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December 14, 2009

Just before Thanksgiving I traveled to Cleveland to give a few lectures at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University. If you haven't visited Cleveland, you might be subject—as I was—to impressions of a city without a whole lot of action. A shrinking rust belt town from which the boomtimes of industry have seeped away, it is indeed a place where millions of square feet of factory space lie vacant inside beautiful, if neglected, old brick buildings. Enormous mansions can be purchased for prices that shock a person accustomed to coastal real estate markets. Nevertheless, despite the economic depression evident in Cleveland, the arts culture and academic communities are thriving, and in many ways it's the modest size of these populations that makes them so exciting. The creative culture is one of collaboration over competition, and the benefits of such a supportive environment are clear.

apoc wall

Among the many people I met who represent Cleveland's creative strength were a pair of guys who founded A Piece of Cleveland (APOC), a small company that has been upcycling discarded materials from demolished buildings into wooden furniture that puts the city's history front and center. P.J. Doran and Aaron Gogolin offer both a service and a product, hauling viable materials away from demo sites, storing them in their warehouse, and crafting them into furniture that has found its way into schools, restaurants and private homes throughout the city, including the cafe table in Starbucks over which we discussed their business.

apoc chairs

What distinguishes APOC from other reused furniture companies is their emphasis on the history of each piece. For them, the backstory is not some vague sense that the materials had a previous life; rather, the team digs up the specific historic details of the buildings from which they pull wood, glass and metal, and with each piece they sell they include a "rebirth certificate" that keeps Cleveland's legacy alive. P.J. spends countless hours combing through municipal records to find the stories of past owners, major events, and important eras that literally mark APOC's work.

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APOC has also been partnering with the industrial design department at Cleveland Institute of Art, led by professor Dan Cuffaro, to produce student projects that will become part of a campus improvement plan. Last week the students held a show of their reclaimed, local, sustainable furniture, much of which will later be incorporated into two new CIA buildings. Student artist Liwei Su's "Keilo" bench, pictured above, is meant to sit in a gallery. Below, Jonathan Janke's "Nestle Desk" forms a box when the two chairs are tucked into the desk, maximizing workspace and forming a single visual statement. See more work from the CIA industrial design students at the department website.

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