About John Bird of Martlet Design Ltd
Martlet Design Ltd. is owned and run by the award-winning furniture designer and cabinet maker, John Bird, who creates beautiful, affordable furniture. His bespoke work embraces the environment and reflects a wide range of styles from contemporary to traditional. He and his team of excellent craftsmen specialise in bespoke furniture-pieces that are designed to reflect the individual's space and ideas. Every piece is unique, designed and made to order.
John Bird, master of wood and the creative force behind Martlet Design, talks about furniture design, wood working and the evolution of his career
How did you get into furniture design?
After I finished my degree I got a job with a furniture maker. I knew a little about woodwork, but the guy I worked with taught me to work with saws and other machinery. Then a high school buddy of mine who was an architect asked me to go and work with him on renovating his brother’s place in Vancouver.
We were ripping out siding and flooring and throwing it away. But it was perfectly good stuff, so I took it to my garage, where I had a table saw and other equipment and I started making things out of the reclaimed wood.
At that time, lots of the houses in the neighbourhood where I grew up were being pulled down, so I decided to get hold of anything that was solid wood – furniture, floorboards, siding, doors, cabinets – and I rented a basement space and started making furniture with it and selling it to friends.
Then, at the end of 1993 I decided I was going to have a show. I gave myself four months to get ready for it because I figured I had enough savings to last that long, and the outcome of the show would decide if I carried on with furniture design or not. The show took place on April 7th and I sold practically everything!
Then stories started appearing about me in the local newspapers and on the news stations, so I decided to take this new career seriously and study furniture design: I got a place at a school in Dorset, England and spent two years there studying construction, techniques, and design.
What sort of things did you start out making?
I was really interested in reclaimed wood: I made cabinets out of cedar siding and I would write on the back the story of where the wood came from, the address, what part of the house, etc.
How has your career evolved in Cayman and what do you make now?
Since arriving in Cayman my career probably advanced 20 years in 5 years. The clients I have here appreciate the craft and the quality and are willing to pay for it, and I’ve been encouraged to get outside my comfort zone and try new things.
We mostly do residential work, but also some commercial, and we go ultra-modern and very bespoke. We do dining tables, built-in bunk beds, front doors, flooring, side panelling, glass windows, staircases, coffee tables....
On the commercial side, I did the bar at Calypso Grill, all the work at Copper Falls and all the work at Barolo. We’ve fitted out liquor stores, and designed lots of reception desks, and we have also done wine cellars – private and commercial – and even surrounds for fish tanks.
What’s do you enjoy building the most?
I love tables. We use shipping pallets and have a very unique way of cutting them. We usually don’t discriminate when it comes to the type of pallet we use. Depending on where you get the pallets from they may be hard or soft wood, so the tables end up being a mixture of maple and oak, walnut, cherry and a bit of fir or hemlock.
What are your favourite woods to work with?
I like white oak because it’s super versatile. It stains nicely and you can do a lot with it. Walnut is also a beautiful wood; it’s chocolate brown and grainy and easy to work with.
My least favourite wood is Ipe. The thing with Ipe is that it is like ironwood, really hard to work with, bad on your blades and the dust is really bad for you. Some tropical woods are super hard to work with as well.
How did you come to be in Cayman?
I came down in December 2004, at a suggestion from my buddy Paul, who was heading down there. He said the island had been wiped out by Hurricane Ivan and they needed people to rebuild. I said “why not?” Three weeks later I arrived in Cayman and I have been here ever since.