19 Dec Wake Up and Smell the Succulents: Building a Living Table for Bird Rock Coffee
Let’s just say that Ryan Benoit, my partner-in-everything-actually, brings a lot to the table. Among them: plants.
You might already know that he’s been designing beautiful living tables for some time now. Back in 2008 I’d proposed we create a living wall of succulents after seeing a tutorial about it in Elle Décor and after our friends the Banzalis got married in front of one. But Ryan — more interested in replacing an unimpressive patio table — proposed designing and building a table bursting with aloes, lithops, cacti and crassulas instead.
In the spring of 2009, Ryan built his first living table out of construction-grade (Douglas fir) lumber, around the same time we started taking interest in gardening. That led to a low-slung white pine/brushed nickel indoor coffee table which led to a tall but compact wheel-able kitchen islet, both adorned with air plants. And then there was the balcony table that he premiered at the West Edge Design Fair last year, that now lives at our friend’s place in Culver City.
Through the years a lot of friends and family have asked him to recreate his furniture for them…but time and space weren’t really on our side.
This beautiful baby is eight feet long and crafted with sapele hardwood. But the specs don’t do justice to the way this table just glows next to the shop’s breezy, garage-style window. Not to mention the mix of pride and nervousness that comes with doing a commission for one of our favorite coffee shops in the world, our AM essential, and Roast magazine’s 2012 micro roaster of the year.
Ryan recently took me to see it, and I was blown away. (And strong-arming strangers into putting coasters under their cortados.) So, in a Horticult first, I interviewed Ryan about the process behind creating this table: the dramas, the drills, the plants he planted and why, and what’s next…
How did this project come about?
This is my first commission, actually, and I couldn’t have been more excited to make it for my favorite local coffee shop. After our friend Jocylynn Breeland (BRCR manager and quality control guru) set things in motion back in September, BRCR owners Chuck and Elke contacted me about designing and building a “community table” for their new location in Little Italy. Chuck and Elke had seen some photos of my tables on our blog and were interested in a one-of-kind centerpiece table for their new shop. We invited them over to the house to see the living tables in person. Up to that point, I had built six living tables (five are at the house, and one is on a friend’s balcony). I constructed each a bit differently and consider all to be prototypes; I’ve been experimenting with different ways of joining the wood and different planter inset and base designs.
Chuck and Elke decided on a design similar to our indoor living coffee table. So I took to the sketchbook and presented a new design that met their specifications. By mid-October I was sourcing the wood and by mid-November Chuck and I were loading the table into the back of his 1960 Volkswagen Single Cab to deliver it to the coffee shop.
How would you describe the table? And why is it great for a coffee shop?
All my living tables are solid wood butcher-block style tops. The centers are cut out to form a planter inset. I spent a lot of time designing the shape of the planter inset to flow with proportions of the top. Another important aspect of the design is the continuous boards running the length of the table. For me, the continuity of the grain preserves a natural feel behind the squared lines of the top. The smooth top also complements the sculptural but slightly more unruly and ever-changing succulents.
I think having a living table with plants as a centerpiece in a coffee shop helps to remind people that it’s about the plants! The dried and roasted beans of Coffea arabica are brewed and served in almost every menu item. And then you’ve got the plants in the herbal teas. So many modern coffee shops can have great design, but can also be very cold without plants. This living table is modern design with a pulse. The plants play an equal part in the table’s design and will change how the table looks through the months and years. I think loyal customers will enjoy seeing the table change through the years.
What were the biggest challenges in the design?
The biggest challenge was size. The table needed to be 8 feet long by 28 inches wide. And in order for it to be a suitable planter it needed to be at least 3 inches thick, which makes for a very heavy tabletop. When Chuck and I settled on sapele (a dense African hardwood), it became a monster. Gluing the table was by far the biggest challenge; I had to build a very large jig for the task. Getting the table near perfectly flat across felt like a miracle in the end.
Food safety was also an important challenge in this design. Chuck and Elke wanted a raised stainless steel lip around the planter inset to make wiping down the table easy and to prevent crumbs from being pushed into the plants. To meet their needs, I designed the planter inset to be entirely removable and constructed it out of stainless steel to resist corrosion. Getting the planter to fit nearly perfectly into the table’s inset was very tough. I’m excited about the removable planter design for this indoor table and I think I would make it again if needed. I like that it allows the planter to be removed for cleaning or for gardening away from the table. The planter (lip height) is adjustable from 1 inch above the tabletop to flush with the surface.
What materials and finishes did you use, and why did you choose them?
We chose sapele wood for its superior durability (it’s twice as hard as mahogany) along with its rich color and beautiful ribbon grain pattern. I constructed my previous tables out of Douglas fir, white pine and sipo. It was a pleasure to work with such a stable hardwood, and the grain pattern is captivating. I would definitely use it again. The top is finished with coats of urethane to seal the wood and bring out the beautiful grain while also resisting wear from heavy use at the coffee shop.
The planter and base frame are stainless steel. While a bit more difficult to weld than mild steel, the stainless steel planter will not rust from the moisture of the soil or leach chemicals. The table base is also stainless steel, matching the aesthetic of the coffee shop while also requiring minimal maintenance.
Did you get any help making the table?
Yes! Having the table in construction for nearly a month at the communal workshop MakerPlace gave extra meaning to this “community table” project.
There is no way I could have had success without some of the guidance and handiwork from friends and fellow makers at this shared membership-based workshop. It was reassuring to receive encouragement along the way from veteran woodworkers like Corey Froschheuser (Arboriform) and Nelson Burbage, among others. The talented Pearson Courtney (skilled maker and also shop tech/instructor) fully took on welding the planter and constructing the base. He (thankfully) encouraged me to learn the 3D modeling tool SketchUp to convey my design. I have to thank my friend (and experienced craftsman) Gary Welsh for slowing me down on the glue-up and preventing a near 200-pound disaster. And after struggling to obtain a streak-less topcoat finish with a brush, fellow maker Quinn Becker (do check out his brilliant planter-filled Etsy page) showed me how to use a paint spray gun and ended up just spraying the table’s final coat of urethane for me!
What are the plants, and why did you choose them?
For the plants, Chuck wanted to keep the arrangement minimalist, at least to start, so I chose small succulents with low profiles and strong visual interest. I brought in two aloe cultivars, ‘Quicksilver’ and ‘Pink Blush,’ which caught my eye at the nursery. I’ll look forward to their poker-like blooms next fall. I also planted some of our succulent favorites: baby toes (Fenestraria rhopalophylla) and living stones (Lithops), which can be a bit difficult to grow, but we’ll see how they do. I planted a hardy sempervivum (meaning “always alive”) and Jovibarba species to give spherical shapes to the table. The Kalanchoe marmorata brings a certain wild spirit to the table with its jaguar spots on its paddle-shaped leaves. Finally, the Haworthia turgida and Haworthia attenuata provide some spiky leaf texture.
How did it feel when you saw your table being used for the first time?
To be honest…I felt self-conscious! I felt like people sitting at the table were noticing the small imperfections. But hopefully not. Maybe instead they are enjoying chatting over an aloe or enjoying the succulent backdrop behind their laptops. I really couldn’t be happier to make a table for a public coffee shop that I can visit and help take care of the plants!
I would love to make a batch of these tables and starting selling them on my website. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that this table for a month consumed almost every free hour outside my day job, this blog, and those few hours of sleep that I need each night. The good news is that I made contact with artisans who could probably build the entire project for me in the future. There are many different versions of this table that I’ve designed in my head that would like to someday make, commision or license.