Capogiro, and Tweed.

Most recently:

Industry Bar, which opened in June in South Philly, is the first restaurant McBrien designed and outfitted from scratch. Formerly the Witch, the space was "a Sheetrock box with Home Depot finishes, a tile bartop, and formica tables." (When he saw it "before," he told the restaurateurs, "I don't want to. I'm scared.")

Snowflake boards:

His cutting boards are each one of a kind. One will have a shallow divot; another may have a hole. One is long and skinny; another, inspired by Wharton Esherick, is prismatic. No scrap is left unturned — McBrien reuses shattered wood by soaking it in epoxy until the liquid seeps in and fills the cracks.

Caroline Tiger is a design writer in Philadelphia. Visit her blog at

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