Alison Bjorkman came to Creston as an established, accomplished potter. Her husband, Bart, has never thought of himself as an artist, or even having artistic talent. But the two have found a perfect way to match their skills and creativity by “repurposing” old items and creating unique home decor items.
Looking around the Bjorkman residence in Erickson, a surprising number of Puffin Design creations come into focus. A movie tripod floodlight standing in the corner is pretty much unchanged, except for new wiring that allows it to accept a fluorescent light bulb and not emit a jillion degrees of heat. A coffee table features a lovely concrete (more about that later) top that rests on a railway depot baggage cart, complete with heavy steel wheels. An old wooden sugar mold holds coloured glass tumblers, each housing a votive candle. Old steel funnels rewired with retro cloth electrical cord to accommodate light sockets can be raised and lowered by tugging on the cord, which runs through well-worn wooden pulleys or hollow steel brackets.
Each of the one-of-a-kind items is the result of creative shopping (they haunt junk shops whenever they travel), creative — very creative — minds and skilled hands.
“We have this unique combination of skills,” Bart says, which might be the understatement of all time. The one-time armed forces specialist is a commercial and salvage diver, a search and rescue tracker and trainer, the author of a post-9-11 manual on weapons that can elude traditional security screening and a guy who several years ago became obsessed with making concrete sinks and table- and countertops. Alison is a rare artist who has a diploma in business administration and who for many years operated Black Bear Books, the popular book, music and coffee hangout on Canyon Street.
Bart points to a large bowl, explaining that Alison recently made it. Nothing unusual there, until he adds that she used concrete.
“We had just finished a concrete counter and there was leftover material. ‘Why don’t you make a bowl?’ I asked her. ‘You’re a potter.’ ”
Alison set to work and her wide-eyed husband watched in amazement.
“You shouldn’t be able to make concrete into a bowl that’s a quarter-inch thick, but she did,” he laughs.
“Bart tries not to tell me what I can and can’t do in concrete,” she explains. “I haven’t taken all the courses he has, so I just go ahead and start into something.”
With their Puffin Design business, the primary goal is to become a supplier to designers all over the continent.
“These people are always looking for unique items that they can design a room around,” Bart says. “They are amazing people to work with.”
To fulfill the needs demanded by a high-end market, Puffin Design utilizes the talents of others, too. The Bjorkmans have partnered with First Nations carver Michael Price, master welder and blacksmith Andrew Bibby and Kris Balde at Kriskraft Industries to create special bases for tabletops and other pieces that need a “special something” to complete a project.
“Each partner adds their own special twist to a piece,” Bart says.
Because they operate Legend Rock, which makes all the concrete pieces, and Puffin Design, which is intended as the marketing arm for everything they create, Alison says things sometimes get complicated.
“It’s hard to resist adding concrete to everything we make,” she laughs.
That might be something that would suit Bart quite nicely, but he admits their differences in skills and personality are a distinct advantage.
“We each approach things in a different way,” he says. “She sees an old item and says, ‘Well we could do this with that,’ and explains what ‘this’ might be. I tend to design things on paper.”
“He looks for parts to make his design and I look for things that we can make into something else,” Alison elaborates.
Sourcing for their unique pieces has become an enjoyable part of the business.
“We have junk store owners that are actually looking for things that we might be able to use,” Bart says. “I went to one recently and the owner had a whole collection of stuff piled together for us to check out. We bought almost everything.”
If Bart has to be held back from putting concrete into everything they make, Alison has her own weakness.
“I have a thing for boxes on wheels,” she laughs. “I love being able to move things around easily.”
Alison has recently taken up upholstery, another skill that allows her to add beauty and utility to Puffin Design creations. And the artist in her makes the hunt for high quality fabrics another thrill.
“I don’t want to play with plain fabric — I want to use great fabrics to make great pieces.”
She points to an old side chair that she cleaned up — without refinishing — then upholstered with a dazzlingly, rich peacock fabric. Bart flips up the lid of a repurposed Bell and Howell camera box — now on wheels, of course — and reveals a matching fabric lining. It’s one the unexpected, quirky details that sets their work apart, raising it to an entirely new, and often unexpected, level.
Using old, sometimes battered, items also means using a great deal of discretion.
“I just bought a new sandblaster and now I’m tempted to sandblast everything in sight,” he laughs. “But you can’t replace a hundred-year-old patina, so you have to think ahead about how something might look in the end.”
The pair takes delight in showing off their new acquisitions. Alison pulls out a pair of big old fishing reels that she envisions becoming lamp parts. In his Alice Siding workshop, Bart points out two old barbershop chairs.
“I don’t know what they are going to be, but they are just so cool!”
Like the showroom quality sinks and countertops that Bart fashions from Fiberglas-strengthened concrete, the Bjorkmans insist they don’t want to just make things that are decorative.
“If we have one similarity in our approaches, it that whatever we make has to be functional,” Alison says. “We don’t do much that is just to be looked at.”
Using old items resonates with the repurposers.
“The whole process is very humbling to me,” Alison says. “It’s like there is a three-generation story. These items were used by our grandparents’ generation, then maybe they went outside to become things we played with. Now I’m seeing that same stuff in antique stores.”
“Each piece has it’s own history,” Bart adds. “It’s nice to become part of that story.”
For more information, visit Puffin Design at puffindesign.ca or phone 250-402-9257. Some Puffin Design creations are displayed at Creative Fix on 10th Avenue North. The Legend Rock studio and showroom is at Bay 6, 1204 Northwest Blvd. or phone 250-428-5076.