How people — and finely crafted furniture — leave an indelible imprint on our lives
ON THE FRONTLINES
By MIKE NICHOLS | May 2020
Many years ago, in the mid-1990s, my wife and I owned an old bungalow with an expansive, screened-in front porch in Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood — only the screens were old and rotting.
You can’t just run to Home Depot to buy screens for a 100-year-old home with a porch like no other. So, we had to find a woodworker, who turned out to be a guy in his 30s named Peter with a business called Sylvan Studios.
We went to Peter’s shop in Wauwatosa, and he agreed to fix and rebuild the oddly shaped screens for an amount that I remember only as being fair. He dropped off the screens one day, and we put them in place. And Jane and I went on to spend many hours sitting on that porch with our babies and toddlers and — on particularly mosquito-laden days — thanking God for well-built screens.
It’s funny how and where people leave an imprint and — even though we sold that house over 20 years ago — how long it can last.
About 18 months ago, John Stollenwerk — you might recognize him as former owner of Allen Edmonds shoes — introduced me almost in passing to another woodworker, a guy named Ian, and told me I had to visit his shop.
I had only that one other time been in a woodworking shop and wasn’t sure why John wanted me to visit Ian’s. But I took Ian’s card, shoved it in my pocket and put it out of my mind for a month or two until I found it one day and decided to give the guy a call.
From engineer to woodworker
Ian’s studio, Sustar Woodworks, is on East Nash Street in an old machine shop in a reemerging pocket of Milwaukee known as Riverwest. Barely in his 30s, Ian is working an age-old endeavor — building fine, handmade furniture that the aficionados would say fits in the Shaker style with a nod to Arts and Crafts.
He was working on a 9- or 10-foot-long table, teasing out the patterns in what looked like walnut, when I entered. I knew that he had graduated from Marquette University and worked as an engineer for a while in Chicago before he got into woodworking, and I asked how that came about.
His dad, he said, was a woodworker before he died. Ian was 10 at the time.
“Ian,” I said, that old imprint only then returning to me, “if you don’t mind my asking, how did your dad die?”
I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection until just then. Maybe it was the passage of years, maybe the fact I’d never dwelt much on Peter’s — or Ian’s — last name.
“Ian,” I said, “I knew your dad.”
Although I’d never talked to Peter after he made the screens, Jane and I occasionally saw him from a distance at Church of the Gesu on the Marquette campus with his wife and five kids. I knew he had a bunch of children — a fact that made it all the more tragic and stunning when I opened the newspaper one morning in August 1999 and saw the story.
“Lake Michigan swimmer’s body found — 32-year-old father was pulled by undertow while swimming with family.”
Peter and some of his kids had waded into the lake at McKinley Beach on a warm Monday evening after a game of Frisbee, the story said. They were all excellent swimmers, and most of them made it out of the water without trouble. Peter managed to help one of the kids back to safety but was pulled back out. He was about 60 feet from shore when last seen.
“He was like my sixth son,” Stollenwerk was quoted as saying in that story. “He was just a kind, gentle man. He didn’t have a four-letter word in his vocabulary no matter how tough things were.”
Following dad’s footsteps
Ian has a vivid recollection of the shop his dad had on River Parkway in Wauwatosa.
“I had my own workbench at that shop,” he says. “I had a scroll saw that I could use. I was using power tools when I was probably 3.”
Jane Sustar, Ian’s mom, says she “pretty much knew one way or the other that he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“I didn’t know if it would be a hobby or something else,” says Jane, who was pregnant with her sixth when Peter died. “But ever since he could walk, I had to sew his pants because he had to have a hammer loop on them, and he had to have work boots, too.”
Ian recognizes his dad’s indelible imprint on his life. But, he says, over 20 years after his father died, there has been another enormous influence as well.
“The other part,” he says, “was John Stollenwerk. My dad died when I was 10, and John immediately became a mentor and almost a father figure, and this was at the peak of Allen Edmonds,” when John was a very busy man.
Jane Sustar says John has been an enormous influence on all of her boys.
“All three of my sons have benefited so much from John’s example. He is just a good man and is not overbearing or demanding of my children but does expect an uprightness from them.” She says John has influenced everything from their politics to their business savvy.
“I think that one of the greatest things that they got from John is this willingness to take risks, calculated risks.”
But not foolish ones.
Ian remembers calling John one day when he was still at Marquette to tell him he was dropping out to do his own thing.
“Fifteen minutes later, John was on campus,” says Ian, chuckling at the memory, imitating John: “You don’t know a damn thing about anything! You don’t even have a shop! What do you mean you’re going to drop out?” Ian needed a degree, and he needed a plan. Drop out?
Ian stayed in school and got the degree. A few years later, it was John, though, who helped put that plan in place.
It was John who eventually found the old machine shop that Ian bought at age 23. It was John, suspects Ian, who helped convince a bank in Cedarburg to give him the loan. It was John who flew to Maine with him to establish a connection with a legendary woodworker, Thomas Moser. John happened to be on Moser’s board of directors because Allen Edmonds had a factory in the same area of Maine.
‘Vessels of meaning’
Moser — who says he wanted to hire Ian — believes good woodworkers don’t just make furniture. They make “vessels of meaning that have some psychological connection.”
Through the course of a family’s lives, he says, a table might be used as a workbench and then a place to dine together, maybe eventually an area to study. The children who grow up using it come to “see that table as the hearth around which their lives developed.”
John talks almost as passionately about fine, handcrafted furniture as he does about quality shoes and speaks in an almost reverent tone of the “patina” that develops over time, the “bumps” and “character,” “the beauty of age.”
He has filled a house with Ian’s work, and so have his children. So, too, increasingly have others across the country who appreciate customized craftsmanship that melds tradition and sylvan simplicity with newly distinct style.
The day I spoke to John, he said he happened to know that Ian had just sent some stools off to Canada. On one recent day that I was in the shop, a seamlessly jointed bed fashioned from a warmly burnished cherry wood sat near the front door, part of a set of custom-crafted furniture for a buyer in Pennsylvania.
I asked Ian how much he charged for something like that, and he said about $5,000. His customers aren’t necessarily wealthy, though, he says.
He uses another word: conservative.
They tend “to be a little older and probably conservative — not necessarily the political affiliation but people who worked hard and saved and appreciate the quality of something that is going to last. I think that conservatism goes hand in hand with my designs. I am not chasing trends.”
“People come in all the time and say, ‘Can you do a gray stain?’ ‘Well, no.’ I believe in the beauty of the wood.”
Along with his reputation, Ian’s business is growing, as is the neighborhood around it that he has helped resurrect. When he bought the building seven years ago, he rented out the front to a startup that makes home brewing equipment, Spike Brewing. Spike now has moved into a nearby building and has close to 30 employees, he says.
“The neighborhood has completely changed,” says Ian, “and it’s all driven by small business.”
Things are growing at home as well. Last November, Ian’s wife, Amber, gave birth to twin boys, James and William Sustar — traditional names, says Ian. Quality names with long histories, I think.
When you get older and more conservative, and see how life starts and ends and grows, you realize the need for the tangible and memorable that a careful craftsman provides. For physical objects of beauty that serve a simple purpose in life: eating or sleeping or sitting and chatting, maybe around a literal hearth, maybe on a screened-in porch, maybe on chairs at a wooden table where children learn and histories develop that are instantly recorded into vessels that will outlast all of us.
Mike Nichols is president of the Badger Institute and editor of Diggings.