Artisan profiles: Jon Bucklew and Tom Monaco

Photography by Philip Pietri

The Lakelander is excited to bring you our first story profiling local artisans. Jon Bucklew and Tom Monaco are based in Lakeland and, although their artistic styles couldn’t be more different, they are fast friends. In fact, the day I met with them (separately, mind you) each said the other was the better designer. How’s that for humility?
In Jon’s case, the way he and his wife live at home have inspired their work, going from folks with a strong DIY spirit and an appreciation for good design to full-time business owners with a growing national clientele. Tom, on the other hand, lives his work — literally. He resides in an amazing, glorified man cave outside of town. Tom got his start in theatre design and has taught, built, and sculpted functional art pieces all over the country. His artistic bent is witty and unusual, with an attention to detail that will blow your mind. (Just ask him about the time he made window displays for the SPCA’s Christmas adoption store in Lakeside Village.)
It all started with a bathtub. For nearly five years, Jonathan and Sarah Bucklew had been whittling down their DIY projects in the fixer-upper they bought in South Lakeland. They avoided debt, paying for each project with cash saved and set aside in the budget each month as they tackled new tasks one by one. It’s a mark of Jon’s style — that quiet, meticulous sense of focus and concentration — that has made their home a stunning example of modern industrial design and also served as the jumping off point for a new business, Seventeen20 Co.
As the business has grown, so has Sarah’s role in the company. Officially, her title is “assistant designer/operations,” but when asked, she says, “You could say I come up with designs and Jon tries to engineer them according to the laws of physics.” With a great knack for composition and an eye that misses not a single detail, Sarah provides a lot of the inspiration for pieces made in her husband’s shop. In fact, one could argue that the whole thing was her idea.
The Lakelander: Jon, as we talked at your studio the other day, you mentioned that this whole business actually grew out of necessity. You were just beginning to renovate your master bath, and the tub had not been budgeted for. So the two of you started brainstorming. What happened next?
Jon: Well, a happy wife makes a happy life. Sarah and I were purchasing the fixtures for our master bathroom remodel, and she had her heart set on a tub that was more than we’d budgeted. She turned to me and asked, “What can we sell? We have to sell something!
What about this table? You can always make me a new one. We get lots of compliments on it, I’m sure it would sell!” And that’s how it all began. She suggested creating an Etsy shop, which I kind of resisted. I thought Etsy was just … yarn. But as I looked into it, I found that it was really like an online Renninger’s meets Lloyd’s of Lakeland. There were many furniture makers, along with crafters, of course, and people selling vintage/antique items, etc. The catch was that I had to pick a name — you can’t open an online shop without a name, duh, so I went with the inspiration: the address of our home remodel.
DSC_8361TL: What began as a way to solve a temporary budgeting dilemma has become a full-time business, with two employees and a 3,000-square-foot warehouse space. Can you describe the progress from then to now?
Jon: From the time we opened the online Etsy shop, it took about three months for the first product (our dining table and bench set) to sell. During that time, on top of remodeling our master bath, recording an album in Seattle [the debut release for Jon’s present band, States. Jon is a former member of Lakeland band, Copeland], and working/closing a handful of real
estate deals (I was a part-time realtor in-between touring and recording), we worked on creating our own website, and learned anything and everything necessary to set it up to look the way we envisioned and perform the way we needed (i.e., allow customers to specify dimensions and finishes, and charge tax and shipping appropriately). We received a lot of help from friends locally and all over the country with things like CSS and HTML coding, and search engine optimization (SEO). It was a steep learning curve. We also worked in our garage on new furniture designs and finishes.
It was during this time that my friendship with Tom started to develop. He let me take over a little pocket of his shop to work on a bed design I’d come up with, and to offer his expertise/oversight while I got back into the swing of metal work. It had been fifteen years since I’d donned a welding helmet.
Towards the end of spring/beginning of summer, the orders started to pick up. I was on tour at the time and stressing about how I would be able to get home and produce the number of pieces I’d sold in the amount of time I’d quoted. While on tour, I recruited one of my bandmates, Dean Lorenz, as my shop hand. The “shop” was my garage and driveway. We worked as hard and fast as we could, managing the regular interruption of Florida’s summer thunderstorms — rolling all the materials and equipment out onto the driveway in the morning and back into the garage in the afternoon, and back out as soon as the dark clouds had rolled by. I had to engineer a new process for constructing tables and benches, as the process I’d used for the original set was much too inefficient for manufacturing the number of tables and benches on order. I had to learn how to properly crate and ship the orders, as well as the overwhelmingly tedious nuances of less-than-a-truckload (LTL) shipping. I think that’s about the time we officially realized we had started a new business, and doing it out of the garage just wouldn’t cut it. We started to reach out to some friends of friends who personally owned or leased commercial spaces to see what was available at what price points and with what compromises. We didn’t know exactly how much space our new business would require, but we knew we didn’t want to put ourselves into a financially risky position, especially in the current economy. We wanted to choose our next step wisely. After a lot of searching and discussing and not really feeling comfortable with our options, we somewhat stumbled onto our current space when Sarah suggested an old music buddy of mine. She remembered he leased what seemed like an old warehouse space and, fortunately for us, a bay in his building had actually become available at a price point we both were comfortable with. It even had running water and a bathroom, which was more than other spaces we’d considered. We moved in as soon as we could and began the process of building out the shop by selectively purchasing industrial tooling (forklift, bigger saws, air compressors, etc.) through Craigslist and other outlets. Over the course of the year, we employed various hands as we needed or were financially able. And this year we were able to hire a shop hand who’s been full time since May.
TL: How would you describe your design aesthetic at Seventeen20 Co.?
Jon: We’re definitely all about modern, clean lines. We love the simplicity of the pared-down, but we try to blend that with a ruggedness that is often missing in modern design. In general, “modern” is often viewed as sterile and perfect and ultimately unattainable; it looks good in a magazine but could never work in real life. Our goal is to create home furnishings that marry modern minimalism with industrial toughness by using materials that can take a beating and look cool doing it. Our finishes are also designed to bring a warmth and coziness that, again, modernism often leaves out. Additionally, all of our pieces are handcrafted, which means there are slight variations from one piece to the next. We love that — we are excited to be a part of the shift we believe is happening in American culture away from the mass-produced and back to the small-batch, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind. We want to contribute to people’s desire to “nest” in a unique way.
DSC_8342TL: What kind of equipment do you typically use for furniture construction?
Jon: We use a specially designed glue press for laminating the wood. We also have chop saws, sliding table saws, and planers for cutting/planing the pieces to size, a horizontal band saw, MIG and TIG welders (depending on which kind of steel we’re using), and a drill press for metal work. We use hand planers, cabinet scrapers, and torches for finishing, and
lasers, hadron colliders, and flux capacitors for all of our custom pieces.
TL: Welding is such a specialized skill. How did you first get into it?
Jon: When I was 17, my best friend’s brother owned a company called Tropical Trailers on the north side of Lakeland. I started out wiring and finishing the insides of enclosed trailers
and eventually moved into a welding position, welding the trailer frames.
TL: How did you and Tom Monaco become friends? What do you respect/admire most about him?
Jon: We had a mutual acquaintance. When Sarah and I were designing the original table and bench set, I didn’t own a welder. I needed to hire out the metal work and he suggested
I contact Tom. Throughout the process of building the table, we realized we had a lot in common and were able to help each other in various ways. I admire Tom’s no-fear, take-it-on
attitude. He looks for challenges. He’s inspired by challenges. He doesn’t shy away from doing something he’s never done before. In fact, he thrives on doing things he’s never done before. His courage is an inspiration to me.
TL: Has his friendship helped you become a better craftsman?
Jon: One hundred percent. Each time I come upon an engineering riddle — how to build a piece to be structurally sound yet beautifully simplistic, or how to build a tool (jig) to handle
the construction of a new design — his advice is the first I seek. His method of thinking outside the box, his approach to problem solving has really taught me how to think through engineering challenges in a new way. His encouragement and support have been an integral part of the success of my business. I don’t think we’d be where we are now without him.
TL: Is there ever any friendly competition between the two of you?
Jon: Only when it comes to tools. Tom built a huge shop from the ground up, so I rented one slightly bigger. He had an awesome truck, so I bought one with a longer bed. I bought an
air compressor. He bought the same one, so I bought a bigger one. I bought a nicer table saw than he had, so he bought a CNC router. And I gave up.
TL: Your styles are vastly different, but you use a lot of the same methods of construction. Have you ever thought of collaborating on a project?
Jon: We collaborate on the engineering, behind-the-scenes side a lot. Tom’s an actual artist, and I’m just a furniture-maker. If we were to collaborate on a piece officially, it would be
a very theatrical, whimsical piece of art that I would have no idea how to build. I’d provide all of the straight lines and some muscle.
Thomas Monaco is the consummate artist, craftsman, and innovator. Working in all sorts of mediums (too many to list, really), he translates his distinctive vision into functional art pieces for residential and commercial spaces as well as providing expert restoration to historic landmarks/sculpture. He lives in a combined living/warehouse space designed for him by local architect David Rubin. More than a cabinetmaker, Tom prefers to work in the unexpected, and his thoroughness and attention to detail is astounding. He’s not the man to go to if you want someone to build your kitchen cupboards — that is, unless you want them to have plasma-cut steel panels and floating bits of glass sculpture complete with integrated custom lighting. Of course, if that’s the case, he’s your man.
TL: Tom, you’ve done everything under the sun, from stage production design to custom cabinetry, original sculpture designs to restoration on historic pieces at St. Leo University and elsewhere. You even designed a new academic mace for Polk State College. What have been some of your
favorite projects over the years?
Tom: Actually, the academic mace was one of my all-time favorite pieces. I was particularly honored to be asked to design and build it. Other favorite
projects include a clock/mobile, also for Polk State, that hangs in the J.D. Alexander Building in Lake Wales; a grandfather clock/cat condo that I
donated to the SPCA for their auction for the animals a few years ago; and my most recent sculpture piece that I collaborated with David Collins at
Paint Along Studios for his building facade.
TL: How would you describe your design aesthetic at Fourth Wall Design?
Tom: I would say it leans towards the whimsical, certainly with a touch of theatricality thrown in for good measure. I’m also very partial to the mechanical element of things, so raw industrial materials and finishes have a great appeal to me as well.
DSC_8475TL: What do you see as the responsibility of the working artist to the community in which he or she lives? How would you like to see the role for locally produced, public art grow in Lakeland?
Tom: I think the local artist is much like any small business owner, where being an integral part of the community you serve is of paramount importance if you want to be successful. Embracing local charities or community programs is a good way to make your work visible to a broader audience. The biggest challenge with growing local public art is that art is not an essential component of most people’s daily lives and can be very subjective, so getting funding and consensus on public art is difficult, especially when the economy is down. I would love to see a more conscious effort made by civic and municipal entities to utilize local artists in public spaces, but understand that oftentimes these agencies are just not able to tap into the local art scene due to a lack of understanding how to connect with the artists themselves through competition or solicitation. One organization that is currently taking an active role in bridging this gap is Platform Florida. I’ve been working with them over the past few months on a collaborative sculpture project that is in partnership with the City of Lakeland, the Polk County school system, and the Veterans Memorial Park (by the Lakeland Center). The idea is to have a county-wide sculpture competition at the high school level to design a series of sculptures symbolizing the core values of honor, sacrifice, and public service, that will sit in the park. The students will create small maquettes of their sculptures, and the winning submission will be faithfully recreated by me on a much larger scale in metal. It is the perfect melding of art, education, and community. I agree with the idea that a society is reflected in its art, so any opportunity to enrich our environment in an artistic way is a benefit. Communities with strong public art on the whole seem to me to be more vibrant and alive.
TL: What kind of equipment do you typically use in your shop? Do you have a favorite construction method or a tool that you find yourself using more often than others?
Tom: I’m sort of a tool junkie and have a pretty extensive collection of hand and power tools that I use to create my furniture and art pieces. I would have to say my table saw and my MIG (metal inert gas) welder are the absolute workhorses of the studio, but I have to confess that I am currently embroiled in a passionate love affair with my CNC (computer numerically controlled) router. I also have an affinity for hand planes; they give a very fundamental satisfaction that you get from few other tools.
DSC_8581TL: How did you and Jon Bucklew become friends? What do you respect/admire most about him?
Tom: I met Jon through a mutual acquaintance when he was looking for some assistance doing a small stainless steel fabrication project on one of his very first furniture designs. We hit it off immediately and have been fast friends ever since. There are many things I admire about Jon, but I would have to say his integrity and commitment to doing things right really stood out to me from the start. He also possesses an innate design sensibility that constantly amazes me.
TL: Has his friendship helped you become a better craftsman?
Tom: Absolutely. He is constantly experimenting with different ways of doing things and will more often than not teach me something about a subject that I consider myself to be pretty well versed in.
TL: Is there ever any friendly competition between the two of you?
Tom: Not really, unless it’s collecting bigger and better power tools. Then it’s like the Cold War.
TL: Your styles are vastly different, but you use a lot of the same methods of construction. Have you ever thought of collaborating on a project? What would that look like?
Tom: We collaborate on a lot of little things, helping each other solve problems or bounce design ideas back and forth, but we have never really discussed a full-blown collaboration on
a specific project. I think it would be pretty cool, kind of like the love child of Godzilla and the Easter bunny — hard to imagine, possibly frightening, but undeniably awesome to see.