Gray Fox Design Works

Interview by Cory Kuklick
Issue 34 • December 2015 • Harrisonburg

For these two woodworkers, building heirloom quality pieces out of sustainable materials isn’t just a business model, it’s their approach to life itself.

Above: Kurt Rosenberger and Aaron Johnston

I stuck out like a sore thumb inside Gray Fox Design Works, home base for woodworkers Kurt Rosenberger and Aaron Johnston. It’s an odd notion to feel like a city slicker coming from a place with a population of 50,000, especially since I had only traveled ten minutes outside of town to meet with the duo. To find them, they told me to look out for a chicken coop. Instead, I ended up unsuspectingly poking around a neighbor’s property in the middle of NRA country. “Chicken coop?” the neighbor asked after seeing my intrusion into his shed. “It’s over yonder,” he said, pointing his head in the direction of what was decidedly not his outbuilding.

Finally inside, I might as well have been a kindergartener tasked with interviewing quantum physicists on how harmonic oscillators work. Suffice to say, I don’t spend much time working with my hands. Rosenberger and Johnston were aware of this, but were patient and never without a smile on their face. “Our main angle is to use local and reclaimed materials and be respectful of those materials and the craft of doing woodwork,” said Johnston, guiding me through the basics.

Gray Fox started two years ago when Rosenberger helped Johnston build his house. Rosenberger had worked as a bike mechanic for ten years; Johnston grew up making wooden toy replicas for a local shop. “I thought I could do a better job than a lot of what I was seeing on the used house market,” said Johnston. “We shot to be as energy efficient as possible.” Before the house was finished, The Little Grill Collective asked the two if they could design new tables for their restaurant. With that, Gray Fox was born.

Johnston and Rosenberger opened shop in a garage in town, but quickly realized that the weather conditions warped their materials, so they moved to their current location shortly thereafter. They also realized that their initial plans, to create their own work and sell on the open market, wasn’t the best approach. “We said to ourselves, ‘As soon as we slow down from this project, we’ll work on some of those designs,’” Rosenberger recalled, “but we haven’t really ever had a time where we’ve been so slow that we can build something and try to sell it ourselves.”

The energy efficiency that Johnston was looking for in his own house and the collateral issues of sustainability and using local materials are fundamental to the pair’s philosophy. “We’re super fortunate that we live where we do,” said Rosenberger. “It makes sense to have a completely regional stream from where you cut it down, where it’s milled, who is doing the final labor, and where it gets installed. We have so much history of woodworking and so much wood in the area, it’s almost a no brainer.”

Gray Fox works with two local mills, Dayton Lumber Mill and Willow Run, to get their wood. They also do reclaims and forage for their own material, but the goal is always the same: to use high quality, natural, and local material to create custom pieces. In numerous cases, they’ve been able to use natural wood to provide a cheaper, longer lasting, and more aesthetically pleasing options than chemically-treated mass produced lumber. “We’ve always had fun going back to a client who has a proposal for us and saying, ‘Can we use this material?’ or ‘Can we do it this way instead?’” Rosenberger continued, “It’s been fun pose those questions to get them thinking about what they want out of a given project and how can they integrate with what’s going on regionally.”

Along with working with local businesses like the Friendly City Food Co-op, Rosenberger and Johnston have created custom pieces from mail posts to liquor cabinets for private homes, all using wood found in their clients’ backyards. “I really like the diversity of what we get to do,” said Rosenberger. “Any project where the natural color of the wood is being shown feels good. Paint is fun, but I enjoy letting the wood talk for itself.”

Johnston and Rosenberger speak about the ecological concerns surrounding their work, not with animosity toward large corporations that caused the degradation they’re seeking to reverse, but rather through simple pragmatics. Why not have something beautiful, long lasting, and local for the same price (if not cheaper) than something comparable that was imported from a foreign country? “We’re not just spitting out things like a big factory,” said Johnston. “Every piece is custom. We’re trying to make things that will really last. If you’re going to invest thousands of dollars in cheap plywood, you might as well put something in that’s going to last.”

Before I finished up the interview, I asked them what they would say to someone thinking of adding an addition to their home, whether it be a new table or an entire new kitchen. The smile on their faces still hadn’t left, each allowing the other the space to answer the question first. Rosenberger broke the silence saying, “The real ecological choice is to do nothing, to ask yourself, ‘What’s wrong with the kitchen?’ We see 100-year-old beautiful cabinets getting ripped out and replaced with cheap particleboard ones. We’re like, ‘The one you’re ripping out will still outlast the one you’re putting in.’” With justifiable pride, he ended saying, “We strive to make furniture on par with 100-year-old designs that last.”

To see more of Gray Fox’s handiwork, visit them at grayfoxdesignworks.com.

Photography by Brandy Somers

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