"Timeless but modern" is a well-worn, almost meaningless cliche when it comes to design. But for furniture maker Brian Volk-Zimmerman, the phrase actually makes sense. Under the moniker Volk, Brian inflects his classic wooden pieces with a contemporary Brooklyn accent, adding fabric drawer linings, knobs made of found objects, and vividly painted patterns to his chairs, credenzas, and tables.
Turns out that Brian's ties to traditional furniture-making extend beyond the Civil War-era warehouse in Brooklyn where he makes his pieces. Indeed, his great-great-great-great grandfather, John Volk, was a designer too—not only did he make chairs, but he was known locally for such innovations as a dog-powered lathe. Yet it wasn't until after Brian studied figurative painting at RISD—and played with a rock band called The Merkin Project—that he found out about this legacy. “My parents didn't clue me in to this part of my ancestry until I was well into making furniture," said Brian. "I thought, ‘Now, I understand a little more about why this process clicks with me.’”
Atlantic Side Table features a vintage pump iron drawer pull and is lined with striped fabric.
Brian speculatively launched Volk as part of the Brooklyn Design Cooperative booth at the ICFF in 2011. “I wasn't entirely sure how my first pieces would be received, and was hoping ICFF would just help me make some contacts for custom work," he explained. Luckily, his boss let him use the shop on nights and weekends. "By the December after the show, the amount of work I'd gotten outside my day job was too much to handle, so I decided to go out on my own. ... When you don't have investors or much savings to lean on in starting a business, that's kind of how you have to do it.”
The Dean Credenza with Storage Unit is solid ash with ash veneer and hand-painted details.
For Volk’s second year at ICFF, Brian debuted his hand-painted pieces. “I wanted to do something really different than I’d done the previous year, while still maintaining the integrity of the pieces." He continued, "I thought of folk art, and folk painting on furniture, which is oftentimes associated with sort of a cheap country aesthetic. You know—country houses but not fancy country houses. I wanted to concentrate on bringing those ideas to more modern designs.”
Of course, Volk’s painted patterns evoke only the most geometric and minimalist interpretation of folk art, the inspiration for which came largely from his work with fabrics, like the vintage shirting fabrics he uses to line the drawers of his cabinets. It’s easy to see Pendleton is a Volk favorite.
Geometric Tables are a set of six modular, solid ash pieces, hand-painted and finished in oil and wax.
While Brian's company is a one-man brand, he has been sub-contracting work on a project by project basis to other makers increasingly in the past year. Most everything is made at the Red Hook warehouse co-op, but as Volk’s presence grows, he’s looking toward manufacturing with collaborators on an ongoing basis. “With other manufacturers, I could incorporate a lot more metal, copper, and some concrete.” Brian foreshadowed some collaborative lighting pieces in Volk's future.
“Coming from an arts background, you tend to approach things a little more conceptually than ‘This is a chair, this is a credenza.’ But I’m very cognizant of my pieces being completely functional, and straightforward enough to fit with someone's home. I'm surprised at the level of interest [the painted pieces] have gotten. I was absolutely terrified at the ICFF when I launched them. But, I think that's good. You should never be too comfortable with what you’re putting out there.”
"Drawer to Keep Something Safe From Flood," above, and "Sandy Chest," below, are one-of-a-kind pieces made of reclaimed scrap materials found on the streets after Hurricane Sandy. Produced for Reclaim NYC's Hurricane Sandy fundraising efforts. Sold at auction.