PERFECTLY IMPERFECT MODERN FURNISHINGS
Photography by Jason Stephens
When Jon and Sarah Bucklew began to furnish their 1970s’ suburban home, they sought pieces that were both rugged and livable. Unable to find just the right thing, the furniture company Seventeen20 was born. Using responsibly sourced materials, each piece is handcrafted to be “perfectly imperfect.”
The couple’s designs seek to marry modern minimalism with industrial toughness, inspired by their travels across the globe (Jon as a touring musician and the drummer for Copeland, and Sarah through her work in technology education). After living in Lakeland over 20 years, this couple agrees that their unique venture in this city arrived at a timely season.
The Lakelander: What inspired to you both to launch Seventeen20?
Sarah: A love for design and money. Not a love for money! [laughs] A need for money.
Jon: It started because we were doing a remodel of our master bathroom. Sarah found a tub she wanted, and it was more than what we had budgeted for the bathroom remodel. (We don’t borrow money. That’s a big thing in our lives.) So we were either going to sell something, wait until we had enough money to afford the tub we wanted, or pick a different tub.
So, Sarah decided we should sell our dining table I had just made, to cover the cost of the tub. And my response was, “Well, what are we going to eat on?” And she said, “Well, you can just make us another table.” So I said, “Fair enough. Where are we going to sell a table like this in Lakeland?” She said, “We probably can’t, so we’ll try Etsy.”
I figured Etsy was just yarn, beads, and sewing. But we found quite a few furniture makers on there, so we decided to list our table for sale. To do that, you have to come up with a shop name. So we named it after our house address, 1720, but that was taken, so we decided to spell out Seventeen20, which wasn’t taken. In about three or four months, we had a request to make the table in different dimensions. After selling couple of made-to-order pieces, we sold the original piece and decided to take photos of a bed I made and put that for sale on Etsy. Then we decided we would build this coffee table I’ve been wanting to build and list that for sale. It just kind of grew from there. We listed our first product around my birthday in November 2011, sold our first piece in February 2012, and by August 2012, I had so many orders I had to rent a warehouse. That’s when we thought, “Ok, I guess this is a business.”
TL: How long have you been working on your craft?
Sarah: Jon made our bed when we got married, as a wedding present. And then he made a dresser for our first apartment.
Jon: I’ve always felt more comfortable with a drill and a screwdriver in my hands than a set of crayons. My dad and I always used tools, and when I was 18 I had a job with my friend’s brother’s company welding trailer frames together and learned how to work with steel. So, it’s just always been something I’ve done. Just never professionally, until now. The business really grew out of necessity. Both of us have traveled so much and been exposed to a lot of great design and a lot of cool furniture at a lot of cool hotels and restaurants.
Sarah: In modern design, there is this “modern” that is very pristine but not very livable. Then there’s modern that is too mid-century. I love mid-century, but it feels too precious, almost like doll furniture. And we’re like, “We have a big dog, we need stuff that is durable.”
Jon: And you have a big husband. I need to be able to dance on the table without it falling down.
Sarah: [smiling] We need something that is livable. But we couldn’t find something we liked. So a lot of the design came out of, “I want that, but more like this …”
Jon: That and the fact that we didn’t want to pay for such expensive furniture all the time. So I would just make it.
Sarah: I think eventually we would like to do light fixtures as well. Maybe more house things …
Jon: Eventually, we will. We’re growing slowly with our product line. We have to look back and see it’s been three and a half years since I sold my first piece …
Sarah: … which we called The Original. And there are certain pieces that have similar lines. So then we’ll come up with a name that captures them. We have the Bento Box collection and that came out of the idea of a bento box. I had stayed at this hotel in New York, in the Meatpacking District, and their room service came in bento boxes — for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s so cute! And the way Jon does joinery is called box joinery. So from “box,” to “bento,” it just kind of spurred the idea for the name.
We try to see things that have similar lines, similar colors or like how this table [referring to the conference table in Concord Coffee] uses this really large steel. This is called the Concord table. So anything that’s going to have this large steel, we will likely call Concord.
Jon: We’re very creative with our names.
Sarah: Yeah, we like things really simple, so [she says with a laugh] the names are all really simple.
Jon: We definitely gravitate to a design that has clean lines, is very industrial, but livable, takes a beating, and looks good doing it. But I think the hardest part about what we do is making it as simple as standing 12 feet and looks like it has no structure underneath it?
TL: What is unique about Seventeen20, compared to other places people might be buying?
Sarah: Well, obviously in our area, it’s going to be the fact that it’s handmade. In Central Florida, people are going to shop primarily at stores where things are imported (not that that’s bad), but things are mass produced. They’re made in China and then they’re sent over here. So the biggest unique quality is that our furniture is handmade.
And, too, I think it’s the restrain. There’s this famous Chanel quote, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” Her idea is, don’t overdo it. And that’s sort of how we look at it: What can we remove to make it more clean and simple? I think a lot of design often has too many details and is over complicated — just too much. Our aesthetic is much simpler. Some might think it’s too simple (laughs). It’s very minimalist.
TL: What’s the most interesting part of working in Lakeland? With all the traveling you’ve both done, why did you choose to stay here?
Jon: I think we’ve been kind of courted to move outside of Lakeland. But, at this point, we’re staying here because we’re rooted here. I think we’ve both been here so long and are so well-connected.
Sarah: And I like the opportunity you have here. Of course, you could go to places like Portland, or Brooklyn, or even Asheville, where there’s more of an artisanal community going on. So I feel Lakeland is nice, where it’s still kind of a secret that there is such a creative community here. It’s like the coolest place to go that nobody knows about … yet.
You don’t have to be cool to be here. You can be yourself. But you can be creative and you’re welcomed. And we really like that. Jon’s been here 30 years, and I’ve been here 20, so it’s like, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m old enough to say I’ve lived here 20 years.”
Jon: I don’t think Lakeland is ever pretentious, and I like that about it. Though with this business, we actually sell such few pieces in Florida as a whole, so we don’t have to be anywhere specific. Our storefront is our website. We don’t have any physical presence here, other than I rent a warehouse.
But really, all the traveling we’ve done and all the places we could be, is one of the reasons we’re here. I think I’ve learned, no matter where you live, there’s going to be something you love about it and something you hate. I used to want to get out of Lakeland, but I feel that traveling has made me appreciate staying here more.
TL: What is the creative process in designing pieces for Seventeen20?
Jon: I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve offered specific products and given people a way to purchase them on our website and leave without having to go back and forth figuring out a customized design and pricing. When they come to visit, we have size options, so our customers can select pieces that will go in their space and a size that will fit in their space. It’s like this marriage between custom and factory products.
Sarah: A lot of times we do get requests, like, “I love this table, but I want it as a desk.” Or, we have a media console and some will request, “We would like to mount it on the wall.” And that has caused us to think, “OK, if we can do that, why don’t we do this!” And it’s kind of spurred on ideas for more design. So, we do a lot of custom work.
Jon: We like to stay within the realms of our current designs, so we customize dimensions a lot and make some alterations. And then, for hospitality and for the trade, we’ll go a little further into customizations, where we’re talking about larger installations, restaurants, hospitality industry, that kind of thing. We’ll do complete custom designs for something like that.
Sarah: And a lot of our ideas come from what we’re looking for. Because we’re still remodeling our house, it’ll be things like, “OK, I really want to work on this room, and we need a desk or a table.” That process will cause us to work on something new. I’ll have an idea. Jon is really good at using Sketchup to design our pieces in 3-D so that I can visualize it. I’m not really good at drawing, but I’ll have a vision and then I’ll try to explain it. And he’ll design and say, “Are you saying this?” So we’ll go back and forth.
Jon: It works really well, because I think very structurally. So when I think of design, I think of how capable this is to accomplish structurally. And she thinks more in terms of, “Who cares about that? I want it to look like this.” When I design something, Sarah pushes me further. Then I’ll try and argue, and she’ll push me to the point that I have to figure out how to make something work within that realm. So I think it works really well. Sarah: Yeah, it’s a good team! Even in our house, we have a bathroom where I wanted to have a concrete counter, where the sink sits on it. But I wanted it to look like was floating. So we have this solid concrete counter that weighs, what, 300 pounds or something?
Jon: Yeah, so instantly I just think about water falling and making it go down the sides and things. And easy solutions to it. But, no.
Sarah: No, I wanted it to float.
Jon: She just kept pushing me until we found a solution. So we tore up the walls, and we did this big steel structure, and doubled up the studs, and now we have floating concrete
counter tops in our bathroom. So, the result of her pushing me is … good.
Sarah: But sometimes [she says, smiling] …
Jon: Yeah, I can get grumpy. It’s kind of funny.
TL: Do you have a thing or person who is a muse for Seventeen20?
Sarah: I would say our house.
Jon: Primarily, the house we’re living in. We’re still remodeling.
Sarah: We want to stock it with pieces that are cool, and we don’t want to shop only at CB2 and West Elm. (We like what they’re doing. Their designs are always very affordable.)
Jon: And we’re seven years into our five-year plan for the interior. But life has thrown us a new business and a lot of changes, so probably once we get to the outside (which is the next five-year plan), then Seventeen20 will start making outdoor furniture [laughs]!
Sarah: But it inspires us to make new things. Until the house is done.
Jon: Yeah, then we’ll have to buy another house to keep expanding the business. Though I really do get inspired by some of the industrial pieces we make. We’re working right now on a piece that’s for a restaurant set to open up soon in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, New York). So we’re being challenged to work with some new materials, some new concepts and design, which is great! So rather than just putting a picture in our portfolio, we’ll begin to work that concept into more products.
TL: How do most of your customers find you? Is it mainly through word of mouth?
Jon: Well, we did the Architectural Digest Home Design show in New York. And we also did Dwell on Design, which is Dwell’s design show. So I think those two gave us a bit more credibility. And we’re in Dwell magazine pretty consistently, so I think that affiliation gives us an exposure that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Dwell is actually giving away one of our products as a Christmas gift this year — a dining room table, that will be featured in the issue.
Items from Seventeen20 are available for purchase at their website,
seventeen20.com, at etsy.com/shop/seventeen20,
and at Amazon’s Handmade site.