Sea Swept Style
Michael Fleming transforms the ocean’s leftovers into elegant furniture and sculptures.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Photograph by Irvin Serrano
The road to Michael Fleming’s house near Popham Beach is a patchwork of crumbling pavement and dirt pressed by advancing trees. It leads to an unexpected clearing where the cottage and attached barn sit alongside a gnarled orchard and a vegetable patch. Off to the side, dozens of silvery tree trunks and branches lean upright against a series of crude rails, looking like artifacts of an ancient ceremony.
Fleming is a maker of driftwood furnishings — not that darling country-cottage stuff, but sophisticated pieces that are well suited to the clean, minimalist environment of a contemporary home. “There’s a fine line with driftwood furniture,” Fleming says. “A lot of it tends to be cute and rustic. I’m aiming for something more refined.”
He makes beds from old pilings, floor mirrors from planks pocked with wormholes, and benches and club chairs from fat branches worn smooth by the sea. His tight assemblages of twigs, which he has used on easels, table lamps, and artworks, bring to mind re-ordered osprey nests.
A carpenter by trade, Fleming has enjoyed working with wood since he was a child building forts. He grew up in Connecticut and spent summers in Georgetown. His love of boats would later lure him abroad. It was on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands that he met his partner, Jennifer Wurst, a teacher who had Maine connections of her own. For several years, the two enjoyed an itinerant lifestyle, always touching down in Maine where Fleming would put his skills to work building roofs, hanging cabinets, and making furniture.
“Michael always talked about making a driftwood bed, and one day I said, ‘Well, why not make one?’ ” Wurst recalls. “He did, and it was beautiful.” So it was that they found themselves settling in Phippsburg to start the driftwood art and furniture business that they call Designs Adrift (www.designsadrift.com).
Wurst, who manages the business and cares for six-month-old Finn, helps Fleming search for materials on the shores of both ocean and lake. Fleming is highly selective, so when he finds something he likes, he hides it out of view of other beachcombers until it cures to his liking. Other pieces may be hauled home to join the “chorus,” as neighbors have come to call his assembly, bleaching in the sun. Once they acquire the right color, they’ll spend a few weeks in a solar kiln, a shed-like structure that uses the sun’s heat to dry lumber.
To a large extent, the size and shape of the pieces dictate what Fleming will make, but he is not as restricted as one might imagine. In the barn where he does most of his work, he has overturned a three-foot high stump so its roots sprawl in all directions, reaching skyward. Will he plunk a plate of glass on top and call it a coffee table? Too obvious. Fleming envisions a lamp with an enormous shade, an atmospheric piece that will transform a room. Straight pieces like pilings and utility poles are typically reserved for bed frames. “Each piece has to be able to fit into the other,” says Fleming, who uses mortise and tenon joinery on the furniture and only nails — no glue — on the sculptures.
To be sure, it would be a lot easier to go to the lumberyard and make these things from milled wood, but that’s not what inspires Fleming. “I love the flaws in the driftwood,” he says. “The possibilities keep growing. They’re endless.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright