Originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.
For an expat of those wide-open spaces that surround our Flower City, nostalgia paints memories of driving down backroads scattered with farmhouses and fields. The weatherworn beams of old barns sprout from the earth like the ruins of a forgotten time. Perhaps it’s this nostalgia that anchors Brooklyn-based brothers William and Andrew Sapienza. Originally from Bergen, Genesee County, they made their way to a furniture design company, albeit in a roundabout way.
A few years ago, older brother William packed up to move to Brooklyn. He accepted a job catering photoshoots for companies like Macy’s and J. Crew. “I didn’t move down here to start a furniture design company, in any way,” he laughed. But a conversation with his boss about the growing reclaimed wood furniture trend turned to inspiration. “It occurred to me, I’m from a farm town,” he said. As he thought of those ramshackle countryside barns, the wheels started turning. “These old barns — people look at them as more of a liability,” he said. “They’re not really looking at it as possible art or anything that would be useful.” So, with the help of an instructional YouTube video, he built his first table out of reclaimed barn flooring.
Andrew was interning in Washington D.C. at the time but quickly joined the effort. He sold some pieces in the capital, but as his internship drew to a close, he was left with two options: “It was either go back to Rochester, or move in with your brother in New York,” said William. So to Brooklyn he went, and pitched in with everything from design to sales and marketing.
Today, about two and a half years later, Sapienza Design works out of a full shop in Greenpoint with a collaborative designer. Their lumber comes from upstate. They’ve acquired some from their grandfather’s stock. He owned a tree service, and they use some of the lumber he milled in their higher-end line, named Muldoon after him. It’s sentimental to the brothers, and with some this heirloom walnut, they’ll build a table with inlay and engraving for the family to use in cabin he built in the Adirondacks.
But in many cases, they pull what they can from a barn, store it at their parents’ house in Bergen, and ship it to the shop as needed. Even in its new life as a table or stool, the wood retains its weathered look. This is the unique character customers are seeking. “We try to accentuate that,” William said. “The knots, the old nail holes, everything just really sets it apart from anything else out there.”
When it comes to inspiration, it all goes back to those country barns. “Just to sit back and stare at the real thing, and have that image trapped in your mind when you come back down to the city, or you walk into our shop and see those boards that you saw when you were back home, it’s inspirational,” said William.