One day, brothers Zeb and Ted Esselstyn had an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to them that every year, hundreds of historic Connecticut trees were meeting an unceremonious end. After being removed or failing due to old age or weather, these trees were being chipped, turned into mulch, or deposited in anonymous landfills. Seeing an opportunity to turn this waste stream into a value stream, the brothers formed City Bench. In simplest terms, City Bench is a small company that turns reclaimed trees into beautiful pieces of furniture. But in reality, it’s much more than that. They are a forward thinking business with a passion for sustainability whose products represent an intersection of history, storytelling and functionality.
A Sense of History
For many, furniture is furniture. It’s something that you sit on, store clothes in or rest your coffee on. For the Esselstyn brothers, furniture has become a way to connect with our past through pieces built from wood with rich backstories. one example is the Ivoryton Maple, a large sugar maple that stood in front of the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT and shaded generations of acting legends – from katherine Hepburn to Marlon Brando – while they mastered their lines under its canopy. When the tree came down in 2009 the management of the playhouse hated to see the historic maple decay in a log dump. Fortunately, City Bench was able to retrieve it and created a beautiful rail back bench from one of the logs. The bench now sits inside of the playhouse to be used and enjoyed by patrons who appreciate the sense of history that it represents.
The pieces produced by City Bench at their shop in Higganum, CT are true works of art created by their talented staff of local artisans. Many of their pieces incorporate “live edges” that maintain the original flow of the wood while highlighting the woods natural textures, color and grain. The wood used to make their furniture comes from a variety of sources including the city of New Haven who earmarks a number of trees every year for City Bench that would otherwise be discarded. City Bench has also forged partnerships with a number of institutions such as Yale University where they recently acquired 15 historic trees from the campus including a rare, 100+ year old ginko tree. With the help of students who have become powerful advocates of this green business model, City Bench is in talks with a number of other schools who are looking to extend the lives of their beautiful, historic trees.
Willard Brothers Sawmill, in Trenton NJ, is another company that views sustainability as the cornerstone of their business. Willard Brothers was established over 40 years ago by Samuel Willard, a visionary who saw the opportunity of utilizing the logs and cutoffs from his tree trimming business. He would use these logs to create one-of-a-kind beautiful natural edge slabs, a product that has found appeal among artisans and craftsmen to this day. Previous clientele even include the late george Nakashima, an artist who’s highly regarded work is centered on the concept of respect for trees.
These days Willard Brothers continues to cut unique lumber and slabs, and can turn them into an heirloom dining table, bookshelf, bowl or chair. It is a place one can visit and let their creative senses run free, whether commissioning a piece, or planning their own projects.
By keeping in mind what’s best for both the environment and their customers, City Bench and Willard Brothers seem to have struck a perfect balance with their businesses.