Across the country, more and more woodworkers are jumping on the urban lumber bandwagon by breathing new life into old wood destined for the dump. But only in Sarasota will you find an abundance of rare tree species and a man, named Dale Reike, who transforms it into stunning pieces that tell a unique story about this southwestern spot on the gulf.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNY ACHESON
While Rieke looks every bit the quintessential 50-something surfer, with his salt-and-pepper hair, facial scruff, slouchy gray T-shirt, and camo-print shorts, his number-one passion is actually working with his hands. Specifically, he’s been designing and building furniture for the last 30 years – first under the company known as Dale Rieke, Inc., but now rebranded as Wood Street Studio, the fabrication studio about a mile from downtown on the edge of the city’s up-and-coming Rosemary District. And with the change in name also came an evolved business approach, when, roughly six years ago, he began embracing his local roots in his design – quite literally – by venturing into the world of urban lumber.
Across the country, urban lumber is on-trend, where woodworkers are taking salvaged, recycled, or reclaimed wood, rather than uniform lumber purchased from typical suppliers to create one-of-a-kind custom tables, chairs, bar tops, mantels, bed frames, and more. But being “on-trend” isn’t what ushered Rieke into using this unique kind of wood. Sarasota did. In more ways than one.
Saving Downed Wood Destined for the Dump
“There’s some heavy building going on right now in Sarasota, which means a lot of trees coming down and a wealth of wood that is destined for the dump,” says Rieke. “The thing that really motivated me was when I’d see really beautiful trees come down, I would feel this anguish. And I’d wonder to myself ‘what could I have made out of that?’” That’s when he says “the insanity” started. After offering to take wood off contractors’ or arborists’ hands, people started automatically approaching him, tipping him off to potential trees because of building projects, storms, or damage by insects. “Every time I have a job and I know that he can use the wood, I call him,” says Mauricio Calles, owner of P&C Expert Tree Service.
It’s really a win-win situation: It saves on labor for the arborists (who usually have to mulch as much of the tree as they can) as well as landfill fees (landfills charge somewhere around $37 per ton and a tree trunk alone can weigh eight or nine tons), Rieke gets some beautiful wood, and it’s downright better for the environment.
Unique Wood Species You’ll Only Find in Sarasota
Invasive species also play a role. In particular, Australian pines are a non-native species in Sarasota that are considered a nuisance because they have shallow root systems that make them easy to topple, and they encourage beach erosion – particularly on the barrier islands of Longboat Key and North and South Lido. As a result, the county has to remove them. “But the wood is amazing. It’s so heavy and dense, and not prone to rotting. It’s become this amazing resource for me that, for years, I never knew existed.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of resources Sarasota offers up. Yes, this geographical area of Florida is farther south than most other places in the continental United States, which means that instead of just your usual walnut, maple, and cherry trees, Rieke gets access to specimens like guanacaste, 700 (!) different species of eucalyptus, and kapok trees that thrive in this more tropical climate. But even more so, the climate zone is even different from that of Central Florida – even that of northern Tampa. Sarasota is home to what’s known as a subtropical climate and Central Florida is a temperate zone, which means Sarasota doesn’t get much of a consistent freeze, which leads to wood that doesn’t typically grow in the immediate surrounding regions, like rosewood, golden camphor, and red camphor.
“I’ve been in this business my whole life, and I had no idea the epic trees that are here in Sarasota,” he says. “Sometimes, arborists drop off these trees that are extremely unique and we’re not even sure what they are. And because of that subtropical climate, these trees are anything but uniform – there’s more tension on them, so they’re smaller, with more curves.”
Wood Street Studio’s Unique Urban Lumber Style
Rieke’s design style naturally fits well in Sarasota, home to a collection of midcentury-modern residences and buildings designed by big names like Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy, and other members of the Sarasota School of Architecture. While the wood offers an undeniable wild touch to everything, the overarching aesthetic of his final pieces feel very clean-lined, Danish, and minimal. He also – with the help of his wife, who he says is a bit of a “mid-century fanatic” – finds old mid-century furniture at auctions, estate sales, and flea markets and refurbishes them using his wood. “We’ve found at least 20 or 30 Herman Miller tables, so we’ll fix the bases, then use our urban lumber on top,” says Rieke. Take, for example, a 1950s Charles Eames tulip table with an oval chrome base that he refurbished then replaced the top with a beautiful piece of rosewood.
“It was a fitting choice because Eames used a lot of rosewood veneer during that era,” he says. “Now, not only is it an interesting architectural design that pays tribute to Sarasota’s past, but it also has a one-of-a-kind unique piece of wood on there. It’s a table that tells a story.”