Fogo Island Workshop: Merging Tradition with Innovation in Woodworking
Fogo Island, situated off the east coast of Newfoundland, stands as a beacon of cultural preservation and innovative community development. Four times the size of Manhattan, this island “far away from far away” offers a unique narrative of resilience, creativity, and sustainable growth. At the heart of this transformation is the Shorefast Foundation, a charitable organization that has been pivotal in ensuring the future of Fogo Island by anchoring its economic strategies to its rich cultural heritage. This initiative aims to preserve Fogo Island’s cultural heritage while fostering economic resilience. It supports a range of projects from community development and environmental stewardship to the preservation of heritage properties.
The foundation’s vision was sparked by Zita Cobb, a native of Fogo Island who, after a successful career in the fibre-optics industry, returned with a mission to invigorate the island’s economy while preserving its unique cultural identity. The island’s history is steeped in a strong fishing culture, where for centuries, residents relied on ingenuity and self-sufficiency to thrive. This historical backdrop has fostered a rich talent pool in woodworking, artistry, and music.
“The name comes from the hook and line that keeps your cod net to shore,” says Michael Murphy, Vice President of Fogo Island Workshops & Design. “It’s a great metaphor for all the charity’s work, which is about keeping people in the places they love, in rural communities, and trying to hold on to the cultural knowledge, to the people, to the communities in those places. Shorefast is this interesting network that is a self-supporting group of businesses and charitable work.”
Fogo Island Inn and Artisanal Woodworking
A standout example of Fogo Island’s innovative approach is the world-renowned Fogo Island Inn and the associated woodworking shop. The Inn, designed by architect Todd Saunders, showcases modern architecture deeply rooted in local traditions. Its construction and operations are a testament to the island’s commitment to sustainability and craftsmanship. The woodworking shop, initially set up to provide materials for the Inn, has evolved into a hub for artisanal furniture making. By pairing local woodworkers with international designers, the shop produces pieces that are both culturally significant and commercially viable.
Murphy highlights the unique approach to design on Fogo Island, where cultural context and sustainability are key considerations. This cultural context can be embedded in visual references, responses to the experience of Fogo Islanders, embodiments of the people and their personality, or in the preservation of skills and traditions. Products like the Punt Chair and Puppy Table exemplify how traditional techniques can inspire innovative design, marrying functionality with cultural significance.
The Punt Chair, which Murphy explains has become a young design icon just inducted into the Royal Ontario Museum’s permanent collection, is a standout creation from Fogo Island Workshops that is deeply rooted in the island’s boat-building heritage. Designed by Elaine Fortin, it is inspired by the punt boat, crucial to Fogo Island’s history. This chair is a testament to the island’s culture of craftsmanship, utilizing a traditional technique that was employed to shape juniper roots into the perfect component for the hull of a boat. The chair’s design process, which involves careful selection of wood to match the desired curvature, showcases a blend of tradition and innovation, making it a significant cultural artifact.
The Puppy Table is another example of Fogo Island’s ethos of creativity and sustainability. Designed by architect Nick Herter, it ingeniously uses a single cut to create two parts of the table, showcasing the island’s history of resourcefulness and commitment to minimizing waste. This design not only reflects the practical and efficient use of materials but also the aesthetic and cultural values of Fogo Island, making the Puppy Table a distinctive piece of functional art rooted in the community’s sustainable practices.
Sustainable Business Lessons for Entrepreneurs
Fogo Island Workshop’s approach to business is characterized by a deep respect for material, craft, and community. The island’s enterprises operate on the principle of giving back, where profits from businesses like the Inn and woodworking shop are reinvested into community development projects. This circular economy model not only ensures the community’s sustainability but also serves as a blueprint for businesses looking to integrate social responsibility with profitability.
Furthermore, the island’s emphasis on quality and sustainability over mass production resonates with contemporary consumers’ growing preference for ethical and environmentally friendly products. Fogo Island’s economic model demonstrates how businesses can thrive by focusing on craftsmanship, sustainability, and community engagement.
Tyler Holt is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine. He has a master’s degree in literature and publication, and years of experience in the publishing and digital media industry. His main area of study is the effect of digital technologies on industrial and networked production.