Crafting more than furniture - Water Street Coffee

Crafting more than furniture


Sitting down for a coffee, you can almost feel the presence of those who’ve passed through Water Street over the years. Every subtle ding, scratch or scuff mark adds to the patina of the furniture and holds its own story. Working with our old friend and Master Woodworker Rob Chamberlin, newly-crafted furniture in the salon at our Oakland Café is now ready for a whole new era of stories.

Decades in the making

While the furniture only took a few months to design and build, the story began many years ago when our paths crossed with Rob. In 1993, we opened our original Coffee Joint at the intersection of Water Street and East Kalamazoo Avenue, and that part of town was quickly becoming an epicenter for commerce. Rob was often drawn to this part of town and shared, “Energetically, there’s something really special about this little part of town.” Many mornings he found himself meeting up with coworkers for a coffee before heading off to a job, and over the years he made a network of lifelong friends while visiting Water Street.

Fast forward a decade or two, and Rob was sharing shop space in the building behind our downtown location with local carpentry and bluegrass legends Rock Bartley and Scott Spink. While it created great synergy for working together, he found himself needing a place to call his own. After eyeing a vacant spot in the same building that was connected to his current space, he decided to pack up his tools and set up shop next door to his friends.

Rob’s new home was in the very same location where Water Street first started roasting coffee. Many remnants from the early days could still be found in the space. The color scheme on the walls matched that of our cafés, and you could even see the patched-up hole in the wall where the smokestack for the roaster once vented. Today, if you glance at Rob’s workbench, you’ll find an aged photo of Mark Smutek, our owner and president, roasting coffee right where the bench now sits.

It’s all in the details

With all of the shared history, there was no lack of inspiration while crafting the furniture for our Oakland Café salon. Rob had made the nesting stool tables for our Portage Café and the conference table that lives at our Roasting Facility. While there is a cohesion that emanates across all of our locations, each has its own distinct identity; and it was important to reflect this in the furniture. Working closely with our Creative Director Kirsten Field, who has been with Water Street throughout much of our journey, Rob and his Collaborator Kate Wilke thought through every detail of the furniture.

The wood they chose was ash. It has many characteristics that not only make it aesthetically pleasing, but also a good sturdy wood for constructing furniture. It’s lighter color complemented the room and would help to brighten things up. Ash was also an eco-friendly choice, as the market is flooded with the wood right now. Even more, using it in the furniture was doing our small piece to preserve the wood. With ash trees being decimated by the emerald ash borer, it’s likely these trees won’t be around for future generations.

Just like roasting brings out the character in a coffee bean, the proper finish can bring out the character of the wood. A plant-based oil and wax sealer from the German company Osmo was used to finish the wood, giving it a pleasant feel and appearance. Using a similar process that was common 100 years ago, it is not only environmentally conscious, but also food safe and easy to renew.

Determining the design of the furniture involved just as much thought. Rob commented on the process, “It’s not just how things are made, but I like to think about why we are making these things. What’s the purpose?” The end result was a simple and sturdy, yet stylish design that fit the flow of the room. Exposed joinery yielded an honest, durable look, with a softened slope to the arm for resting comfort. While the wood provides the base, we can’t overlook the upholstery. After all, what’s a good chair without a good cushion? Our friends at Vanderberg Upholstery, who we’ve worked with for many years, helped make cushions that were both comfortable and durable for standing up to the riggers of a coffee shop.

The end result is loungey, while still allowing for people to be able to eat, drink, work, and socialize comfortably. Rob shared, “At the end of the day, I think of it this way. Everything that I do, I try to make sure that it creates joy.” We couldn’t agree more and hope that the new addition to our Oakland salon brings joy to many, along with countless new stories.