In the hands of Fred Wahlen, furniture is both art and history

Fred Wahlen said he was never really good at art. His clients see things differently.

“He’s a furniture artist,” Marsha Krzyzanowski said.

Marsha and her husband, Steve, have five pieces of Wahlen’s signature wood furniture in their Fish Creek home, including a custom-made coffee bar and plant stands.

The Krzyzanowskis’ interest in his work was sparked three or four years ago when they were looking for furniture for their home. They wanted something a little rustic and hadn’t seen anything they liked. They were shopping at Twisted Tree in Sister Bay and loved the unusual woodwork in the store. It was exactly what they were looking for, and the man behind it was Fred Wahlen.

Photo by Brett Kosmider

Wahlen, 56, has focused on what he calls his “creative work” for about 10 years, but his woodworking career began in construction; construction and rehabilitation of houses. He went to college in New Orleans and returned to the area after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild homes.

One of his projects was to rebuild a house that had been built in the 1850s. The owner wanted to rebuild with traditional materials of that period, which meant cypress. A relationship with a local sawmill introduced Wahlen to what has become his favorite medium: the choke cypress. He explained that cypress wood is defined as logs that were lost while floating down a river from a forest to a sawmill.

“Many of these logs were so old and heavy,” he said, “that they would sink around the mill or break off [from the log rafts]. They would sink to the bottom of the bayou or river and have been left there to be found in modern times.

Wahlen said the logs he uses have been underwater for 100 years or more, and they are usually found by accident when someone is building a dock or excavating. Cypress is a straight-grained wood that is easy to work with, but he finds the sink cypress to be particularly beautiful.

“When [the logs are] underwater, the minerals give it a real character – different colors,” he said. “Depending on the minerals in the particular water they lie in, it can change the wood from a darker brown to many different colors of the spectrum: green, red, orange, yellow. Wood lends itself to great beauty once it becomes part of the furniture.”

Wahlen brings out that beauty in pieces such as benches, tables and doors, letting the wood’s natural color shine through and covering it with just a clear coat of varnish. Many of his pieces feature a live edge, or natural edge of the log.

Before COVID-19, Wahlen sold his furniture at Coastal Classics in Sister Bay, but over the past year, increased demand for outdoor spaces spurred by the pandemic has kept him busy with traditional construction projects. Most recently, he worked on an outdoor patio for Casey’s BBQ in Egg Harbor.

Although Wahlen doesn’t have any formal training in woodworking, he has a lot of passion for wood and its history. The self-described history buff has researched the sawmills and town where he sources many of his sunken cypresses.

“They had almost depleted the trees in the area where the saw was, and it had been there for about 25 years. The town where the saw was was burned down, – he said, – and they never rebuilt it. That town just became a ghost town. That’s why a lot of timber was lost and left there for future generations to find.”

Wahlen noted that by the time they were cut for lumber, cypress trees were typically 400-500 years old.

“You can’t find the beauty of that old wood,” he said. “You can’t cut down a tree now and get the same thing. That age is not reproducible.”

Wahlen’s work gives his clients part art and part history.

“It brings out the best features in the wood,” said Steve Krzyzanowski. “He has this super artistic side that I don’t think people always see.”

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