“I really enjoy wearing an apron because it makes me feel a little more attached to the craft and puts me back into a different time.” Says Matthew Holdren.
Interview and Story by, Mary Ladd
Matthew, 36, is a self-taught woodworker & fabricator who has worked with wood ever since he built his first tree house at age seven. His custom furniture has been shipped to customers around the world, and he has worked on several stylish and noteworthy NOLA restaurants and stores. One exciting current project melds the personal, creative and functional. He is restoring a building that will house both his studio and living space.
Your dad made ski homes in Vermont, where you grew up. You learned your trade by making tree houses from ages 7 to 16. How did that help you learn the trade and spark your interest in re-salvaging wood?
I started tree house building because my dad was bringing wood home and I’d re-purpose it. My mom had an antique store and we’d go to the dump and pull out cool stuff. We’d build bikes and make skis. I got the idea of salvaging and reusing from my parents. This was way before it was a trend and cool.
Why is having a booth at the Jazz Festival so important to your business?
You don’t need a retail store if you vend at Jazz Fest every year. It's opened the doors to a couple of jobs outside of New Orleans and even outside of the country.
It’s an incredible experience and I’ve been vending for five years now. It’s really the only time that I meet potential clients and they see my work. I get feedback and reactions, and it's super humbling and an overall cool experience.
My mom has come down all five years. She had a graphic design firm and antique store and loves to talk to people. We are a great team.
What is your first memory of someone wearing an apron?
My grandfather wore an apron and it was always hanging up in his shop. Growing up I spent a lot of time there. It was faded denim and made out of what he would call his old “dungarees.”
He was just as much, if not more of a mentor than my father. They both taught me. When I was around six or seven years old my dad got a new tool belt. I have a fond memory of him and his friends dragging it behind his pickup truck on a dirt road. I later asked him why and he told me that if he had gone to work with a new one like that, he would have be made fun of!
What does wearing an apron mean to you?
I really enjoy wearing an apron because it makes me feel a little more attached to the craft and it puts me back into a different time.
What’s your dream work space?
I’m building it right now. It’s a 1850s large old tenement building that I bought. I’ll have my shop in the bottom and I’ll live upstairs. It’s two stories and a loft.
What role does art & woodworking have in society?
Personally, it’s my outlet and my way of expressing myself. For a lot of artists and woodworkers that I know, it’s our outlet as well as our way of life and business. I think it’s super important that art and design push things forward but we don't forget about what came before. I like to do traditional things, and I call myself more of a fabricator than a woodworker.
It’s more about the design and the materials for my work. I always think of my dad who does super refined work. Mine is a little more forgiving.
What are your favorite details about your Holt McCall aprons?
One is a waist style nail pouch made from wax canvas, which gives it a durable, wear and tear feel. It's a simple set up with just a nail pouch and hammer hook. I’ll load it up with screws. It's convenient and lightweight.
The other is a full chest apron made from denim. It moves easily and is not restrictive, especially around the armpits. I love that it's short and not flapping around my legs. I like aprons but won't wear one that's too restrictive.I also love that I can hold a hammer, pencils and a tape measure now while also listening to podcasts. It’s nice to have my phone on my chest in its pocket, and the apron keeps the wires from tangling. It's also super convenient for when I want to answer the phone.
Who is your hero and why?
My grandfather. It goes back to my mom, he taught all three of his daughters how to fix cars and go on calls. He and my mom both have this 'can do' attitude. They worked hard and got somewhere. She’s more creative and they both taught me a lot.
What’s your favorite woodworking tool and why?
A random orbiting palm sander. There’s a lot of sanding in what I do. You can’t run a lot of this wood through machines. You have to physically work it through sanding.
How does living in New Orleans influence your work?
Everything about this town is important. As I’ve lived here, I’ve gotten to enjoy the material more. Things started when I was a carpenter and working with the patina and roughness of the wood. Then I started putting things together in different shapes and styles.
It’s laid back here, which is great. For the most part there are happy people and if you hustle, you can get a lot further than other places. There’s a chance here to really make a name for your self. Most of my work is all word of mouth. Reputation matters. If I’m not nice or do something bad, word will get around.
Why do you think there seems to be a resurgence of local makers in America?
I don’t know if I buy into the maker culture. People have always been doing this. Maybe there’s more networking now? There’s a response to everything being modern and people are in cities, isolated and with technology.
I’m totally all for it. I grew up in Vermont where people farm and build houses. I had goats and sheep and now it’s back to the farm.
Holt McCall designed aprons specific to your craft of Woodworking and Fabricating. How did they get to that design and what is your favorite detail?
I got a few prototypes and wore one in the shop and then one when I was working in the house. We talked about what I wanted and then I later saw the finished product.
On the bib apron, I love the sideways pocket on the right and the reversible denim. There’s stripe denim on the back that gives it a little pop.
On the wax canvas, there’s an Army green checkered pattern that is pretty cool.
What work are you the most proud of?
I just finished a restaurant that was completely my design and build. It’s called Blue Oak BBQ, it's a BBQ spot where you get in line. I had to work out the design of how the people in line for BBQ would flow through the restaurant. That was really exciting!
I was also really proud of Ursa Major, another restaurant that is now closed.
I also just finished a retail store. Those kinds of projects are great.