A Kingston Woodworker Recreates History for Modern Day Living
Jack Decker has always loved a good story; in fact, it’s what has kept him Upstate for most of his life. In the Hudson Valley, Jack says, “there are a lot of stories. That’s what I’m into. I’m into people’s stories… I feel like it’s a part of the landscape here.” For Jack, storytelling is a hands-on process that is as much about sharing the old as it is about creating the new. And from his Kingston-based woodworking business, Vernacular Design, Jack does both through his original contemporary designs and historical restoration work.
At the age of 15, he started working with a man who provided a place not only for Jack to explore woodworking, but also to listen. “One of the most important things for my own learning is just listening to people who have done things,” he says. Later, Jack spent years as a carpenter, but remembers feeling more like an “assembler” of what he calls “curb furniture” – pre-fabricated pieces with a short lifespan that soon end up on the street. He longed to create designs that took not only physical skill, but also thought and creativity. Objects built to last.
When a workspace next to Jack’s mentor became available five years ago, he jumped on the opportunity to start Vernacular Design, where he does everything from commissioned dining tables and chairs to replications of historic wood moldings. Though his studio is now thriving, the path to get there wasn’t always easy. “In the business part of it, it’s just a series of disasters. It’s not even about how great you are, it’s about how you recover.”
Jack’s design process begins with a drawing, then a small-scale model, followed by a full-sized prototype before starting the final product. “A drawing doesn’t really tell you enough,” he says. “It will never have the soul and texture of the real thing.” His quarter scale models not only help him solve problems and get accurate measurements for the final piece, but as a collection, they serve as a visual timeline of his design progress over the years.
“My desk is kind of chaos. It’s definitely like my mind, there’s always a lot of things going on at once,” Jack says.
“I like that it’s kind of vulnerable,” Jack says on the nature of wood. “A house is like a conveniently placed pile of sticks and we just do our best to make sure it lasts for as long as we’re around.”
An important tenet of Jack’s business is focusing on sustainability whenever possible. His cutting boards are made from maple, walnut, mahogany, and other wood scraps from previous projects.
“That’s a project down the road,” says Jack of the couch hanging from the ceiling of his 1,100 square foot workspace, “and I figured I’ll just hoist it up into the ceiling and let it hang out there.” Not everything in Jack’s studio has an obvious purpose. “I’m definitely a bit of a collector. There are some things here that are just aesthetically pleasing to me, but I know the moment will come when the utility will be reached.”
Jack built this toolbox when he was around 16 years old and just getting started with woodworking. He now uses it to house his jobsite essentials. He takes a hybrid approach to his craft, using both old and new tools. “I’m definitely not a purist. I want the right texture and the right feeling for the right project.”
About half of Jack’s business is historical restoration work, like the decorative bracket Jack is shown working on for a Brooklyn brownstone. Pieces like this were once so popular that they were semi mass-produced. That’s no longer the case. “We’re making [these pieces] more by hand now than when they were originally made because the machines are gone.” And it’s that very cyclical nature – making the old look new and the new feel old – that makes the hands and the mind behind Vernacular Design tick.