A Very Chic Woodworker Shares Her Favorite Ways To Use Natural Materials At Home
To listen to Aleksandra Zee talk about wood is to pick up a new appreciation for a material that can be easy to overlook. The Oakland-based artist is known for her signature tables, headboards, and wall décor that celebrate natural woods in all their grain and glory.
"I loved the process of sourcing it, refining it, working with imperfections," she recalls of her early days working with wood while doing visual displays for Anthropologie. "It was like I was home when my hands touched that material." In the years since, Zee has shared her art through gallery displays, in-person workshops, commissioned pieces, and Instagram posts that'll make you wish you had stuck with that wood shop class from high school.
Her new book, The Way of the Woodshop, is an intro guide to woodworking for the chisel-uninitiated. It's also a celebration of creativity, making things with your hands, and pursuing projects that light you up. Here's what Zee had to say when we chatted with her about decorating with natural materials, choosing the right wood for your space, and following your passion—even if it means going against the grain.
What do you think wood pieces add to a space from a design perspective?
From a design perspective, woodwork can go so many different ways. Something like a live-edge table that doesn't have a perfect squared-off edge can bring something organic into your space. You can also go the opposite way, with a lighter wood like ash or a dark wood like walnut that will feel more uniform and minimalist. And there are so many things you can make with wood—from tables to artwork to mirrors to light fixtures. The sky is kind of the limit.
What are some of your favorite types of wood to work with?
I absolutely love working with redwood. My favorite thing about it is its colors—the wood grain. If you were to cut a tree in half, the center of the tree is called the heartwood. That's where the wood is usually darkest. As the tree goes out, it becomes sapwood, which is lighter. When the tree was alive, that's where the sap was running through. That color changes so dramatically and beautifully with redwood: It's dark red, pink, purple, and then slowly moves out into blond, but those purply pinks and blonds kind of all weave in with one another. I absolutely love it; it makes my mouth water.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
My biggest inspiration comes from the nature I see on my travels. I feel like I'm recreating moods and scenes I have left in my memory—a warm sunrise in the desert that doesn't have much color, for example. I'll bring the feeling of being in that place back into the shop and then play around with my materials. It's almost a meditation process of tapping back into those moments.
How do you usually source your wood?
It has to be sustainable—that's really important to me. So when I buy any lumber, I make sure it's stamped with the FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, seal. The FSC is a nonprofit organization that makes sure forestry is environmentally responsible and wood comes from forests that are properly managed.
What are some best practices for people shopping for wood and wood furniture?
Ask where a company's wood is coming from—larger ones will usually know exactly if their wood is sustainably farmed. If you're shopping for materials, Home Depot and Lowe's have a selection of sustainably certified woods. Most lumberyards do as well. Look out for the FSC stamp, and if it isn't there, ask someone.
How did you first learn how to do work with wood? It's something that can feel intimidating at first.
It does seem intimidating! I first mentored with my best friend Katie Gong, who comes from generations of carpenters. She got me started and taught me the basics, but a lot of it was trial and error and figuring it out from there. One of my objectives in writing the book was to show people that going into the Home Depot or a lumberyard doesn't have to be scary. Explore, do things safely, enjoy the process, and know that you're not going to achieve perfection at first—or hardly ever.
How can people who don't have easy access to a studio space do woodworking?
If you don't have a studio accessible, a garage works. Or if you live in a warm area, you can set up a sawhorse table, which I teach you how to do in the book. You can also go to nearby schools or community colleges to ask if you can rent shop time or take an Intro to Woodworking class. That way, you can use their tools in the space and have someone guide you through it. You can also look up local workshops or adult classes. All those things are pretty available in cities and places that surround cities. You can even pull in your community—someone's gotta have a garage that has a saw!
Have you seen woodworking go more mainstream since you got started?
I think that we are in a golden age of makers and independently owned businesses. Instagram has really made it possible to have global exposure for your business. With that comes the plus and negative, always... It's tender in terms of people copying and things like that, but as an artist, you keep rolling with it and staying ahead of the curve.
What are some of your other favorite ways to bring natural materials in the home?
There's definitely wood everywhere in my home! It's a little bit of a cabin vibe. But I also bring in plants and monochromatic tones. They remind me of the high desert, which is where I feel like my soul lives. It's pretty much wood, plants, and other organic materials like cotton and linen.
How have you dealt with being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
When I first got started, I was searching for where my place was—where to earn respect. It was kind of with age and understanding that I carved out a path for myself and found confidence within that. It definitely took a while for me to not seek the approval of so many of the males in the profession of woodworking. But what did their acceptance even mean to me? It wasn't important. I wasn't making things to be accepted. I was making things because I loved them. We can all exist in a community of makers. It doesn't matter what gender you identify with. If you love someone, you do it.