From their workshop at American Steel Studios to the Alameda Antiques Fair to bedrooms, kitchens, and restaurants throughout the Bay Area and over seas, Brown Dirt Cowboys are making extraordinary on-of-a-kind furniture from the highest quality reclaimed and salvaged materials. Sylvia Ortiz and Robert Shipman bring their unique design sensibilities together with impeccable craftsmanship and a keen ability to find the beauty in things lost, forgotten or discarded, creating stunning furnishings and fixtures.
This hardworking duo is constantly in motion, whether deconstructing or building furniture, selling at local outlets or sourcing more materials, Robert and Sylvia pour their passion and vision into every piece they create.
A.S. : What do you do?
B.D.C. : We design and build pretty much anything you can imagine in the realm of cabinetry and furniture, up-cycling reclaimed materials. Primarily we work in wood, but we incorporate metal, glass and other materials into our work as well. If you don’t see it in our inventory or out there in the world, we can make it. The thing that sets us apart is our background in fine cabinetry. We use the finest materials, superior quality European hinges, runners, glides, everything that goes into the interior of one of our pieces works perfectly and is beautiful. We get to utilize fine cabinetry finish work, it is pristine, clean, and excellently built. Combine that with a more rustic exterior finish that shows off the qualities of up-cycled materials and you get the best of all worlds. Modern rustic industrial
A.S. : Why do you do what you do?
B.D.C. : Our backgrounds, Robert was involved in restoration and carpentry throughout the city. My father was a carpenter for 50 years, the design and building element is something that has been part of my life since I was a child. My brother is an architect, it just runs in the family. We have been in the business for 20 years. We use up-cycled materials because they are organically superior. You can’t possibly compare the quality of our work using these materials than if we were to use something purchased at a “big box” lumber store. I can build a piece and make it look old, but whats really amazing is to work with materials that have a past life, and bring out the beauty that was there before I even touched it. Our work keeps things not only out of land fills, but it also keeps it off the streets of West Oakland and the surrounding neighborhoods. When we drive down a street and see something someone is discarding, we can’t help but think, “Can we do something with that?”
A.S. : Where do you get your materials from?
B.D.C. : Everywhere and anywhere. People bring things to us because they know we are in the reclaim business. Mostly word of mouth, people bring us things, and sometimes we find things, redwood siding from a house that is being renovated, things like that. As an added bonus we keep these materials from reaching the landfill.
A.S. : Who are your clients?
B.D.C. : Our clients range from retail and restaurants to private homes. People who hold dear the importance of up-cycled and reclaimed materials, of environmentalism, but also have a quality standard. People who don’t want to be fearful of lead paint or any of the other harmful things that may have been used initially. We clean everything up, bring it back to it’s components, and use the high quality materials to create something beautiful.
A.S. : What brought you to AmSteel?
B.D.C. : We heard about American Steel Studios from a client, we weren’t familiar with the area. I walked in, was here for just two minutes, and reported back to Robert that he was going to hate this place, that it just wasn’t for him. But he came in to check it out, and he ended up liking the whole industrial feel of everything, it’s just so different from The Design Center. We tell our clients about the collection of artists and fabricators here, of the industrial feel, of all the creations that are happening and they all end up wanting to come out and see it. Its just so different from anything else they’ve seen. We get to introduce them to the building by using the beautiful giant sculptures out front as our landmarks. When our clients walk in they feel like they are in an artist colony, and they end up feeling hip. More of our clients visit us here at AmSteel than did at The Design Center.
A.S. : What is your favorite part of being at AmSteel?
B.D.C. : As large as it is, I admire the fact that people are so many creative individuals, but I also feel safe and we are able to keep a sense of privacy in our studio. We really feel like we have our own space. I know that art is going on here, but I can do my own thing. I can interact when I want to, but don’t always feel compelled do so. Primarily, we are a business and we have to make a living, and we are able to concentrate here on doing that.
A.S. : How has being at AmSteel helped your business?
B.D.C. : It has freed us up! At The Design Center we couldn’t combine every part of our business together. We had beautiful lighting and a billiard table and everything for our clients, but we didn’t have parking or a place to store all the reclaimed materials while we were waiting to turn it into something. Here we are able to combine everything.
A.S. : Where does your furniture go?
B.D.C. : Our work is all over the Bay Area. We’ve had customers who have brought our furniture with them overseas. Our largest show is the Alameda Antiques Fair. It’s the first Sunday of the month and it focuses on antiques and restoration. There are 1000 dealers and it attracts 10,000 people for just that one day.
A.S. : What would you tell someone trying to break into the field?
B.D.C. : Take the time to focus on your strengths. Most people try and focus on everything and in life and in business, that’s just too much. We’ve seen people throw in the towel because they want to do something but can’t narrow it down to what can actually be done, so they give up. Focus on your strengths.
It would be so much easier to go buy all our materials new, but my whole goal is to make every piece of material I have work. It’s hard to make adjustments to designs based on the limitations of the materials. I have used so much of my own scrap from one project on another. But that’s what I see at AmSteel, I look around and see how complex it is and how much possibility is here. So we just try and make everything I have into something, and do it as well as we possibly can.