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Merging Sustainability and Creativity

Article by Meghan Smith / Photography by Heather Douglas

With the Muskoka landscape as a backdrop, Dan Alonso and Candice Sheriff have merged creativity and commitment to sustainability as the root of their lifestyle. Their way of life has blossomed into Live Edge Forest.

For nine years, Alonso planted trees across Canada. During this experience, he saw slash burning occur in British Columbia and Ontario, with all of the “garbage” trees cut down, piled up and burned.

“After all of my planting, I couldn’t understand why they were doing that,” shares Alonso, co-owner and artistic craftsman of Live Edge Forest. “I thought maybe I should start a mulching company where I could just get the free wood and start mulching. But that was kind of the seed that started Live Edge Forest. Instead of cutting the forest down, I wanted to work with trees that were already down.”

Alonso, originally from Toronto, began crafting charcuterie boards four years ago, in London. At one of the first large shows Alonso attended to sell his craft, he met Sheriff. Originally from Oshawa, Sheriff, a graphic designer, was running the event

“She was the first person to buy one of the boards at the show, actually,” laughs Alonso. “Candice has a design background. So, when she jumped on board, we started making different furniture and custom things that people would ask us to make.”

Harvesting new materials from the forest goes against what Alonso and Sheriff believe and want to achieve with their artistry. Trees that have fallen from natural causes are plentiful. Live Edge Forest strives to recycle and make useful trees that are already discarded.

“People will call us all the time or tell us ‘we have a tree to come down’,” comments Sheriff. “It’s great that people think of us… but we don’t actually take trees down and process them.”

“I’ve planted over a million trees in my life,” states Alonso. “I don’t want to be a part of taking any down.”

The natural surroundings of Muskoka have been, and continue to be, the inspiration for tourists to visit the region, people to relocate to the area and artists to share their interpretation of the landscape. For Sheriff and Alonso, visiting just wasn’t enough.

“I grew up going to a camp in Dorset, from five years old, all the way to 19,” shares Alonso. “We’ve been visiting here to camp, even in the winter, for years. On Candice’s 30th birthday, we joked that we should move up to Muskoka because we liked it so much and then a year later, we did.”

“Live edge” refers to the outer part of a tree, minus the bark. Creating fur-niture or art pieces with a live edge involves cutting the log into slabs. The entire slab is used, with only the bark removed, leaving the natural edge of the wood to shine through.

Every one of their creations allows Sheriff and Alonso to expand their designs. What began as simple charcuterie boards has grown to include river tables, customized with sand or stone, doors inlaid with rocks collected from across Canada and even custom fire tables.

“At first, we were really big into the branding and design side,” explains Sheriff, who is also a yoga instructor. “We would silk screen our own T-shirts and do our designs. All over my yoga studio, we would just lay everything out.”

The creative designs and offerings of LEF have continued to evolve along with activities Sheriff and Alonso enjoy as part of their own lifestyle. For one of Alonso’s birthdays, they created a canoe board; a charcuterie board featuring glass holders that attach to the side of a canoe to enjoy while on a paddling adventure. Any items they see use for in their lives, they produce from reclaimed wood.

“Since we moved up here, three years ago, we really started morphing more into artistic and functional art,” explains Sheriff. “That’s when we started mixing stonework with wood and then bringing other elements, like rivers, into our tables. We’re adding nature into everything really.”

Adding inlays to charcuterie boards and tables remind Sheriff and Alonso of the bodies of water and landscapes they continue to explore canoeing and camping across Muskoka.

“Often we get inspiration from the wood itself,” says Sheriff. “We’ll see a piece and think ‘what if we did this with it’. We get a lot of inspiration from our surroundings, up here, too. We love the water. We love hiking and camping. I’d say nature is our biggest inspiration.”

Sheriff’s yoga practice even inspired the creation of their sister company, Mantus Yoga. Using the wood shavings and cut-offs from their LEF designs – to create meditation benches, yoga blocks and even meditation pillows – allows Sheriff and Alonso to use entire trees, with virtually no waste.

“We thought the pillows might be prickly with the shavings as the filling,” explains Sheriff. “They’re not at all, though. We add lavender and they’re perfect pillows for meditating. They are very grounding.”

While the majority of the material used by LEF is sourced from already fallen trees, the team are always looking for additional ways to incorporate materials that would otherwise be waste. In recent months, Alonso and Sheriff have partnered with Dianne Hoegler and Jed Smuck of Deep Water Wood to add another offering to their repertoire.

Deep Water Wood specializes in marine exploration, recovery and the processing of logs retrieved from the depths of Muskoka lakes and surrounding bodies of water. The timbers are hundreds of years old, felled by axe in the 1800s, moved from the forest to the lakes and rivers for milling. The timbers never made it to their destination, sinking to the bottom of the lakes.

The old growth timbers are a variety of types of wood: maple, birch, ash and even oak. It is unknown how long exactly they have been submerged and how old they actually are. Deep Water Wood’s ability to reclaim the exceptional logs and process them has allowed Live Edge Forest to work with wood unlike anything they can find on land.

“Working with Deep Water Wood has been a pretty cool collaboration,” says Sheriff. “They’re just around the corner in Windermere. It’s such a special piece of local history. It adds another layer to our story, of sustainability and being locally sourced.”

“We don’t cut anything down to profit,” explains Alonso. “The deep water wood collection is so different and special. It’s very dense and the grain is so tight. It’s preserved itself even better under water. It’s beautiful to work with.”

Wood, whether deep water wood or trees already fallen on land, has to be slabbed and kiln dried to six to eight per cent moisture before LEF can begin their journey to produce functional art. Local friends who own portable saw mills are often called on to process found wood for the couple. While they do plane, sand and finish all of the wood they use, Alonso and Sheriff prefer to focus on the artistry and design, and stay away from processing.

“There are so many things we could make,” says Alonso. “That’s why we are focusing on custom, because then we don’t have to decide and narrow it down.”

The duo allows the wood they collect to guide the pieces they create. When they bring slabs back to their workshop, they plane the wood to make it flat. Depending on the creation, they may route shapes or designs into the wood or simply sand and finish the wood with beeswax.

Custom dining tables, coffee tables, clocks, vases, jewelry and even bow ties, are all items Alonso and Sheriff craft in their home studio in Port Carling. Even their custom orders give them significant freedom to allow the wood to shine.

“A lot of the time, clients give us a general idea or dimensions for a custom piece but that’s as far as they go,” comments Alonso. “Then they ask us what we think will work best.”

Sheriff’s favourite work to date was a custom piece for Northern Edge Algonquin, a retreat in Algonquin Park. The large tabletop was crafted from walnut, in the shape of a tree with intricate branch designs and inlays.

“Dan actually had a broken hand at the time,” comments Sheriff. “I did all of the design, all of the routering, all of the inlays with stone and sand. The owners had collected special items to inlay, like sand from St. Andrews in Scotland. It was very special to complete such a big piece.”

Alonso and Sheriff’s first major installation of functional art was at Muskoka Brewery with the redesign of the taproom to feature large tables, 24 stools and heaps of Muskoka character. Since then, Live Edge Forest can be found in shops in southern Ontario and across Muskoka.

“We just love being surrounded by forest,” says Alonso. “Being up here is so peaceful and inspirational. Nothing compares to the beauty of Muskoka.”

Every piece of furniture designed and crafted by Live Edge Forest is embossed with a pewter coin featuring the logo. Smaller pieces sport a burned in version of the brand, clearly letting everyone know that, small or large, each work of art is hand-made, sustainable and recycled.

Santa’s Village approached LEF recently as the attraction embarked on a renovation. Pine trees from the property that had fallen had been slabbed and drying for several years. They wanted to outfit a restaurant in the theme park with a bar counter, tables and chairs, using the wood from the property.

“We don’t normally work with soft woods, like pine, because it will easily dent and scratch,” says Sheriff. “We made an exception for that project, though. It was wood from the property and for us to use it and keep it there on site felt right.”

The brand motto “We design. We create. We share.” conveys Sheriff and Alonso’s lifestyle and outlook as much as it conveys their hope for each of their art pieces.

“We’re about sharing. That’s our lifestyle,” says Alonso. “We really enjoy food and drinks and sharing that with people. We’d love to include a section on our website about some of our favourite pairings.”

Extending a step further, Sheriff and Alonso have recently partnered with local businesses to offer workshops that merge their love of food, drinks and sharing.

“We talk about food and drink pairings, and everyone crafts their own board,” explains Sheriff. “We teach them how to sand with the different grains and finish it properly. Then we end it with a big spread for everyone to enjoy and taste.”

Sheriff and Alonso enjoy sharing their lifestyle with friends, family and anyone who wants to be involved. Even more importantly, they work together every step of the way through their process. Every piece of functional art they create is crafted by them sharing ideas, designs, work and inspiration through the entire process. Live Edge Forest is built on sustainability. Alonso and Sheriff are building their continued success on partnership.

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