From ornate corbels to intricate brackets, the woodwork decorating New Orleans homes is a thing of beauty. One can spend a whole day strolling by double shotguns with candy-colored doors and shutters or riding the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and watching mansions slide by like images in a flipbook.
Matthew Holdren, a carpenter and woodworker who creates one-of-a-kind designs from salvaged material, has observed that many homes feature unique woodwork which makes them stand out from their counterparts. "I love wooden houses," Holdren says. "It's amazing that each house was redecorated over time by different people. [I] really break down and think about how much skill and artistry went into creating these homes and the decorative woodwork, which stands out the most."
The son of a carpenter (his father) and an antiques store owner (his mother), Holdren grew up in Vermont. "My mother is very much into Country Living magazine and all that kind of aesthetic," says Holdren, who became a carpenter at age 17. His furniture echoes the simple, country life characteristic of his home up North, which is countered by Holdren's minimal, even sleek design aesthetic. Playing on the idea of old versus new has always been on Holdren's mind.
He moved to Philadelphia after a few years of college. "I was a carpenter there, and I was in a band in my early 20s," Holdren says. "In between touring I would work on the side." For the past three years, he has built his business one piece at a time. "When I came down here, I was working Uptown restoring historical homes," he says. "I needed a piece of furniture for my room, and I built it. And then I built one for a friend, and it just kind of took off from there."
Dining room tables, desks and chairs comprise the menagerie of pieces in his Uptown shop, though soon he will move to a new location in Bywater. Holdren spends his days and nights scavenging salvage yards and city Dumpsters for materials. "The more serious you get about your business, the more you always have to be thinking about your future and making sure you have a good supply," Holdren says. "I'm always keeping an inventory in the back of my mind. [I'm] always looking for materials." He frequents The Green Project, where employees keep him in mind when new materials come in. "The salvage places have more specific, specialty items that are hard for me to find in Dumpsters or get from contractors," Holdren says.
Each of Holdren's pieces incorporates reclaimed materials. Recently, he completed a pantry in a Garden District home. The entire wall of asymmetric cabinets was made from old windows he cut and measured by hand. "I made my own model, and I figured out a way to interlock them and make it like a mixed puzzle piece work," Holdren says. "I used reclaimed flooring and old closet boards on the outside."
The pantry wall was a combination of his ideas and his clients'. "They showed me a Dutch designer's work, and we came up with an idea together," Holdren says. "I do a lot of back-and-forth projects like this where the client kind of has a vision but they want me to push forward with my aesthetic as well."
For the past three years Holdren has entered the Salvations contest held by The Green Project at The Shops at Canal Place. This year he won Best in Show for his A-Line chair. The design consists of just a plank of wood with no arms. "My chairs are my most artistic and sculptural pieces. There I can be the most creative," Holdren says.
The Aubrey chair has the same modern feel as the A-line chair, but the addition of arms and one other item make it stand out: Holdren used an old burlap coffee sack to cover the back of the chair. "I got about 400 of those sacks from a demo contractor," he says. "They came out of the original French Market coffee factory in the Warehouse District." Holdren says the Aubrey chair is emblematic of "this ongoing struggle of my love for country living and rustic furniture — where I started from — versus my love for modernism. I'm continually working toward that." For Holdren, the more minimal the piece, the more modern it looks.
Most of Holdren's business comes from etsy.com, a retail website where artists sell their work. A friend of his recommended he sell a dresser on the site, and then sales caught on. "For sure the Internet and technology have helped me," Holdren says. "I get about 75 percent of my business from Etsy. I'll get clients from all over the country. It's been a blessing."
Holdren was a craft vendor at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year, selling out all of his chairs. "That is an extreme amount of advertising and exposure," he says. "It's like three years of free advertising and a constant flow of people coming through."
In preparation for Jazz Fest, he set aside two weeks to build chairs and make a mock-up of his booth. The booth was reflective of Holdren and the material he used, which won him the Best Display award. The best part about the experience was meeting other artists and getting feedback from all the people, Holdren says. "I don't get to meet a lot of my clients. You're in your shop, you're doing your work and you don't know what people are going to think of your work. And then to be in an environment where you have a constant flow of people coming through saying 'Oh, I like the way this chair feels on my back,' or 'I feel like this seat could be a little longer' is very rewarding."
Other highlights on Holdren's resume include the design of two Magazine Street stores: Defend New Orleans and Friend are both outfitted with his shelves, case, tables and counters.
This line of work calls for serious dedication, Holdren says. Working long hours doing physical labor can be hard, but a sense of passion lessens the burden. "I really love what I'm doing and admire the material that I use, where it came from," Holdren says. "I love to tell that story and history of each piece."
The distinct flaws in reclaimed material imbue each piece of furniture with its own personality. "Every piece is going to be different no matter what, and each piece of wood has its own character and irregularities," he says. "There is a skill to working with reclaimed materials. You really have to respect and understand the material you're working with."