Ryan Pierce builds pieces that last a lifetime
Words by Michael Woods
Ryan Pierce needed an unusual frame.
“I’ve been involved in different art forms for as long as I can remember,” he explains. “I had been making these little sculptures, and I wanted to make a frame for one of them. And it was a very odd sort of shape. I needed a pear-shaped frame, which I had no idea how to do.”
It was a year after he graduated college. He was living in Oxford, Mississippi, working in restaurants, thinking about going to law school, when he met John Noonan. A native of Naples, Florida, Noonan was a government worker who had retired nearby on a farm-home to be near his family.
“I had heard that John did woodworking, and I just started going over to his shop on a weekly basis and became kind of an apprentice,” he goes on. “Just started learning the basics of it, and it just took off very naturally from there.”
Noonan was curious about the unique project, but the two soon got swept up in other projects, first making a unique chair, followed by a parade of pieces. What started as a curiosity turned into a hobby. By this point, Pierce was accepted into law school at the University of Mississippi, and he had applied and been accepted into the Mississippi Teacher Corps. He even tried working in a law firm to see if he would like it.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in a creative field, but I didn’t know how to get into one, you know? I didn’t have anybody there showing me how to do it,” he says. “But I had this woodworking stuff going on in the background, and people started asking me to make things for them.”
Noonan was trepidatious about woodworking as a full-time career for Pierce, and he instilled some fear into him. But eventually, Pierce figured that even doing the craft part-time, while working another job as well, would be an enjoyable life for him. He loved that every day was different, every process a new challenge. He loved going into the shop every morning and seeing a piece come more and more into focus. It felt meaningful to track each job, to see the final work that he created, and to send it out into the world.
He told his parents what he wanted to do, and they supported his dream. His mother loaned him $5,000, which he used to build his first shop. He bought tools every aspiring woodworker needs: a band saw, a table saw, a planer. He read books and experimented with making his own work. He would accept jobs he didn’t know how to do, just to gain new skills. He would use a different kind of finish on each chair and table and daybed, just to get experience with it.
Within the first year, he was able to quit restaurants and offices and go full-time, against all expectations. Eventually, he bought a house in Water Valley, with a barn on the property and enough room to fit the expanded roster of tools: a drum sander, a domino cutter. There was also space refashioned into a solar kiln.
“That’s my shop. And it’s just plenty of space—more space than I ever need.”
How he sources his wood is varied. When it comes to big jobs, such as a new restaurant needing chairs or tables, the supply comes from Hood Distribution in Memphis. He can get walnut, cherry, maple, oak, “really just anything I can want.” When it comes to specialized jobs, he calls Superior Artisan Wood and Slabs in Tupelo.
“They specialize in big slabs, live-edge slabs, things that have come down locally,” he says. “Wood that has a lot of character. None of it is perfect. None of it is graded. But it’s the most beautiful kind of stuff you can get.”
When it comes to personalized jobs, Pierce sources his own wood.
“If it’s a species of wood which I find valuable and am interested in working with, or if I can turn it around into a piece of furniture, I’ll go get the log, bring it back, sawmill it up, dry it myself. And that’s a whole process in and of itself. We’ll saw it and let it dry for months on end—sometimes a year or more—before using it.”
Pierce has had a lot of odd requests. For a restaurant in Oxford, he was asked to make a bench that could reverse engineer itself into a bar. He recently finished a job making record shelving and a waterfall island for The End of All Music in Jackson.
But dining tables are the most in demand, and for emotional reasons.
“People are willing to pay a little bit more for a dining table than for other things because they have such a unique spot. They’re meaningful. They’re kind of the hearths of the house these days. People have this idea that they’ll buy a table for their family, and then they’ll have it for the rest of their family’s life. There’ll be the scratches—just all of the scars of a family embedded into the top of it.”
There are other family heirloom pieces. A platform bed was fashioned from a tree the client’s grandfather felled and milled decades prior. A tree that fell during a storm that a family has played on and connected to, can turn into a new work in a new home. The memory of the family, and of the tree, stays alive just in presence.
This emotional depth extends to Pierce and his own story.
When his mother, who kickstarted this professional journey, passed away, she willed him several pieces from their family collection, markers of her life in his new home. He’s used these as inspiration for other customers, such as recreating an island, remaking his childhood memories so that others can have new ones. He wants to create a dining table inspired by the one of his childhood he has now inherited. Nothing about it has changed. There’s even a note still scratched into the top. When anyone walks into the house, they see the table and love it. They ask if Ryan made it.
“I feel like I’m sending out the memory of my mother into the world,” he says. “These are pieces that are picked and collected. I guess I’m more interested in simpler, more modern furniture, and the pieces she had around our house are more antique in style. But I loved them. Because they have a history behind them.”
Noonan also passed away in 2017. The two friends never did finish the frame that drew them together. The pieces still sit in the shop.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ryan describes the process of woodworking as “a restorative practice; it’s a healing practice.” It’s a place to create and to give, to do good, simple work that can enrich the lives of the people in his community and in his home state.
When talking about his own style, which many have come to call “country-modern” (an aesthetic that fuses more contemporary, direct style with naturalism), he reveals himself to be a true craftsman who continues to explore and draw inspiration. He is not settled in. He wants to evolve.
“I would like to work in a more modern style. That’s my native style, I would say. I really love George Nakashima’s style. He incorporated live-edge tabletops and things with very shaker-style bases. It’s just a very organic, natural, yet modern feel. When you look at it, it feels like very spiritual furniture. It feels like it has a soul and a body to it, you know.”
Right now, Pierce is caught up building a new studio on the property for his wife Hannah McCormick, who’s an artist. It’s almost finished. They have a new baby girl named Noa. Pierce is working, doing what he loves on his own terms, and the business is only growing. The family history has never ended, only continued and evolved. The pieces he creates are beautiful, rich, sturdy, ready to be used, and create stories to be recalled and passed down. He builds what will last, that doesn’t break and need replacing.
“A piece of furniture can destroy itself over time. Wood moves back and forth across the grain, and if you’re not conscientious of that fact, and you’re not building that movement into your pieces, they’ll just crack and bow and fall apart over time. The role we fill in the market is just for people that want some things a little higher-end, that will last a long time. They’re only gonna buy this thing once, and they want it for the rest of their life. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m here for.”