When we attended the grand opening of the new West Elm store, we were overwhelmed by the extremely talented local artists featured in the store. I was especially into the woodwork done by Overton Ironworks – I even picked up this wooden anchor, which is now hanging in our bathroom!
I was interested in Tommy’s work, so I decided to reach out and find out more about it.
What inspired you to get into iron work?
I have always liked to create things, and that has manifested itself in many creative outlets over the years. My father is an art teacher, so early on I tried more traditional styles like drawing, painting, and photography. It was pretty clear that those weren’t the right things for me. It did not come naturally and I didn’t enjoy the processes and didn’t have the desire to get better.
I went to design school and got a bachelors degree in Landscape Architecture (BLA), and that introduced me to a whole different side of the creative world. I was attracted to the simpler styles of design and really got into materials. I love to see how different materials combine to make a finished project.
I also love to see raw materials used in unexpected ways, so that evolved into producing lighting, shelving, and other home décor out of black iron and galvanized pipe. I started out with personal projects for myself, but people responded well and I decided to make products available to the public.
You started in iron, so what made you expand to things like woodwork?
I always knew I wanted to go with mixed materials so wood was the natural progression for me. I love the contrast between the cold, hard metal, and the earth tones and warmth of wood. They go well together and effortlessly give me the look and feel I am after.
What is the process like to design and make one of your pieces?
Much of the work I do is custom, so the first step is usually dialing in what the end user wants. I develop their ideas into something that can be built. Initially there is a fair bit of measuring and technical development, but once that is done the fun part happens. Depending on the nature of the project, I will draft a sketch of the piece or go straight to templating.
With any of the woodwork, I produce a template that helps me get a rough sketch onto my base wood, usually MDF. From there, I attach my veneer wood with a combination of wood glue and finish nails. At this point, you cannot tell what the piece will be because the veneer covers an area larger than the final pieces and is pretty amorphous. After it dries overnight, I sketch the final design over the veneer. Then the design is cut by hand with a jigsaw or similar and finished by sanding.
What is your favorite tool to work with?
I don’t use a ton of tools when I work, but for my woodwork my favorite would have to be the jigsaw. It sounds cheesy, but for me it feels like I am a sculptor revealing a sculpture from a block of marble when I am using the saw. Using it is not always easy and it probably isn’t the best tool for the job, but I feel it gives the best results for the pieces I do. I could use a wood CNC machine or laser cutter and get more accurate results, but I feel like the rough cuts from the jigsaw match my materials better. It looks a little off to use a rough piece of wood as a material, and then your design have an intricate cut that would be impossible by hand.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from the world around me. I am the son of an art teacher that spent my early life in the mountains of West Virginia, my formative years on a farm in central South Carolina, and my adult life in the foothill city of Greenville.
I am married to a woman (Lucy) that is a natural designer, who, with no formal training, has an eye for designed things that most people could never develop. We live in a farmhouse, built in 1895, that has many of its original design features. I cannot help but be inspired by the world around be and the life I have lived so far.
What are some things you would like to see yourself doing in the business in the next few years?
I would like to see some of my pieces in retail outlets in different places around the country. This would allow me to customize projects to the geographic region they are destined for. People are proud of their locales, and I would like to come along side them and help them display their pride with one of my pieces.
Also, I would like to expand my material list. Currently, it consists of black iron pipe, wooden lath (from behind plaster walls), and pallet wood. There is so much more out there, I just need a reason to use it.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project would be something that would allow me to use all of my techniques and materials in one space: lighting using repurposed items from our collective history, shelving and storage from black iron pipe, wall pieces and decorative expressions made from wood.
It would be a dream to develop a space using materials harvested from the site and the space’s history. To give new life to something that is considered old and no longer has a use is a desire of mine. It may take extra effort and forethought, but I firmly believe that it is worth it.
What is it that you love about South Carolina?
South Carolina is a place steeped in history, and has residents that are proud of that history. Each region of the state has a different history and a different story that has brought us to where we are now. Charleston has been around seemingly forever, and was instrumental in the very founding of our country. The Midlands has such a strong farming tradition and many stories of the American Revolution of its own. Finally, the Piedmont and Blue Ridge were once considered wild and frontier land, then developed to a hotbed of industry with its mills, and is now home to Greenville, one of the most national recognized small cities in the United States.
The people of South Carolina are also something that I love. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but the people of South Carolina are something special. It took me going to other places and experiencing other cultures to realize that not everybody is like the people I grew up with. Many bad things still happen and not everybody’s intentions are pure, but we really rally around each other when something unsavory happens, and I feel like there is a genuine care and concern for the common man in South Carolina.
How does the ever-evolving world of social media help your business?
Social media has changed the world and made everyone so much more connected. For a small business like me, it is vital to getting my name and products out to people that would never see them otherwise. With virtually no advertising, other than social media, my products have found homes in Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the mid-West, and all up and down the East Coast. This would have been impossible without social media.
I use Instagram almost exclusively in the social media world. It helps by providing a visual of my products and lets a photo do the talking instead of text. I typically provide process photos so customers can see their pieces develop.
Is West Elm Charleston the first store you’ve seen your work in? How did that process happen?
West Elm Charleston is the first retail outlet I have had representation in. I had been in talks with some places in Greenville, but nothing ever worked out. I got an email out of the blue from West Elm asking if I wanted to submit some work that they could possibly carry in their new Charleston store. I initially thought it wasn’t real and was probably some kind of scam because it was so unexpected. I later found out that another maker in my area recommended me. They have been wonderful to work with and have been so patient with the endless questions I send their way. I feel so fortunate to be part of the West Elm family, and hope I get to continue our relationship through new product development.