Any aspiring entrepreneur can relate with that deep sense of achievement when your business finally starts to blossom. And it’s made even sweeter when it is a fruit of your passion.
But sometimes the path to realising those dreams isn’t always obvious, as Jeffrey Yang came to realise when he made a bold move to switch his business for something greener.
His previous venture involved exporting ornamental fishes overseas. During one of his procurement visits for aquarium driftwood, he found himself at a sawmill which processed fallen or removed trees from various cities.
There were many pieces of oddly shaped wood slabs lying around, all not favoured by bulk purchasers of wood as they didn’t exactly conform to the usual cuts and measurements.
But it was this “odd-shape” feature that appealed to Jeffrey, so he began collecting them for their artistic value.
He didn’t expect that this move would eventually lead him into repurposing salvaged trees and transforming them into artistic furniture or interior décor pieces—with his business (and life) partner, Joey Woo—under the name Art of Tree.
Roots: In The Beginning
Nestled in the industrial surroundings of Kampung Baru Subang, one wouldn’t normally imagine coming across a showroom featuring bespoke solid timber furniture in this area.
The couple laughed as they shared how originally, the showroom was meant for Jeffrey’s personal collection.
Art of Tree might not have started out as a business plan, but since fate brought the opportunity their way, they started a concept that would then eventually evolve into a viable business.
Most of the pieces are designed by Jeffrey, but he thanks the edge given by Mother Nature for presenting him with raw materials that are already beautiful and diverse in wood grains.
“If one could immerse himself in the wonders of wood’s natural beauty, he would then be able to grasps the essence of its imperfection and irregularity, turning it into a truly one-of-a-kind masterpiece.”
– Jeffrey Yang
Art of Tree’s showroom reflects their sense of passion and design philosophy. Filled with an array of pieces ranging from the usual dining tables, coffee tables, and benches to the less common items such as wall art pieces and pedestals, the founders will tell you that each and every piece is unique.
Repurpose: Giving Trees A Second Chance
The trees procured by Jeffrey are often found in developed areas as opposed to those in the forest. These are species selected by the town councils as far back as in the colonial days for their fast-growing attributes and their widespread canopy to provide shade.
But like all living things, they have a lifespan.
Once dead, these trees have no purpose and sometimes pose a hazard to their surroundings. Unfortunately, they sometimes also have to be removed to pave way for development. And even Mother Nature herself uproots some of them when she throws a fit.
So now that they have fallen, what happens?
The usual answer is to leave them to rot, which would take decades and a lot of space. People could also incinerate them, which in turn leaves behind a hefty carbon footprint.
Beaming with enthusiasm, Jeffrey began to explain how each unassuming piece of wood could be turned into an aesthetic piece of functional furniture.
“No matter how odd, all it takes is the brilliance of the mind to turn dust to gold.”
– Jeffrey Yang
While we were being shown around, we saw their creative use of glass and resin to fill up the natural cavities and decay found in the wood to turn what was otherwise an imperfection into an eye-catching feature.
In most pieces, they use powder coated steel for the base legs of their table tops. Jeffrey explained that using steel is both aesthetically appealing and practical when you have to customise the furniture to the needs of clients.
Joey chuckled when I had asked whether these were all the slabs they had, saying that their showroom could only house so much of Jeffrey’s collection. Most of the pieces were actually stored in a factory.
5 minutes away from their showroom, the factory is where Jeffrey and his 11-member team work hard to give new life to the raw wood pieces of salvaged trees.
The couple shared that they determine the price of the furniture based on a few criteria: size, material and time cost to finish it, and most importantly, its visual appeal.
On average though, a 4-seater table top starts from RM2500 and could go up to RM16,000 for a 12-seater.
So it’s not really a surprise that customers who patronise their showroom are from the middle to upper income class. They do get a fair share of business from interior designers and contractors too. Now, they are looking to broaden their reach into the F&B sector, specifically to cafés, hotels and restaurants.
Their customers also get a bonus of having a good conscience of using sustainable products that look good.
Reinvent: Malaysian Wood As Art
Speaking of sustainability, Joey explained that since the nature of their business relied on salvaged trees, there is always a chance of them facing a shortage of supply as there is no telling when the next big tree was going to come.
She added on that their conscious choice of using salvaged trees could also become a challenge for them to grow this venture into a large scale operation.
But they don’t seem too concerned. Joey has firm faith in their creative ability to produce cutting-edge ideas to turn the tide.
“There may come a time when we may indeed run out of large salvaged trees, but we will not run out of ideas on how to make the smaller ones work just as well for us. It is certainly a path less travelled, and we will leave a trail,” said Joey to Vulcan Post.
So that’s why competition to her is a good and healthy thing because if more follow in their footsteps, that means more fallen trees would be given a second chance.
But Joey added the path is an arduous one. She recalled how hard the initial experimental years were and how they “basically had to pump in a lot of sweat just to keep things afloat.”.
The turning point came when she poured her all into marketing and building the brand name for Art of Tree.
Joey believes good branding is key, and this was how they managed to turn their venture into a 7-figure business this year while salvaging trees at the same time.
“As our brand name suggests, the ‘Art’ takes precedence over the ‘Tree’. This way, the type of tree, let alone salvaged, does not matter as much as the way it is designed and presented. We are excited to be a part of this paradigm shift towards design. It’s simply because exotic wood species are very often derived from the forest. And sensationalising them often leads to further exploitation,” explained Jeffrey.
Joey hopes to steer more international business their way but she predicts it won’t be an easy move since the idea of Malaysia as a source for solid timber furniture hardly ever comes to mind internationally.
Admittedly, Malaysia already has less solid timber resources compared to some of our neighbours.
But she believes they can carve out a whole new market segment for design-centric solid timber furniture pieces; her passion in flying the ‘Buatan Malaysia’ (Made in Malaysia) flag all across the globe evident.
Their relentless struggle and efforts have already started to pay off; their maiden export to Saudi Arabia took off in June, and talks with Singaporean counterparts on bringing the Art of Tree brand there is also on the cards.
Reinstate: Coming Full Circle
Finally, we asked both Jeffrey and Joey what their aspirations for their company are moving forward. Both agreed there is still much to be done.
Since the inception of their company, their vision was to have it eventually become a carbon-neutral entity. So their biggest endeavour will be the Eco Green label certification. The couple shared that it is a long and meticulous process, because they have to ensure the whole supply chain and production process does not leave an excessive carbon footprint.
But Art of Tree believes they are off to a good start by working with salvaged trees and not deforested ones. In pursuit of this certification, they hope government agencies and establishments will recognise their efforts while providing them support and advice in achieving this milestone.
They also hope to engage with town councils to collaborate on salvaging affected trees where in return, they could channel part of the proceeds of their company back into planting more trees with the help of the councils.
“To have a program to reinstate the propagation of trees funded by means of salvaging fallen ones would be our crowning glory as we would have closed the loop and come full circle in our carbon-neutral venture,” said the couple.
This article was written in collaboration with Art of Tree.
Feature Image Credit: Art of Tree