Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
One New Orleans native turns reclaimed wood into one-of-a-kind furniture, preserving elements of the city's rich history.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it damaged more than a million housing units—half of which were in Louisiana. Houses and shops were submerged in more than 10 feet of water. In New Orleans, more than three-quarters of residents needed their homes repaired. Other buildings were gutted, remodeled, or simply demolished. New construction removed old materials in favor of more current ones.
To Alex Geriner, a New Orleans native and founder of Doorman Designs, that meant throwing out more than just scraps of wood. “The materials have a ton of history to them, and it kind of broke my heart to see all this stuff going to waste,” he says. “I realized there is a story there that needs to be saved.”
So he started making them into furniture, working with contractors and demolition companies to turn reclaimed wood and metal scraps into headboards, tables, chairs, and dressers. Some materials are salvaged from hurricane-damaged buildings, while others come from historic houses that are being renovated. Geriner says some of the wood he uses dates as far back as the 1800s, before the Civil War.
The result: stylish and classy furniture with—as Geriner described in an Instagram post—“just the right amount of NOLA grit.” The furniture he and his team make has a rustic look to it. Some pieces still have termite holes and old nails in them. They’re marked with metallic embellishments reminiscent of New Orleans’ French-inspired traditional designs. One lamp was conjured from a screw jack used in the 1920s to lift railroad equipment. A dining table top came from an abandoned home in the neighborhood of St. Roch, the iron legs from the balcony railing of a 1860s house in the historic Garden District.
“It's just like the city of New Orleans,” he tells CityLab. “It’s a fun, interesting, kind of off-the-wall but slightly put-together piece that makes you take another look at it and ask questions.”
Which Geriner does. Each time he buys a stack of reclaimed wood, he digs up property records and any other information he can find on the house it once belonged to through the Library of Congress. The wood he used to make one one of his bed frames, for example, came from a small grocery store built in the mid-1800s and destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. When a demolition team went to tear down the tiny shop, they saw that the walls had been lined with newspaper dated 1866.
“What's cool about this wood is that it's all barge wood. Not only was it used to build this grocery store, but it was part of an old barge,” Geriner says. Barges floated down from the northeast in the 1800s, carrying freight to America’s newly acquired land following the Louisiana Purchase. But there was no way of sending them back up. “So [the settlers] would take them apart and sell them to build brand new houses,” he says. “It looks like [just] an old piece of wood, but if you start digging a little deeper it makes you feel really small [and] really good that you're contributing to the story.”
Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a hub for salvaged materials, which are used to make everything from furniture to art installations to decor for restaurants and bars. Geriner started his craft shortly after graduating from college and settling back in the city. He wanted to furnish his home—an apartment from the 1880s—but the furniture from his old dorm didn’t match the bones of the place. So he decided to make his own using woodworking and design skills he’d learned from his parents.
Geriner made an antique headboard using an old door. Then he made another one for a friend, and another for a different friend. Soon, he was selling handmade furniture on Etsy and eventually made enough money to quit his 9-to-5 job at an advertising agency to start Doorman Designs.
“I don't know if I would've had the inspiration of this city anywhere else,” he says. “Yes, you can find reclaimed wood in other cities, but New Orleans does a better job than almost any other place I’ve visited in embracing weird, perfect, funky originality.”