“About five years ago, I began looking around and decided, ‘I have to sell all this stuff in my living room’,” says Crewe. Montgomery, who had been showing at the Chattanooga Market since 2001, was also interested in another outlet to sell his furniture. So, nearly four years ago, the two opened Area 61 on Main Street on the Southside, a gallery that has grown to include all kinds of artwork from more than 30 artists, but which still prominently features Montgomery’s signature “fishing chairs,” “book match” furniture pieces and those with natural edges, alongside Crewe’s work, much of which combines vivid colors with classic forms.
Both men also do a great deal of custom design, with Crewe recently branching out into stereo speaker cabinets, which, he says, meld his engineering expertise with his woodworking skills. Montgomery points to a piece currently at Area 61 that utilizes a hollow log as being an excellent example of how a piece of wood tells him what it wants to be.
Crewe and Montgomery agree that a new generation of woodworkers is relocating to Chattanooga and that native talent is being nurtured here as well.
The New Generation
Like the men above, Aaron Cabeen has a family history with wood. His dad was a carpenter, “and I always had a drive to use my hands,” he says. “Little did I know that he was teaching me important life and trade skills. I would regularly hear things like, ‘Be a craftsman about everything you do’. He taught me to work hard and take pride in my work.”
Cabeen’s sister introduced him to design concepts: “Theater, music, painting—she had an eye and now does home decoration,” he says.
Cabeen worked for his father every summer, honing his building skills. “We started to get some higher-end jobs with interior designers. There was something about what they did. It could literally change your mood whenever you went into a well-designed house,” he explains.
One designer began using “a couple of eccentric furniture makers who really caught my eye. She would design something and they would make it. I asked them about the work they did and they encouraged me to make my own,” he says.
Cabeen bought some portable tools and started creating furniture out of the bed of his truck. He started with an armoire and a foyer table. “Then I got jobs from the people we were already working for. They let me make a couple of things.” Cabeen’s fine attention to detail and exquisite wood choices began to generate attention.
He created tables and built-ins for local businesses, including The Terminal, The Honest Pint and the Warehouse, then eventually moved to the Business Development Center, where he continued to grow the business for three years, and completed the business development course SpringBoard. In December 2011, he moved Cabeen Originals to its current location at 206 Thornton Ave., where he continues to build furniture, specializing in hand-selected Appalachian woods, along with smaller pieces, such as mirrors, as well as custom wood interiors.
“I don’t have a degree, but I run a company and hire people. More and more people want something made in America,” he says.
Matt Sears majored in English in college before dropping out to take a job at an antiques refinishing shop in Athens, Ga. He became a shop foreman—and then, with his wife, moved to Portland, Ore., where she studied law and he worked with John Lake at the Portland Art Museum creating antique replicas.
But the South was calling, and in 2005, they moved to Chattanooga, which Sears was familiar with from outdoor activity expeditions. “Chattanooga is where Portland was 20 years ago, before all the traffic and the expensive cost of living,” he says. He got a job working at Greenlife Grocery, and then-owner Chuck Pruett hired him to build all the fixtures for the new store location.
“I started Haskel Sears Design with $3,000 and a Home Depot credit card,” Sears says. “Now I have seven employees and we do work all over town.” Known for his “pipe and beam,” postmodern style that uses reclaimed heart pine, Sears is currently working on several high-profile commercial projects: fixtures inside the soon-to-open Enzo’s Grocery and the new Flying Squirrel pub at the Crash Pad, both on the Southside. The Flying Squirrel will feature a “canoe that is also a light fixture,” Sears says.
“I am also allowed to build the things I used to do, little pieces of art,” he says. “Each year, 30 or 40 more artists of my generation are moving to Chattanooga. It’s still affordable—and they are bringing businesses and starting businesses.”