Furniture and home décor designer TiAnna DeGarmo is remodeling an old feed mill to accommodate more seating and a new commercial kitchen at Sylvan Brewing in Lanesboro. (Photo by John Torgrimson)
In Praise of Wood
“When you find a really, really incredible piece of wood, you don’t want to over design it because you want that piece to do most of the talking.” TiAnna DeGarmo
LANESBORO — TiAnna DeGarmo drove to her hometown of Mansfield, Illinois this past February, picked up her father and headed southeast. Her father had recently retired from the home building trade and had the time to go on a road trip with his daughter. DeGarmo was on her way to High Point, North Carolina as a finalist in the 2023 International Society of Furniture Designers (ISFD) competition.
High Point is the Nashville of furniture making, where 60 percent of all furniture in the United States is made. ISFD is dedicated to excellence, innovation, education and originality in furniture design; the competition is where all the big names in the furniture industry gather.
DeGarmo makes the kind of furniture that you usually only see in a specialty magazine like Architectural Digest. As she says on her website Furniture By DeGarmo, “I am not in the business of making disposable furniture.”
This is clear once you see DeGarmo’s designs and technique.
Pictured above is a functional black walnut table that is so finely milled and designed that it’s like dining at a fine art gallery. Below is a black walnut Nisu Coat Tree, perfect for jackets and overcoats–or warming up a foyer or open entryway. And pictured below that is a dresser in white oak that is so stunningly crafted that you forget that you can put your socks and undies in it.
Learning the Craft
The oldest of four children, DeGarmo learned about the family construction business at the dinner table listening to her father and mother discuss that day’s work. Her father built custom high-end houses while her mother kept the books and held the hands of the clients picking out lights for their new home.
DeGarmo accompanied her father to job sites until one day she was old and skilled enough to begin working with the crew. She was 13, running a circular saw, operating a nailer, and learning carpentry skills from seasoned veterans.
“I grew up on job sites,” she said. “The smells, and the sounds of it all — the pounding, sawing, the smells of a new home — still resonate with me today.”
Pursuing a degree in Outdoor Education from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale took her north for a summer job at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wisconsin. It was here that she met her future wife, Tamara. A full-time job with the Adventure Learning Program at St. Croix soon followed, with the couple settling in South Minneapolis.
It was in the Twin Cities that DeGarmo returned to the construction trade, hiring onto Stair Builders, a company working on multi-million dollar homes, building circular stairs. It was here that she was surrounded by other artisans, who worked in textiles, traditional plasterwork, and tiling.
Many of the homes they were working on needed custom made cabinetry, elaborate molding and one-of-a-kind staircases, requiring precision craftsmanship to create the unique look the client was looking for. The job was demanding, as the finished product had to be perfect.
“You could say I learned how to make very expensive trim,” she joked, noting the cost of custom millwork.
DeGarmo took her skills to another level when she hired on at Ingrained Wood Studios in Minneapolis. The company did architectural millwork but also made custom furniture, doors, and cabinets, working most often with architects and interior designers. It was here that she was introduced to designing and making furniture.
“Sometimes, people would come into the shop with a drawing and say ‘this is what I want’. I would do the design, building and, even, sometimes installation,” she explained. “But it was the designing that I really enjoyed.”
Working at Ingrained Wood Studios sparked in DeGarmo the desire to take these newfound skills in a different direction.
After her daughter was born in 2012, she set off on her own, designing and crafting unique furniture and decorative home furnishings in her studio in Minneapolis.
Change of Plans
The pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in south Minneapolis, near where the DeGarmo’s lived, led TiAnna and Tamara to re-evaluate staying in the Twin Cities.
TiAnna remembered growing up in a small rural town, where everyone knew each other and it was a safe place to live — the kind of place she wanted her daughter to grow up in as well. So, when Tamara learned that she could work remotely, the family moved.
The couple didn’t know much about Lanesboro, but became interested in the Driftless Area after DeGarmo displayed some of her artwork in Winona. But when Lanesboro Arts inquired about displaying some of her pieces, the couple thought they should check out the town.
“I remember driving around an hour before we were going to look at a house to buy, and I started to cry, I had such a good feeling about this place,” she said. They moved to Lanesboro in the fall of 2020.
This is the first summer DeGarmo hasn’t been in the studio making furniture. She’s returned to her roots taking on a construction project renovating Sylvan Brewing in Lanesboro. In addition to extra seating, the brewery is adding a kitchen with their partner the Driftless Trading Post from Peterson, that ran a food truck at the brewery over the summer.
“This is my first commercial kitchen and it has been interesting working with the Minnesota departments of Ag and Health regarding regulations and codes specific to commercial kitchens,” DeGarmo says. The other challenge is that the renovations are taking place at the site of an old feed mill, with its multitude of structural surprises.
She admits that her business model is changing, partly due to living and working in a small town, but also due to the challenges of being a working artist. She is getting back into commercial construction and will be getting her Residential License.
“It’s a struggle when you tie your business to your passion. It’s tricky,” she said. “It’s great having a studio and my daughter can visit whenever she wants to. But moving here required us to have a different plan.”
Like many working artists, DeGarmo will balance creating art with the practicalities of making a living. She will continue to take on commercial construction projects while maintaining her studio work when possible.
“Even when I am doing residential work, the studio will be a great part of the business,” she said. “We’ll be changing the name to better reflect the expanding nature of what we do.”
Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, DeGarmo, with her father in attendance, was awarded the Best of Show in the Professional Lighting category. Her entry, a walnut and ash floor lamp with a maple veneer lampshade, seemingly levitates off the floor, balancing in mid-air, inviting one to sit down, daring you to read a book or, better yet, just pause and admire it.
“I don’t make art just to make art, it has to have a functional purpose to it. It has to be both sculptural and functional,” she said, describing her passion for art.
Obviously the judges agreed.
John Torgrimson is the editor and co-publisher of Root River Current.