Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder, Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.
Matt Pierce is the archetype of the Portland success story: ambitious creative leaves office job to become full-time maker; or, hobby-blog evolves into viable business. But Wood & Faulk—his line of leather and canvas goods—is no cottage industry.
The growing company has just moved into a bright, airy 3,800-square-foot warehouse space in North Portland’s Eliot neighborhood, where carefully curated midcentury furniture and hand-painted canoe paddles live alongside a cadre of industrial grade sewing machines. It’s a perfect marriage of industry and design. Imagine Damien Jurado on vinyl, crooning alongside the hum of a 20-ton hydraulic clicker press, or an Eames lounger dressed in a patina of sawdust—that’s Matt’s world.
In the last four years Wood & Faulk has evolved from a personal blog of tinkering and home projects to a full scale leather goods and accessories brand, collaborations with local A-listers like Pendleton and Poler, and distribution all over North America, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Asia (without exaggeration, they are big in Japan).
The catalyst behind all of it was a mishmash frankenstein house and a rejection letter.
Flash back 15 years: Matt was living in his hometown of Wichita, KS, working as a contract negotiator and procurement buyer in the airline industry. “This is what you did,” he explains, “you got a job. One step led to another and for while it was exciting—you get a swipe card and you’re on the phone to France—but it quickly got very old.”
One of his co-workers at the time was known for his amazing whiteboard illustrations. When Matt asked about them, his colleague explained he had previously been a graphic designer but life circumstances meant he had to get a “real job.”
“I asked him how long he’d been working there and he told me, ‘12 years’,” says Matt. Terrified that he was looking at his own future, he quit within the month.
In record time, Matt sold his car and his guitar collection and went back to school to get a degree in graphic design. After only two semesters he landed a role at a Wichita studio doing web design. And that’s what he was still doing when he came to Portland in 2006.
As a designer, he was ready to work with bigger clients, and he knew it would mean leaving Wichita for a bigger city.
The shortlist was New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Portland. Portland was the only place he could feasibly purchase a home. He’s been a tinkerer for as long as he can remember—taking doors off kitchen cabinets as soon as he could reach them, and shorting electrical sockets with shielded wire. He comes from a line of builders and carpenters and at 13 his first job was welding wheel stands for a scrap yard. So having a house to take apart and reassemble was non-negotiable.
When the time came, the home he bought was a 100-year-old “tiny, frankenstein house,” says Matt. “The original structure was probably 250 square feet and everything else was built on at different times. It was previously owned by a small family that didn’t really worry about anything attractive—they just put plastic click flooring down, everything was painted avocado or salmon, to brighten up the Portland winters. It felt like 150 square feet.”
He started doing renovations and home projects, and one of those projects—a wool army blanket curtain—seemed worth sharing. So he sent it to Readymade magazine.
When they sent a polite reply saying it didn’t fit in the latest issue, he took it as a snub and decided to publish it himself on his own blog, which he promptly whipped up. When, a month later, he heard from Readymade again saying they’d feature his project in their next issue, he sheepishly retracted his bad thoughts about the magazine, and had the motivation needed to get the blog dialled before the issue came out. Named in honor of two streets he’d lived on in Kansas, Wood & Faulk was born, and it grew with a steady flow of small leather projects, woodworking, and furniture hacks.
Eventually, his personal projects started to run amok. “I had leather rolls stacked on half my bed and tools in the second bedroom. I would cut on the dining room table. It was taking over my life.” Around that time he was invited to move into the space above Beam & Anchor, and suddenly Matt had a real business with room for employees to meet the increasing demand for his leather goods.
For the next year and a half he worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs—continuing to do web design and Flash animation for brands like Nike, the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. But there comes a time, he says, when “things get larger and have more gravity, and you keep getting that feeling that this is the right thing.” For Matt that seminal moment came while filming a tutorial on making belts in his tiny backyard shed. “That minute just felt so awesome and fun and exciting—just as good as it does moving into this huge new space now.”
Much like his home, that new space is a solid reflection of his personal aesthetic—what he describes as “Old Kansas prairie, sparse Scandinavian.” He is continually bringing his agency background into the workspace. Both in terms of design and maintaining a spirit of creativity and fun. Which is fortunate because, as as entrepreneur there are no clear boundaries between life and work; and because he hopes to keep growing Wood & Faulk in the years ahead.
“As I get older I am much more enamored with the thought of building a company and employing people—like our grandparents would have. I love the idea of creating handmade, timeless things, responsibly, in America, in a way where employees are happy.”
It’s a very different picture from cubicle life in the Wichita aircraft industry, and far riskier than a steady flow of desk work. But, says Matt, “I’ve always had that gut feeling that it’s going to work, which probably leads to some unnecessary risks here and there. There are a thousand reasons not to do it. I would be much richer and probably healthier if I’d just kept doing digital work. But it just doesn’t captivate me the same way. This has always felt right.”
Bridge & Burn carries a selection of Wood & Faulk leather goods. Find them online and in our flagship store.