Fences to Furniture

San Martin’s Terra Amico upcycles wood to create furniture that’s kind to the earth and celebrates craftsmanship

upcycling in San Martin, entry table CUSTOM CREATIONS Jesus Trujillo puts the final touches on before spraying this piece by Terra Amico.
Photo by Nick Lovejoy

Amid the din of electric tools, chatter and loud music, the Terra Amico woodshop brims with creativity and bustles with energy. A thick layer of dust coats every item in sight, and sunlight beams through large open doors—catching sawdust particles in their wake.

Just six years ago, the 35-employee operation was a seedling enterprise run out of Joe Raineri’s garage. A year after the 2008 stock market crash, he found himself out of a job. While staring at an old pile of reclaimed redwood lumber in his backyard, he set out to design and build a table using the salvaged wood.

Joe picked up his saw and set to work. When he finished the piece, his wife, Lisa, posted an ad online for a table made of reclaimed wood. The table sold the same day.

Encouraged, he built another one-of-a-kind table from the materials. Again, to his surprise, the upcycled table was purchased immediately.

But Joe was a contractor, he had never thought of himself as a furniture designer. After the second upcycled table sold, Joe and Lisa thought they might be onto something, and Terra Amico was founded. The name Terra Amico means ‘Earth Friend’ in Italian and perfectly captures the Raineris’ mission to put less strain on the planet. 

San Martin upcycled furniture maker

RUSTIC REDEFINED Joe and Lisa Raineri have built their business, Terra Amico, from a backyard project to one that now designs one-of-a-kind pieces for places like Google and Facebook.
Photo by Nick Lovejoy

The term “upcycling” was coined in the early 1990s and popularized by designers who advocated reducing waste by creating products of higher value from from discarded objects. Its popularity has increased in the past five years with the craft and maker movements, paralleling the explosion of craft cocktails, coffee shops with chalkboards and small-plate restaurants with reclaimed wood furniture and interiors.

For Joe Raineri, a LEED-certified green builder by trade, upcycling salvaged materials into new pieces wasn’t a stretch of the imagination. With a history of building homes with green designs, the Raineris were building and flipping homes before the recession in 2008. They had even drawn up plans for prefab houses that were built out of a factory in Sacramento. These builds were usually completed in less than a month. A 6,000-square-foot house was entirely framed and enclosed in two weeks as opposed to months on site. These type of builds are known for their benefits to the environment.

Though the operation has moved a few times in last several years, the Raineris now run Terra Amico on a 10-acre property in San Martin. The worksite—which includes a wood shop and metal shop—sits along the edge of the property on Monterey Highway. All of their furniture is built to order there.

Terra Amico is a family-run business. The Raineris have six adult children who have contributed to the company’s growth. Most of the people they’ve hired have little or no experience; they are friends or family or random strangers who walked in one day. The part-time employees have mostly been trained in-house by Joe or a handful of other professionals who’ve called Terra Amico home.

Terra Amico’s furniture goes beyond the functional requirements of a square table with four legs to create an aesthetic that’s been embraced by urban hipsters and millennials. It began innocently enough, “It was baby steps,” Joe says. “Tables kind of went into console pieces, kind of went into end tables and mixing of materials of steel and wood, and then as we kind of got people, it allowed us to start making cabinets, or media centers with doors.”

Not a welder himself, Joe enlisted the help of more qualified professionals—welders by day, artisans by night. Instead of cutting sheet metal with a plasma cutter for a patch panel, they are cutting ornate images of armadillos and film reels—bases for their clients’ custom-designed tables.

EARTH FRIEND The Raineris chose the perfect name for their upcycled furniture business and one which reflects their mission to put less strain on the planet.
Photo by Nick Lovejoy

They incorporate sheet metal, threaded rods, railroad spikes, lockers and holey fence boards into their designs of console tables, book shelves, chevron-patterned headboards, buffets and bathroom vanities.

When a customer comes to them with a request for a table, Terra Amico doesn’t expect payment in advance. “Our friends think we’re crazy,” Lisa confesses. Joe says it rarely happens that someone doesn’t want their furniture. In those few instances, a customer has commissioned a piece and didn’t really understand the idea behind Terra Amico’s work or what an upcycled piece would look like.

It’s not just his customers who have had to change their expectations, some of his employees had to reframe, so to speak, their idea of working with salvaged materials. “We work with old, bent, nail holes—it’s a whole different experience. So there’s a lot of retraining and kind of teaching to be more flexible and less precise,” Joe notes. One former cabinetmaker had to get comfortable with gnarled wood and rotted-out pieces that had to be removed.

Terra Amico has had most of its success via word of mouth. In addition to serving hundreds of residential clients, Terra Amico has proudly created work for several Bay Area tech companies like Google, Pinterest, Yahoo, and Facebook. Their furniture is also featured in a number of restaurants and establishments, including Cafe 152, Lawson’s Bakery and Spinaca Farms.

In and around downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square and the historic district on First Street north of San Fernando Street, Joe says there are easily six establishments that feature Terra Amico furniture in the front of the house, including Nemea Greek Taverna, Lou’s Beach Shack and gastropub Paper Plane. Tables are their most frequently requested furniture for both restaurant and office settings. Each has a unique design that is specific to the customer.

The hometown feel of Terra Amico is evident not just in the design of their upcycled pieces, but in each item they make for their customers. “We use no order numbers,” Lisa says. “Each item has the customer’s name on it. So, this table will say ‘This is Tracy’s table.’ You’re not going to walk into someone else’s home and see the same dining table.”

George Falk, craftsman for Terra Amico in San Martin

SKILLED CRAFTSMAN George Falk sands down a piece of wood while working on a table for Terra Amico in San Martin.
Photo by Nick Lovejoy

The furniture makers are part of the Terra Amico family and feel deeply connected to their designs. So much so that they often request to go out on the delivery with Joe and experience being among the first to share the finished work with the client.

Many of the pieces being created will be featured in Terra Amico’s new studio scheduled to debut in late August at the Midtown Arts Mercantile in San Jose. A project by local builder Barry Swenson, Midtown brings artisans and makers from all over the area into a former fruit packing warehouse to sell their goods. Joe hopes that the new location—named Studio, by Terra Amico—will give the company an opportunity to showcase the more unique pieces he and his crew have created.

“Anywhere in life, I find inspiration. As an artist, I like mixing texture and I like mixing materials, because I think it just adds a lot to the piece,” Joe says.

An increase in commercial orders has pulled Joe away from making the custom pieces of art he enjoys most. His favorite pieces to design are rough and rustic looking.

“The coolest part for me is that vanity used to be somebody’s fence. We love that it’s weathered and grey and aged and patinaed,” he says. When looking for materials, Joe will connect with re-use people, demolition companies and reclaimed wood brokers. Because this type of upcycling is now a big business, Terra Amico obtains the quantities they need from brokers. They also work with a couple different fencing companies that allow them to come and take old wood from their worksites. Sometimes, they will even go out and tear apart old barns.

And that’s a good thing, because CalRecycle.gov reports that 28 percent of construction and demolition waste, about a quarter which is wood waste, finds its way into landfills.

Joe and others like him are slowly changing that by upcycling. Of his competitors, Joe says there are lots of people doing this and many just want to come and see what he is doing. He thinks of it as an information-sharing network. It’s a friendly exchange.

It’s common for people to buy imported furnishings that are readily available, with their smooth designs, clean lines and built-in obsolescence. These are often flat-packed, assemble-yourself items from big box stores. But Terra Amico is a furniture business offering American-made craftsmanship. They take what is old and revitalize it to new glory. Their pieces have character.

Terra Amico Salvaged Wood Furnishings, 12525 Monterey Road, San Martin. Phone: (408) 209-7667. For more information, visit terraamico.com. Studio, by Terra Amico opens in August 2016 at 460 Lincoln Ave, Suite 5, San Jose.

 

Debra Eskinazi
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About Debra Eskinazi
Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.

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