Keeping Tradition Alive: The Woodshop on Fogo Island

Grace Tatigian

Fogo Island is one of the most beautiful places in Canada, and the handmade furniture produced by The Woodshop on Fogo Island lives up to its surroundings.

Fogo is most widely known for the Fogo Island Inn, an award-winning inn. It was built as an initiative of Shorefast, a foundation whose goal is to bring economic stability to this tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland by investing in their own culture and place. This means celebrating traditional knowledge and material culture in a way that will benefit the community.

“Pushing product isn’t part of our core values,” says Katrina Tompkins, woodshop production manager at The Woodshop on Fogo Island. “The intent was never really to make products for purchase.”

The Woodshop was created in 2010 to produce locally made artisanal furniture for the Inn, using as many local resources as possible. Artists and designers came from across Canada and the world to learn about Fogo, blend their own styles with local techniques, learn from one another, and create functional art.

One of their most popular pieces, the Punt Chair designed by Élaine Fortin, is named after a traditional fishing boat local to the area. For hundreds of years, local boat-builders have used the natural curves of regional juniper and spruce trees for their traditional punt boats’ structural ribs, and this chair’s curved legs are sourced and built in the same way.

Although the Woodshop was never supposed to be an independent business, their pieces are for sale. Every item comes with an Economic Nutrition™ mark, which shows the customer where the money goes and where the price comes from. It indicates what percentage goes into labour, materials, and production, and what amount is reinvested into the community.

It also details the economic benefit distribution, showing what percentage of the cost benefits Fogo, then the rest of Newfoundland, Canada, and finally the rest of the world. As a Shorefast initiative, there’s significant focus on supporting Fogo as much as possible. Being so community-oriented, they’re planning on leaning into that to diversify their business.

“Starting this summer, we’re going to offer workshops every month, teaching traditional woodworking techniques to the community, like wood bending and spoon carving,” says Tompkins. “It’s a good way to shine a new light, a new passion, on tradition.”

Teaching these skills to the community is a good way to ensure this traditional knowledge isn’t lost as senior tradespeople retire. It’s a way to keep these customs, which are so strongly linked to place, alive. These hands-on techniques are used every day in the shop by the team of five makers.

“We have no automated equipment; all our tools are light industrial,” says Tompkins. “There’s very little in our shop you couldn’t find in your dad’s backyard shed.”

Their makers have a blend of learned experience and formal training when it comes to woodworking, and they’re continually collaborating and learning from one another to re-envision vernacular furniture. The Woodshop is big on collaboration and inclusivity when it comes to design perspective. This summer, they’ll be hosting interns from the Rhode Island School of Design and Sheridan College, Tompkins’ alma mater.

Artistic and design residencies are quite common on Fogo Island. Fogo Island Arts, another initiative of Shorefast, supports creative exploration and production for artists of all kinds from around the world. The landscape and remoteness of the island provides deep inspiration.

The idea of place is a huge factor not only in design but also in sourcing materials. Much of the wood used is local, high-quality timber, like spruce and tamarack. What can’t be sourced from the island itself is then found from Newfoundland or Canada more broadly if necessary. This comes not only from a desire to stimulate the local economy but also from prioritizing sustainability.

The island’s remoteness and isolation mean that for years the residents of Fogo Island had to rely on and care for high-quality everyday items for a long time. There wasn’t always the option of ordering something online to replace a broken piece of furniture like there is today. That’s something the Woodshop maintains.

All of the furniture created for the Inn by the Woodshop is also repaired and maintained by the Woodshop. Over the winter, while the Inn was closed because of Covid-19, all of the furniture was stripped and repainted, breathing fresh life into the interior design of the hotel and creating jobs for the locals.

But the furniture the Woodshop produces isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to replace with big box furniture; each piece is unique and has a story. The Puppy, for example, is a beautiful piece that the designer Nick Herder describes as “a little table that follows you around the room.” The Puppies are three-legged tables that make the most out of a single piece of wood available in different sizes, cuts, and colours.

Tompkins and the other makers at The Woodshop on Fogo Island are finding new ways of preserving and developing material culture to celebrate a small place with a beautiful history. They blend artistry and craftsmanship and find a way to share this community’s story through the pieces they create, all while supporting their little island off an island.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jz5H5ZRuXKE

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