Piece by Piece | Mingei International Museum

"I find that the ability to be creative all the time is consuming. There's something in me that needs to constantly create, and I'll just leave it at that."

Tule Peak Timber embraces environmentally conscious practices and meticulous craftsmanship to design and create stunning works of wood. From intricately designed, handcrafted doors to reclaimed wood charcuterie boards, no detail is too small for this local company, making them the perfect people to create Mingei’s new Bistro bar counter. A 30’ reclaimed wood bar counter will be at the center of the bustling life on the Commons level in the new Museum, serving as a visual and social focus for the dining space. Inspired by the works of George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, and others, this bar top is made from 3” solid old-growth California walnut, found and reclaimed especially for Mingei. In this Q&A, Tule Peak Timber owner, Rob Durfos shares how he conceptualized and collaborated with the Museum and architecture firm, LUCE et studio to assemble this object of both beauty and function.

Let’s start from the beginning, where did the wood for the Museum’s bar counter come from? And what type of wood is it?

The Museum’s bar counter is made from an old walnut tree, approximately 65 years old grown in the San Joaquin Valley. It was a commercial walnut tree that had stopped bearing nuts and needed to be removed. This is common in commercial orchards. About every 60-70 years they remove the old trees that no longer produce nuts and plant new ones.

For a little deeper dive. Walnut trees around here are grafted, so the bottom portion of the tree is a native rootstock called Claro walnut, which has good root resistance against the naturally occurring pathogens found in the soil in California. The top portion of the tree is called an English or a light walnut that originated from Persia. It was brought over by the English, and then the French grafted it onto various rootstocks. In California, they grafted it onto the Claro walnut rootstock and that's the basis for all of the commercial nuts up and down the valley.

What was the process for making this countertop?

Well, the Museum’s counter needed to be quite large, it ended up being about 5’ wide and 30’ feet long, and there are no walnut trees around here that were that wide and also straight as a board. So, I came up with the idea of using ten large slabs of wood, juxtapositing them end to end, side to side, like a tree unfolding. Once the slabs are assembled, they were mechanically engineered into each other allowing all the pieces of wood to lay down flat and stay straight. That process included extensive use of mortise and tenon joinery (as well as splines) throughout the top to align it. Then, carbon fiber filaments were inserted in strategic locations inside some of the slabs to tame some of the more ornery pieces in order for them to do what we wanted and needed them to do.

Through conversations with Jake Nabors (the owner of Spooner’s Woodwork who introduced me to Mingei and is doing the millwork at the Museum) and the staff at Mingei, the concept continued to evolve. Offset joinery, which is the configuration of the way the pieces were put together, was added. And then some of the marquetry, which are the inlays, were a Mingei addition as well. I also collaborated with the architect, Jennifer Luce, and the LUCE et studio team on the overall look of the countertop. So, it's not like we just took a piece of wood, sanded it down, and put a finish on it. It's a lot more than that. I came up with the basic idea, but there were a lot of other people who contributed to how it became a functional work of art for the museum.

You also have a garden on your property. What’s that all about?

We take pride in being an eco-friendly green business. We use recycled lumber and reclaimed logs from local windfalls, fire cleanup, beetle kill, and urban cleanup. Additionally, when we are working on a project the sawdust and "throw-away" cuts are recycled into mulch, and used to grow new trees throughout our 20-acre facility. We also shovel the sawdust into the garden and put it around our trees as landscaping to conserve water since California is watertight. We pretty much use everything from the tree.

The walnut tree used for the Museum’s Bistro bar counter is also the epitome of a renewable resource. It spent more than 60 years providing nuts, sold commercially in stores, and then after it got a little tired and haggard it came out to be turned into a beautiful bistro bar counter. It's renewable in that new ones went in and the old ones came out and went on to live forever in another form. It's pretty neat for a tree.

Any parting thoughts?

For me, this isn’t work. It's not normal to work 80 or 85 hours a week, but I managed to do it, throughout the year without break. It's a way of life and it’s just what I do. It's the mark we leave on earth. And because of that, it's truly an honor to work with Mingei and be featured in the Museum with the many other incredible museum objects you have.

You must love what you do then?

Well, you know, love is a strong word. I reserve that for my family, including our substantial and eclectic collection of 4 legged members, but I find that the ability to be creative all the time is consuming. There's something in me that needs to constantly create and I'll leave it at that.

Please Note

Stay up to date on Museum happenings by subscribing to our newsletter.