Torrance-based Julie Hirtzel gives reclaimed bench lumber from the Hollywood Bowl a second chance at stardom.
Photographed by PAm Parkinson & Julie Hirtzel
How did you get access to all this amazing wood from the Hollywood Bowl?
Sometimes everything just falls into place at the right time. My brother Neal’s construction company, Elliott/Drinkward Construction, Inc., landed the job to replace the iconic bench seats at the Hollywood Bowl in 2014. At this time I was working in the construction office, and my boys were working at the Bowl taking out the old seats. As the wood piled up in the parking lot, my brother’s wife suggested it might have historic value. After a few twists and turns, the construction company was allowed to purchase the lumber.
Load after load was trucked away and stored. Elliott/Drinkward Construction researched different avenues to take with wood and finally decided to sell it to a reclaimed lumber distributor. He showed up with a different payment than negotiated, and the deal did not go through.
Meanwhile my son and I had been crafting some furniture that generated quite a bit of interest from friends and family. Neal asked if I would like to be part owner and president of a furniture company. The perfect adventure was handed to me, and I gratefully accepted. The rest is history.
So glad it fell into your hands. What inspired you to create furniture pieces out of this historic lumber?
My youngest son, who loves product design of all types, crafted a coffee tabletop one day. We ordered some legs for it, and our New Angeleno line was born. Next I made a desk and bench for myself. Soon friends were asking for pieces, and it grew from there.
Did you have a background in furniture design prior to this project?
Not unless you call reading design magazines, window-shopping in off-the-grid furniture stores and perusing Pinterest a background in furniture design! My road to furniture design has been slow and meandering.
When I was little my dad was a carpenter and my mom refinished antiques. They were resourceful and innovative people. I was freely allowed and encouraged to use tools, paints—anything I wanted—from a very young age. When I needed a desk, I made it. I took wood shop and made my mom a telephone table.
After marrying, I began restyling and repurposing furniture with gusto. More pieces of furniture have been painted white by my hands than I care to admit! Changing out furniture is a pastime in my house.
This past year has found me diving deeper into the world of design. Because of my lack of formal training, I liken my furniture to folk art—utilitarian art created by laboring tradespeople. Honestly, I can’t think of a job I would enjoy more than this one.
How much time does it take to create one of these pieces?
It depends. Usually about two weeks. I have three young, local adults working for me now. Orlando meticulously builds, Eden artfully finishes and Eli adeptly helps with multiple areas of the business. In addition I have a local steel fabricator who crafts legs and bases for HB Artisan. All of them are quite talented at what they do.
It is very important to me that our pieces achieve a level of craftsmanship that is difficult to achieve with reclaimed lumber. Working with reclaimed lumber is a dance and a war. The process never goes completely as expected. I don’t want the pieces to look unfinished or über-rustic, so it takes some work. We have a detailed, partly secret process to make our wood look as it does in its natural state with its stunning patina.
Alaskan yellow cedar is one of the few woods that ages to grey. I decided early on that it is important for the wood to look like it does at the Bowl, which means we cannot sand it all down. When sanded, the wood is yellow. When stained, it picks up a lot of black in the yellow, reminiscent of burned wood in the ‘70s. So why not just leave the wood as it is?
Well, most of this beautifully aged, historic, tight-knot, old-growth Alaskan yellow cedar is covered in pollution, wine and so, so much gum. Through much trial and error, I was able to develop a process where we leave about 70% of the original patina. To do this we must wash the wood, chisel off the pounds of gum (sometimes we can smell the flavor!), sand the stains, chemically age the sanded area and apply a very light faux finish over the sanded, aged area. Finally, we use a wipe-on poly to seal the wood from future stains and to give it a finished look. So it takes a lot of work to make our wood just right!
Shows in your work. Why is it important to upcycle?
It’s just better. Really. Take my company for example. Old wood is better—not only because of the beautiful patina but because it was allowed to grow to maturity, which makes it stronger. It grew in the U.S.; it was used by countless people at the Bowl for many years. And now it is being repurposed into furniture that will last for many years to come.
No trees are being cut down. No landfills are being inundated. The lumber is not being shipped thousands of miles. This wood is providing jobs for our local economy. The history of it brings joy to the consumer as they recall fond memories of nights spent under the stars.
Douglas fir from your local do-it-yourself store just can’t claim that. In short, upcycling is good for the economy, great for the earth, aesthetically pleasing and, well, fun.
Agreed. Can you request a special order?
You grew up in the South Bay, right?
I had the privilege of growing up in Redondo Beach and living in Torrance for the past 20 years. The South Bay is my home. I love wandering the world, but truly there is nowhere like the South Bay. I am thankful to be from this wonderful place
Being local, you must have special memories of attending the Hollywood Bowl.
Like many Angelenos, I have had some great nights at the Bowl. More than any particular concert, I would have to say what stands out to me is the design. The way it sits on the hillside—under the stars, surrounded by wealth and poverty and freeways and hiking trails and everything that is Los Angeles—intrigues me to no end. I have come to appreciate and love the fact that, unlike many places, the Bowl is for everyone.