Vermont furniture maker Jason Breen brings together two seemingly opposing forces in his work: tradition and innovation. It’s a combination that embodies the spirit of Vermont. “Vermont is (in)famous for its Yankee ingenuity, but also for its traditional style and respect for history. That combination inspires me in my work,” he says. That explains his lifestyle — he and his family work the land on which they live — and his approach to furniture making as well as his interest in history and involvement in dendrochronology.
Nature and natural forms are also an inspiration. This translates into natural shapes and curves in his furniture. His earliest experiences with woodworking were helping his father build a house as a child, then studying guitar-building as a teen. Throughout it all, his love of natural forms and curves persisted. In fact, one of Breen’s dreams is to make a desk out of a single flat piece of wood, coopered, steambent, and cut into a curvy masterpiece, similar to that of Jere Osgood, by whom he is influenced.
Because another one of his inspirations are the tools he uses to work the land, his furniture has a simple and elegant, functional look. Even now, one of Breen’s most striking pieces, and possibly his favorite, is his perfumer’s organ, emblematic of his unique style. (Get the full story on this incredible piece by clicking here).
Breen works with wood in more than one way. He also assists dendrochronologist Chris Baisan of the University of Arizona.
Dendrochronology is the use of tree rings in dating objects. If the conditions are right to preserve building materials, dendrochronology can be used to date buildings and other wooden objects back thousands of years. This is accomplished by analyzing the widths of the rings of a given type of tree. Every year a tree creates a new ring, and the ring is a different size based on the growing season. Each pattern of rings is like a fingerprint that identifies the years the tree was alive. So, two trees that are felled in the same region in the same year will have rings that look very similar to each other. If you then took a tree that was felled a few years ago, you could compare the rings of that tree to the ones about which you have chronological information and line up the similar rings to deduce when that ring was cut down.
This method is used to create a catalog of ring sizes per tree type and per region. This method has allowed anthropologists to determine the years southwestern native American cultures built their houses with great accuracy. Not only that, but because the ring sizes tell you about the growing season for that specific year, you can get an idea of what the weather was like that year — even if you have no other record of it.
Breen takes samples from historical buildings in Southern Vermont and sends them to Baison for analysis. The analysis is used to date the structures, and can be compared to historic records, weather patterns, and so on to get a snapshot of history.
When not working with wood, Breen embraces traditional skills and working with his hands. “I farm, blacksmith, play music, teach my children at home and gather with friends and neighbors for fun, pleasure, work and comfort in times of need.” His self-reliance extends to his woodworking as well. “Much of my lumber I mill myself, about half I fell from my own neighborhood.”
Breen’s love of nature makes him a passionate advocate for the environment. “I have always tried to care for the land. This is true in my woodwork as well. I carefully select trees to be culled to improve the health of the forest and the surrounding ecosystem, of which I recognize myself and family as integral. Thus, caring for the forest is caring for my families health and welfare.”
Even though tradition and innovation are sometimes at odds, Breen has found the perfect synthesis of the two. He has taken the hard work of traditional, natural living and honed it to the heights of artistry.