Joshua Vogel’s relationship with wood is nearly symbiotic. As a sculptor he listens to its sounds, knows the story of each piece intimately, and understands how different species behave. In the same way that a tree grows in layers of persistence and branches out unexpectedly, his path in life has never been obvious, but fueled by potential and rich with experience. “Wood is a living material, I don’t know many other things like that— that are so fundamental to our lives.”
Vogel recently founded Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co. in Kingston, New York. His focus is on creating large-scale sculptural wood turnings from Walnut, Catalpa, Maple, and other hardwoods. “It’s something that excites me about turning; I love that it rides the line between art and craft. I don’t know where the line is, and my life’s work is trying to figure that out.”
Equal parts art studio and workshop; tools neatly line the walls, shavings coat the floors, and a large industrial lathe holds court in the center of the space. On the lathe, he attaches massive pieces of timber to a faceplate to begin the free-form turning process. Each vessel can take up to six months, requiring patience, strength, and mental focus. There is a constant tension between perfecting a design and the wood’s innate desire to expand and contract.
From the collection of pieces in his studio, Vogel’s obsession is clear. “I’ve always been really captivated by vessels, there’s something poetic about an open bowl. You’re just drawn to it because there is potential somehow.” Many of the forms are smooth and voluminous, and contrasted by a narrow opening at the top. He reveres master craftsmen such as George Nakashima, David Ellsworth, Ed Malthroup, and Rude Osolnik. Minimal finishes, natural edges, and butterfly joints compliment the wood’s behavior as a living material.
From an early age in New Mexico, Vogel was surrounded by builders and found a connection with design and architecture. His father was a renaissance man who owned a printing studio in the early days of the Southwestern art scene, located on Route 66. “I grew up very influenced by my Dad, who was an adventurous guy. Experiences are very important. I feel the best when I have an adventure going on.” He went on to spend teenage summers in Haiti, lived in Australia, and studied anthropology before making his way to the Pacific Northwest. While pursuing architecture at the University of Oregon, he met painter and sculptor Tyler Hayes.
“We worked together in a wood shop at the University of Oregon. It was my life, and I loved building things. I ended up getting off-track with the architecture program, it just took over.” The two would follow that passion to New York City and found BDDW, a prolific artisanal furniture company noted for balancing modern design aesthetics with raw, natural beauty. Setting up shop on the Lower East Side required a thick skin at that time; renovating a dilapidated space, battling rat infestations and fires. “We were very tenacious, and that was a big part of the success of that company. We had no choice; we just had to make it work.”
BDDW flourished to create an extensive portfolio of statement pieces including wood slab tables and minimalist chairs, with Hayes as lead designer. While overseeing the Brooklyn workshop, Vogel gained a metaphysical respect for the rarest timber. “We had an old growth piece of wood from Washington State that was 1500 years old. We had machines sanding it and it turned the table into a soundboard, like the face of a guitar. The whole thing started to hum. I started to count the rings of the tree. Starting from the bark, 30 years was a centimeter. The civil war was here [gesturing], and that’s Jesus. There’s an amount of reverence that I feel.”
Over time, their success continued to accelerate and the workshop was moved from Brooklyn into a historic Hudson Valley farm estate. After living in New York City for seventeen years, Vogel felt at ease surrounded by nature and began to put down new roots upstate. Sadly his father, who had been so influential in his life, passed away at this time. “It coincides with a change in my whole world view and BDDW, working at getting that company together. When he died, I needed to start over for some reason.”
Although Joshua Vogel’s own path has taken many turns, there is a sense that Blackcreek Mercantile has brought him home. With his feet planted firmly in a pile of wood shavings, he speaks earnestly about his chosen medium. “There’s a metaphor to the wood grain, the grain is the story of the tree. You think about your own life, perhaps where the road split…” Today, Vogel’s own story intertwines with the tree, as each piece takes shape. He suits up in his work apron, glasses, and a handkerchief to keep the sawdust out. The lathe spins, and everything is as it should be.