Maybe it's not foreordained that a Jew born on December 25 should become a carpenter, but that's how things have turned out for Raphael Groten. Born 32 Christmases ago in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Groten is the founder of Barnoire, a two-man firm that transforms the remnants of broken-down barns into custom-built furniture. He got the idea five years ago while working as a contractor "to bring in bread for my family," Groten says. One of his clients asked him to build an armoire using use wood from a dismantled barn on her property.
Barn + armoire = Barnoire. Voila!
A terrifying experience at around the same time helped Groten decide to take his life in a new direction. His younger son, Miles, was 4 months old in the summer of 2001, when a drunk driver swerved onto the sidewalk in front of the Burlington home Groten shared with his wife, Courtney Reckord, and their two children. The driver ran over Miles, who was in a baby seat beside the front stoop, and dragged the boy under her car for nearly a mile through the Old North End.
Miraculously, Miles survived, although he was hospitalized for 17 days with burns on more than 10 percent of his body.
"That made me think hard about what matters most," Groten recently reflected in the living room of his Williston home, where the family moved soon after their brush with tragedy.
Groten also began studying with a shaman in Montpelier, and focused on the Latin jazz ensemble Saudade, in which he played a variety of string instruments. The spiritual quest, combined with his love of music, led Groten to the practice of sound healing, a pursuit he notes is consistent with the Hebrew meaning of his first name: "God heals."
Now Groten crafts furniture intended to serve as "a healing presence in people's homes." And he continues making music, currently with the jazz group Guagua, as a means "to help heal myself, those around me - the entire world."
Barnoire has absorbed Groten full-time since this past spring, when the University of Vermont grad returned to Vermont following a two-year stay in Providence - Courtney studied landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Barnoire might not have grown into a budding enterprise were it not for Scott Lamer, 27. He'd spoken with Groten about an apprenticeship soon after Barnoire was established, and was so intrigued by the idea that he wrote a business plan for the company as part of a course he was taking at the School for International Training in Brattleboro. After earning his graduate degree in international development, Lamer once again found Groten - who'd recently returned from Rhode Island - and presented him with the blueprint. He also asked for a job.
"I really wanted to be working with my hands," says Lamer. The self-described jack-of-all-trades had worked on an organic farm in Italy and as a ranger in Alaska. He chose to take a chance with Barnoire rather than accept an offer from the Burlington-based international consulting firm Associates in Rural Development, turning down what he describes as "a good-paying and secure job that was right in my field."
Instead, Lamer has become a full partner in Barnoire, marketing and managing the company while helping Groten build furniture in the garage on his wooded property. The place is filled with projects nearly completed and recently begun, including a sink vanity made with salvaged pine planks and slate from a chemistry lab at Middlebury College. The piece is priced at $3000, which is about what Barnoire charges for most of its larger items.
At the rear of the garage are a few of the 60-year-old saws that Groten's grandfathers - one an aeronautical engineer, the other a veterinarian - used in their woodworking hobbies. The grandson, who says he was "shaped by watching them work," will occasionally turn to one of those tools. Mostly, though, he relies on modern models of a few saws, along with an electric hand planer and a hammer and nails.
Much of the wood comes from Early Preservations, a Charlotte restoration and salvage shop. Groten says owner John Hauenstein "has a barn full of old barn parts" he mainly sells to contractors for flooring. Barnoire buys Hauenstein's wood for more unusual repurposing projects; Groten built a peninsula in his own kitchen from boards that had once been part of the walls in an 18th-century pub on Shelburne Road. The pine probably came from a tree that would now be 400 years old, Groten surmises.
"These are rare and wonderful woods that would be lost otherwise," he says. "I consider it a great honor to be able to resurrect this resource." As the company's website shows, Groten and Lamer have been transforming old boards into everything from picture frames to benches to entertainment centers.
Lamer is quick to point out that "we're not robbing history." The materials that go into Barnoire furniture come only from buildings that are so dilapidated they're beyond repair, he stresses. Lamer and Groten, who have notified the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation about their endeavors, say they're committed to respecting the past by giving its products new life.
"We want people to see the character of the wood - the animal claw marks, for instance," Lamer adds. On cue, Groten points to scratchings on a 19-inch-wide plank he used in a cabinet for his home. "You don't get that dimension in a lumber yard these days," Groten notes. A squirrel probably made the claw marks, he suggests. "But we'd like to think it was a bear," adds Lamer.
The pair use only non-toxic finishes on their furniture, they say. "It's part of the green approach to what we do," Groten notes.
If Barnoire continues to attract customers through the web, furniture fairs, advertisements and word of mouth, the company will soon outgrow its garage headquarters. Within the next couple of years, Lamer and Groten hope to move into a combination studio-showroom-office. But first they need to locate - what else? - a barn they can convert for the purpose.
Gazing further into the future, Groten muses about making enough money to be able to devote more hours to his music. Saudade and Guagua have released three CDs between them, but "I've got a family and that's not going to bring in what we need," he says.
As the black curls of his beard and hair attest, "I'm still a young man," Groten adds. "I can do more than one thing with my life."