Jeff Soderbergh’s business was started by an accident. During a daily walk through Boston, he happened to pass a brick warehouse that was being demolished. He noticed the gorgeous, arched windows and asked the foreman if he could have one. While the foreman was surprised, he told Jeff that he could take as much as he could carry. Call it lucky timing. With a background in anthropology, Jeff had always been drawn to primitive art and it was from that day on that he fell in love with the history of buildings, and the materials and times they represented. “I always tell people that it seemed like a simpler time and craftsmen and tradesmen of the day had deep pride in their work,” Jeff told RecycleNation. “It translated to both the selection of the materials and the skills with which they crafted things. Seemingly ordinary items, like lightning rods on a rooftop or a boiler housing in a basement, had intricate carved patterns and details which mattered to only the ones building it. These details are everywhere in the buildings from the 1700s-1920s. If you slow down or turn your gaze sideways you might catch them. I thought it was important to show people that they were not only useful but beautiful as well.” For the past 24 years, Jeff’s business has grown from that particular day and he focuses on sustainable furnishings and works of art made from reclaimed materials. Pieces from historical structures, such as antique wood, metal, glass and stone, have all been transformed into unique items. “If we can think it, we can build it,” he said. As far as sourcing the materials, it’s all about the network and relationships that Jeff has built through the years. Most everything is regional and within a five-hour drive from his studio in Newport, Rhode Island, or pieces that came to the region years and years ago. He also receives calls from a homeowner or builder to see the materials of a historic building being removed. Most recently, Jeff collected planks from the Coney Island boardwalk and has created several projects with the material that he calls “incredible.” Most notable is the design of the Tommy Bahama store and restaurant/bar located in the historic Fred French building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Working with architect Michael Neumann, Jeff provided many thousands of feet of wood with a great story and character for the beautiful floor to ceiling window louvers. Milled over a century ago, the specific wood is called ipe (pronounced ee-pay) and it’s from the Amazon basin. Often used outdoors as decking or siding, ipe is one of the densest hardwoods available and is three times harder than cedar. It has the same fire rating as concrete and steel and doesn’t float in the water like other wood. So it only makes sense that it was used as a boardwalk for its durability and resistance to rot and decay. According to Jeff, the builders of the Coney Island boardwalk chose wisely, as many of the timbers he collected show very little wear after being on the beach in Brooklyn for 90 years. Jeff said, “How many people walked on it, got engaged or married on it, celebrated life or the death of a loved one along those planks. ‘Under the Boardwalk’ was written about it so what more can you say?” The planks have also been used for flooring, decks, outdoor dining tables and a boardwalk for a seaside landscape design. His latest creation is a ring chair that you can hang outside or in (similar to a round hammock), which you can find in his showroom, located in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The showroom also features a gallery and sculpture garden. While many pieces sell from the showroom floor, most of his work is commissioned for a specific space or use. Jeff says the best place to start is with the conversation. “I ask my clients what they are looking for and what turns them on,” he explained. “From there, I can go in a variety of directions to end up with a very unique piece that you will have for many generations to come.” Through the years, Jeff has used so many other notable historic materials that it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight. He’s been using parts from the hull of the Schooner Yacht Coronet, which is being painstakingly restored at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island. Built in 1885, the pieces of wood that Jeff is using are embedded with copper, bronze and brass spikes. He said that with these details it will look like a starry night when he is finished with his current project. Additionally, Jeff has reclaimed materials from the Corne House (also in Newport), which was built circa 1820. According to Jeff, Michel Felice Corne was a painter from Italy who was most known for his epic sea battles, however, he painted marine scenes, portraits and interior decorations, such as fireboards and murals, in his home studio. Jeff uses the kitchen floor boards and beams in addition to floor boards from his studio where he created his masterpieces. From the Vanderbilt family stable, just outside of Newport, he uses timbers to create vintage-style harvest tables, one of his most sought-after designs. But he also works with a variety of stunning windfall trees that have come down in storms through the last 20 years for his dining and console tables as well. He told us that he has a lead on a large piece of cherry tree that is said to have been planted by George Washington at Mt. Vernon. He notes that getting the materials is as fun as making the pieces. “I still get excited to be around these materials and love introducing them to others,” Jeff said. “I would like my work to have a thoughtful impact on the world that we all share, with a nostalgic connection to our past, and to be beautiful.” When asked what Jeff’s biggest accomplishment is, he was quick to answer that it has been raising his two sons with his wife, Natasha. Second to that, he asserted that it’s staying focused on building beautiful pieces that he is still in love with making for all of these years. “Think responsibly about what kind of world we are leaving behind for the next generations,” he concluded. “If you don’t see what you are looking for in the marketplace, get in touch with an artist and strike up a conversation about having it made. Buy local, be positive and radiate kindness. It does make a difference.”
Jeff Soderbergh: Creating Works of Art Using Reclaimed Antique Materials
Newport, Rhode Island-based artist Jeff Soderbergh uses old wood, metals and more to make beautiful works of art.