Foot-powered and hand-crank drills, bubble levels, a rivet gun, a hammer and anvil — these are the simple tools that craftsman Ross Lunz uses to create the functional art at Skimmer Studio in New Orleans' Seventh Ward (and soon, at his new studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico). Lunz upcycles discarded materials like angle iron, aluminum and wood into lamps, stools, benches, tables and chairs, all by hand.
"My grandmother was a Depression baby," he says. "She didn't throw things away. That osmotically informed how I approach my art."
Lunz uses simple tooling but high technique to build furniture and lighting. He doesn't consider himself a woodworker, but the skill in his spline-and-dowel joinery is indicative of a true appreciation of the craft.
After graduating from college, he traveled to Japan following the 1995 6.9-magnitude Hanshin earthquake to work in construction, and later to India to pursue work as a jewelry designer. He moved to New Orleans with his wife after his graduate studies to be near his family in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and because he was looking for a cultural hub near water.
Time abroad piqued his interest in ecology, particularly the consumption of natural resources, and cultivated his preference for found materials. Many of the tools in his workshop were salvaged from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods. Lunz uses wood and metals from scrap heaps, as well as from debris that collects after storms, like the rains that swelled the Mississippi River in 2016.
"The post-flood stage Mississippi River created flotillas of driftwood," he says. "I was attracted to the forms ... the colors and the shapes resonated with me. I pulled this one plank out of the water that weighed about 150 pounds. It still had the character of the water and the sun and the dirt it had absorbed. That's the soul of that piece of wood — that's what attracts me to it."
He also uses a palette of roadwork flotsam and jetsam, automobile wreckage, decommissioned street signs, old industrial parts and broken street lights to produce functional home goods.
"I call it an infrastructural aesthetic," he says. "I like things that have to do with city infrastructure. Also, as a fireman (in New Orleans), I saw lots of torched cars. There was something about the ergonomics of the seat frames once the upholstery was burned off."
Of late, the inspiration for Lunz's benches, tables and stools is the planks of white oak left behind by citywide Sewerage & Water Board road projects. The slats of wood are used to shore up trenches dug for drainage until permanent bolsters can be poured, and are discarded after work is completed. Other than moisture-induced warping, the wood is perfectly functional.
"It's super-dense, strong and weather- resistant," Lunz says. "I had a gut reaction to its aesthetic and thought, 'I have to do something with this wood.'"
His workshop reveals a cache of found objects that he allows to "ferment" before he figures out what should go with what.
"Most things get used," he says. "It may take 15 years, but it gets used. It's all there, informing my work. Two pieces start dancing together and then they become a resolved piece. As an artist, you're taught not to care what others think, but three-quarters of my enjoyment in crafting things is seeing someone else get enjoyment out of what I've created."
He'll be showing his work during the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and Skimmer Studio will be featured on a season three episode of the Inspiration Network's Handcrafted America. Most pieces are made to order, and custom work is available upon request.