Monsieur Stumpy grows into larger, unassuming business

Posted by David Pao
July 23rd, 2009

A great article from the Vancouver Sun on one of our members :

Monsieur Stumpy grows into larger, unassuming business

By Malcolm Parry, Vancouver SunJuly 23, 2009

MAKING STUMPS JUMP: Fourth-generation North Vancouver resident Brent Comber, 47, seems to prosper by having his wholly owned firm do everything backwards. First, eight-employee Brent Comber Originals Inc. ( is intentionally very difficult to find on Burrard Band land beneath the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.

Second, the superbly crafted furnishings and ornamental pieces it ships across Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere aren’t carved from select, straight-grained wood. Instead, Comber uses cedar and fir that would otherwise be chipped, burned or thrown away. “I never use wood that would have a higher value for any other purpose,” the former oilfield worker and landscaper said, pointing to huge blocks of cracked, sinewy and knotted wood that sawmills, veneer plants and other processors were happy to set aside for him to collect.

Third, rather than add distributors, he’s reduced them from 16 to two. Former booksellers Celia Duthie and Nick Hunt represent him in Canada via their five-year-old Salt Spring Woodworks outfit in Ganges. His sole U.S. distributor is Allison Mills, who owns the Inform Interiors showroom in Seattle.

Even so, and despite cutting down on trade-show appearances, he’s weathering the recession with around a 15-per-cent dip to expected 2009 volume of $1.5 million. Still, it was the 1999 B.C. Wood trade show in San Francisco that showed him there was a track, and that he might be on it. Self-confessedly “really green,” he’d carved a garlic-clove-shaped piece from a stump he’d salvaged from Ruby Lake. When a delegate promptly perched on it, saying: “This is so now. What do you call it?”, Comber had to think fast.

“Uh … it’s Monsieur Stumpy,” he replied.

When the chap identified himself as head buyer for the ritzy Neiman Marcus department store chain, and questioned the price, Comber asked if he could get $1,000 for it. “I thought that was a lot of money,” Comber recalled. “But he didn’t even bat an eyelid. So it I thought: ‘There could be a business here.'”

Neiman Marcus still carries Comber pieces, and Saks Fifth Avenue recently made a prophetic sale in Dubai. It entailed a wood, alder, that could assure Comber’s future as much as it does the forest’s. For years he’d made pieces mostly from single blocks of wood. “But how do you show something dynamic?” he asked himself, wondering if he could somehow supplant his works’ visual characteristics with tactile ones. The answer was a reverse of the old saying about not seeing the forest for the trees. Peering into an alder wood fire one night, “I realized that what I liked about the forest was the darkness between the trees.” He also thought about alder as “a pioneer wood that is the first to enter a cleared area, where its job is to put nitrogen into the soil and rejuvenate the forest.”

Abiding by alder’s “trash wood” reputation, Comber began assembling end-on sections of bough, none wider than three inches, salvaged from roadside clearing projects. The resultant patterns reminded him of pixels, which suggested that they might convey information. Blind in one eye, Comber suddenly saw the answer: “Braille.” Michael Green, who is a partner in the McFarlane Green Biggar architectural firm, immediately saw that as aiding a 2010 Olympics commission he has for the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch. The result will be a 40-foot-by-18-inch panel of end-on alder spelling out a quotation by a B.C. poet — in Braille.

“It won’t be detectable by vision at all,” Comber said, grinning. “Only by touch.” Meanwhile, it’s not hard to see where Comber and his firm are heading. They recently completed a project for Yahoo’s European head office, following its move from Britain to Switzerland. The luxury-index Robb Report deems Comber collectible. And an October return trip to Japan’s 100% Design Tokyo convention should result in further orders from Hashimoto Yukio’s influential studio and others.

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