Two Vermonters ride wooden works of art
Story By Seth Putnman
Photography by Jesse Lenz, Corey Hendrickson, and Garrett Cornelison
I'VE REALIZED I'M ADDICTED TO THOSE SPORTS WHERE I ONLY HAVE TO MAKE ONE DECISION - WHICH IS 'GO' - AND DEAL WITH THE REST."
Whitney Phillips was kayaking wine bottles out of the Pitcher Inn’s flooded basement when Matt Groom got the idea to hire him to help repair the extensive damages to the historic building from Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Groom was a contractor, and the two men quickly gelled, eventually partnering up and forming their own operation. Always the type to play around during time off from construction projects, Phillips slapped a couple pairs of wheels on a rectangular plank, cast aside from one of their jobs. It was their first skateboard. Groom did some experimenting of his own, laminating exotic woods together to make intricate and stunning designs. Suddenly, the beautiful objects they had taken a risk to create for no one but themselves began making waves and winning them the contracts on higher paying and more artistic custom woodworking jobs.
The Collective Quarterly sat down with the two entrepreneurs in their workshop in Warren, Vermont, and discovered how deep their philosophy goes on wood, failure, and parenting.
What is it about wood?
MG: It’s like cutting open a gem. You see the bark and you might have some idea what’s in there but you don’t really know. Then you open it up and there are these really cool grains and colors and the light plays on it differently. I like to build things not only to look at but to feel.
WP: Bruce Hoadley has book called Understanding Wood, and he said that if you don’t think there’s an emotional connection to wood, show somebody a beautiful work of wood—a desk or something—and then tell them its plastic, and just watch the expression on their face. Watch it just wash away. All their smile and the warmth of what they thought they were looking at—they’re like, God, I’ve been had.
Is there a back-to-the-land element at play here?
WP: Yeah, we’ve proven that you can go out in the woods, grab a piece of wood, you can turn it into a skateboard or a snowboard and go back out and rip that same line you just cut down to get it.
MB [laughing]: Ski where the tree stood. And when we construct homes, it’s the ultimate graffiti. If you built it right, it can be there for hundreds of years.
You mentioned how much of your work is a product of failure. That seems to be a theme in the Valley.
MG: I think it’s the way people pick themselves up here that is unique. Failure is everywhere. It’s how you deal it. That was the biggest lesson to me with developing these woodworking techniques through the failures.
Whit, you’re smiling.
WP [laughing]: There’s just a saying about how doctors and carpenters are similar—that they both bury their mistakes.
You guys grew up going hard: bombing hills, jumping off cliffs, carving powder. Now that you’re both dads, has your relationship with adrenaline changed?
WP: Walking a tightrope is the same if it’s a foot off the ground or if it’s a thousand feet off the ground. One you’re gonna be fine, one you’re not. My question is: Is the tightrope over the cliff that much more fun?
And that wasn’t the case before?
WP: Before, I would’ve always run it. I’ve realized that I’m addicted to those sports where I only have to make one decision, which is go, and then deal with the rest.
MG: I’m slowing down a little bit since I’ve blown my knee out four times like jumping 92 feet off a cliff into Lake Champlain, which turns out wasn’t a great idea. I ended up kicking myself in the shoulder. 110 feet is considered an actual suicide attempt. So I joke with my wife that I’ve got a bucket-list, but mine is a bucket of things I have to give up.
You both seem to be on the cusp of coming to terms with the fact that you can’t do everything.
Knowing some of the shenanigans you guys got into at 16—sports, partying—how are you going to handle your kids at that age?
WP: It’s gonna be tough. I don’t know if kids can even live the life that I got away with. I feel like kids now might be under more scrutiny and surveillance. It’s like a moonshot, don’t you think? From 16 to 21, you’re just hoping they’ll come back around the other side.
But don’t you think the things you did when you were teenagers set you on the course of who you became?
WP: Absolutely. But there was a pretty high rate of attrition…not everybody made it back from the other side of the moon.
MG: I think you’re absolutely right. The experiences I had as a kid made me who I am now, and I’m not looking to change that. What I want to help them to do is to assess the situation and make smart decisions. But I’m not about to become that helicopter parent who says, “Don’t do that.” My kids love going skiing with me because I’m like: “You could hit that a little harder. Maybe next time you might be able to clear that next bump” [laughs].
WP [laughing]: Sack up and send it, kid.
MG: That’s why I wanted to raise my kids here. My oldest son’s first sentence was while he was grabbing my ears, sitting on my shoulders as I’m skiing downhill at 40 mph—and he was like, “I need more speed!” It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. You got it, kid.