Ken Salem: Living on the Edge

Ken Salem: Living on the Edge

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Ken with CabinetKen Salem’s education in traditional furniture-making began in his childhood home in the heart of New England. Home was the historic Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, where Salem grew up surrounded by the best examples of traditional woodworking. It was an atmosphere which fostered a deep respect for both the woodworking craft and artisans who practiced it. His early mentor was George Watson of the Smithsonian who was involved with the restoration and preservation of the Inn. Watson guided Salem through the process of dismantling barns to salvage first growth hardwood.

Prior to becoming a maker of handmade furniture, Ken was a financial advisor in Boston for 15 years. Life changed when his father fell ill and Ken returned to the family business to help. It was during that time that he decided to give up the wild ride of Wall Street and embark on a calling that had lain dormant for years – hand-crafting beautiful furniture that would be treasured for generations.

Monarch Butterfly ArmoireThe style Salem champions is based in his sense of history and legacy. Shaker design principles inform his pieces. Ken explains, “The lines are clean and crisp and simple. I take advantage of the fact that nature has produced something unique. In the case of chestnut, it’s a part of our heritage.” Salem’s reclaimed lumber comes from various sources, but he often finds structures such as old barns, frequently made from American Chestnut, that are beyond repair. These structures contain planks and timbers that still have rich possibilities. He also salvages hardwood trees such as Cherry, Black American Walnut, and Spalted Maple that are slated for removal, offering pieces fashioned from contemporary woods while still maintaining a stalwart commitment to conservation.

Salem Board and BeamSalem’s latest projects have centered on what he calls “live edge work.” His inspiration originally came from famed woodworker George Nakashima, who allowed naturally occurring attributes of the wood to become the aesthetic centerpiece of the work. Sculpted edges, knots and voids become dramatic design elements when Salem augments them with resin, stone and glass. The results are stunning tables, desks and even beds that adhere to the finest traditions of woodworking techniques while embodying a decidedly modern sensibility. Salem’s work has found its way into the homes of discerning clients across the country and his tables and desks grace the boardrooms of corporations looking to distinguish themselves with an appreciation for nature and the handmade object.

Burl Bed “My goal is to build furniture that my son will be using when he is 60, and his son will be using after that,” Salem explains. “My process gives storm-downed and damaged hardwoods new life as fine furniture. Every piece of wood tells a story. My furniture is a very real way to bring historical connections to modern living by giving a tree harvested in the pre-Civil War era a second life in your home.” His creative efforts are a tribute to his own heritage, “I wanted to give something back to my Dad. He taught me the value of restoration, the love of old wood”.

Stories about Salem’s salvage process and furniture designs have appeared in regional and national publications. He was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Chestnut Society, where he has been a member since 1997. Salem received an Award of Merit from the Historic Commission in Northampton, Massachusetts, for his sensitive restoration of his own home on Bridge Street. You can meet Ken Salem at Paradise City Marlborough this month, and also at Paradise City Northampton in May.