A crane swings over a giant black walnut tree in Torrance while a crew scrambles over branches and prepares to free the massive trunk from the spot where it's stood for the past 250 years. “You have to have faith that you’re going to find inspiration as you make the cut,” says Ryan Silverman, a dervish of creative energy in orange lumberjack chaps with a smoker’s laugh that sounds a bit like the chainsaw in his hands.
Eileen O’Dea stands with the crew and watches closely, dreaming of the furniture, jewelry and other works of art she'll create from the precious limbs dangling overhead.
“The cut was smooth and it couldn’t have gone more beautifully. Everybody went silent as it ascended in the sky. It was amazing,” she says. “And when you’re there, and you get to see the tree where it lived and you can see the cuts and where the furniture and other art will come from – it’s emotional for us.”
O’Dea and Silverman founded Studio E&R to pursue their vision of hand-worked wooden heirlooms, and own one of the biggest slabbing mills in Southern California. The mill is portable enough that they have hauled it down the road to Torrance, where they spend the rest of the day slicing the giant walnut into slabs up to 7 feet wide. Each slab weighs about 1,000 pounds, and will be loaded into a truck for the trip back to Studio E&R’s workspace in Gardena. A team of woodworkers will haul the dense slabs out to measure and catalog, then stack them off the main floor to dry.
Like the towering trees themselves, furniture from Studio E&R represents years of growth and patience. “A woodworker’s rule of thumb for drying is one year per inch,” says Silverman, looking at the 3-inch-thick slabs they just cut from the black walnut. “We have clients who are absolutely open to waiting a year or two if they fall in love with a piece. It’s Mother Nature — sometimes you just have to wait.”
“There’s nothing more beautiful,” O’Dea says of the raw wood from which both take their inspiration. “I didn’t think I was ever going to make something like this,” says O’Dea, a former private chef, yogi and health and fitness instructor. She met Silverman at a farmers market one morning and they felt an immediate connection, though both joke that he really fell in love at first sight with her dog.
“When I met Ryan and got to know him and what he can do, our two tornados came together and we figured out how to create something,” O’Dea says. She learned to run the saws and plan the cuts, but she also takes the lead in designing new products. “Eileen is brilliant at finding a million and one ways to make something beautiful that people will want, people will keep, people will protect and that they will hand down,” Silverman says, reflecting the couple’s hope that Studio E&R can push back against what they see as a disposable culture.
“We wanted to make the kind of things our parents and grandparents had and that they still use,” O’Dea says, describing spoons, rolling pins and bowls she remembers from childhood. “Maybe not everything we make is that, but we want to make at least a few of those — something that brings love in your heart and that you keep for years and years and pass on because it’s so special.”
“It can be difficult to remind people that our parents did not have IKEA to go to,” Silverman adds. Their handmade cutting boards, boxes and accessories just whet the appetite for more ambitious projects. O’Dea treasures the big trees that come to the studio, and says you never know when you’ll get another chance at a beautiful piece of material. “Taking big trees out and then making heirloom pieces of furniture? That was our dream, and now our dreams are coming true.”