Independent Minds, Working Together
John Wells

John Wells '87

Builder, Designer and Co-Owner, Meyer Wells

If you want a story about how less is more, consider the undisputed success of John Wells. About 15 years ago (well ahead of today’s green curve) Wells, a custom designer and builder of furniture, began to understand that he and other members of his profession could have a profound influence on society through their choice of materials. Motivated by a deep love of nature, Wells decided that no tree would lose its life for him or his customers. Rather, he would create beauty from trees that had already fallen victim to disease, windstorms, or development.

The light came on, Wells said, when he read Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce. “I was always interested in where my materials came from,” he says, “but I hadn’t made the commitment to make a stand for the source of my work to my customers. Sometimes they had no idea what I was talking about; sometimes they belittled it as ‘feel good’ work, rejected it outright, and went elsewhere.

“But I took a stand and made those choices. People started to be attracted, leading me to where I am now.”

“Where he is now” is Meyer Wells, a custom woodworking business created four years ago with business partner Seth Meyer, and profiled last August in The New York Times. From the beginning, the business has been profitable; this year, revenues promise to top $1 million. Not only do Wells and Meyer limit the source of their materials to salvaged wood, they are also committed to using urban trees that come from a 10 mile radius of their business, located in the heart of Seattle, Wash.

“Forest trees have their own kind of stories,” says Wells, “but the stories of urban trees are uniquely human.” And letting the stories remain in the wood is part of the aesthetic at Meyer Wells. For example, the scar from nailing up a bird feeder or a child’s swing may make itself known in the center of a coffee table.

“We take the tree—guts, feathers, and all,” says Wells. “We don’t grade wood in a traditional manner. We celebrate the natural character and honor the irregularities and inconsistencies of grain that most people would reject out of hand.”

Ordinarily, says Wells, builders or designers have a mental image of a product, and then go out and find the wood that most perfectly fits their vision. “Our method is just backwards. We take what we get. We have what we have. And then we make something beautiful out of it.”

Customers of the nine-person shop range from home-owners heart-broken over the loss of a beloved tree, to commercial businesses that want to communicate a green aesthetic, to university campuses that want to honor a tree that has been removed for the sake of expansion. The business uses varnishes that are safe for its employees and customers, hand-rubbed finishes, and favors unmilled “live” edges. “Visitors to our shop can’t resist touching the edges, which have a kind of natural sensuality,” says Wells.

The company is located in the giant space of a building that once housed a Navy swimming pool. The huge windows, 24-foot-high ceilings, and wooden post and beam structure form almost a “cathedral for wood,” says Wells. The company is in the process of developing a new building materials subsidiary company, the Green Tree Mill, an 18,000-square-foot facility that will market “saved” wood directly to builders.

An English major and ceramics and art history minor, Wells was also ahead of the green curve when he was a student at Wooster. At his program house, he developed a campus-wide aluminum can recycling program and implemented the plan with a donation from Rubbermaid. Although the College had initiated a paper recycling program, this was its first effort to recycle cans, Wells said.

Particularly influential to his career and life choices, says Wells, was Arn Lewis, Wooster political science professor and art historian. “He told me, ‘Discover what you love, understand what others need, and then find a way to combine those two.’”

And what is Wells’ advice to young, environmentally-minded entrepreneurs? “Take a wandering path. Let your heart tell you where you want to go and use your hands and your head to get you there.

“You don’t always know where you want to go, but you learn a lot along the way. I'm so glad I’ve followed my heart. There is a deep, abiding pleasure that comes from knowing you’re being true to yourself.”