As far as furniture makers go, Andre Jr. Ayotte (who simply goes by Junior) and Mackenzie Duncan, co-founders of the Toronto-based studio JM&Sons, each have odd resumés for the job. They both hand-make excellent condo-sized tables, chairs, and shelving. But neither of the friends—who have known each other since attending the same high school in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island—ever studied carpentry or woodworking or industrial design.
Ayotte, 30, has a business degree from McGill University and an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Duncan, 31, studied new media at the Vancouver Film School before starting a career as a fashion photographer. He’s also the co-founder of Apathy Is Boring, an NGO that aims to educate Canadians aged 18 to 35 about the importance of voting as a means of maintaining democracy.
Their furniture line was launched three years ago. Ayotte was halfway through his two-year graduate degree and was working as an intern at an investment bank. Although his career prospects were bright, he wasn’t looking forward to the long, punishing hours, six-figure salary or otherwise. He and Duncan decided to do a guys’ getaway in Iceland.
The trip inspired both of them to do something hands-on and practical—basically, the opposite of being a stockbroker. Ayotte switched all of his courses from finance to entrepreneurship. (It didn’t help him learn woodworking, but did equip him to run his own shop.) Both started experimenting with scrap lumber and handsaws, to see what they could make. Neither was intimidated by the daunting task of learning a new trade. “I like to just jump in and learn things,” explains Duncan. “And, fortunately, neither of us lost any fingers.”
Although it took a while for them to define their style—they had to get through the learning phase where everything was overscaled and awkward—the aesthetic can best be summed up as cabin-meets-condo.
All of their pieces are proportioned to fit well into a compact, urban space. One of their most ingenious pieces, for example, is the Watson, a lean plank of wood with a light bulb on top and some metal shelves down the front. It leans against the wall, which sounds simple, but because it triples as a bedside table, lamp, and storage unit, it is a serious space saver. One of their favourite pieces is called the One Armed Chair. It’s a diminutive seat (as the name suggests, it lacks an arm) that fits well into a small front hall and works nicely as a perch for putting on or taking off shoes.
But as condo-appropriate as it all is, their furniture also evokes a sense of nature and warmth. To achieve that, the two personally reclaim all their own lumber from abandoned barns in Ontario and Quebec. “For a lot of rural farmers, the wood is just waste,” notes Duncan. “We never go and steal people’s stuff. For a lot of people who have a collapsed barn in their field, they just want to light it on fire and get rid of it.”
“We go out with some buddies, have some scotch, camp at night, and go fly-fishing,” explains Ayotte. “We drive back into the city with some salvaged wood. It’s not for everyone, but we have a good kick out of it.”
The texture of the wood gives each piece a certain sense of history. They’ve also extended their repertoire into a series of accessories. Their laptop carrier, for example, is made from hand-stitched water-buffalo leather that will burnish over time. One of the most innovative aspects of JM&Sons (the name is a hopeful one, referring to their initials and the children they each plan to have one day) is the way it’s distributed.
“It’s unique to sell furniture online,” explains Ayotte—mainly, he says, because people like to see and touch and sit on whatever they’re buying before they buy it, something that is impossible to do virtually. For the tactile experience, the friends have bought an old shipping container (the cargo ship kind), and kitted it out to act as a roving pop-up shop. (They’ve so far only had one chance to use it, in a parking lot in Toronto.) They’re also starting to set up their furniture in barbershops and coffee shops in Toronto and New York—alongside, as they put it, “outposts”, or iPads that show where the items can be ordered—hoping that if people sit on or experience their work, they’ll begin to wonder how they ever lived without it.