From the factory floor to funky tabletop

by  David Hayes,  The Toronto Star, September 6, 2011

One day, while walking past a cluster of craftspeople at the Distillery District, I spotted some funky looking furniture. In a world filled with laminated particleboard and second-rate construction, these rough-hewn pieces, handcrafted from reclaimed wood and nicely welded metal stands and frames, stood out. They’re made by Steve Wallin, of Salvage Interiors (, and a conversation about how they’d look in a home soon turned to renting.

But first, more about Wallin and his furniture. Born and raised inHalifax, Wallin is a compact 29-year-old with a buzzed head, short-cropped beard and moustache and black, Buddy Holly-style square-framed glasses. He also sports full-sleeve tattoos, plus more on his back, chest and stomach and legs. He moved toOntarioa decade ago to study sound engineering at Recording Arts Canada. After graduating, he landed a job doing live sound, lighting and video for Westbury National Show Systems, a major entertainment technology company, which he kept doing until earlier this year.

He became interested in making furniture two years ago when he was living with his then-girlfriend, Renee Elliott, the blogger and self-proclaimed “arts-and-crafts nerd.” They had an antique Singer sewing machine base and one day saw a lovely wooden door on the street. Wallin cut it down, put it on top of the base and created a “weird, funky piece of outdoor furniture for our patio.” Inspired, he started educating himself. He learned a lot from a friend who is a cabinet-maker and he enrolled in George Brown College’s welding program. (Today he’s a certified welder which, he points out, is “one more thing to fall back on, if necessary.”)

After he and Elliott formed Salvage Interiors, Elliott’s connections in the fashion and retail world got the venture off to a great start. Pieces were on consignment in high-profile outlets such as Regina Sheun’s Labour of Love boutique in Cabbagetown, Michelle Germain’s Shopgirls gallery and boutique on Queen West and Kym Klopp’s EcoExistence onVaughn Rd.When Salvage Interiors won a big contract to do most of the fixtures for Canadian babywear retailer Mini Mioche’s Queen West store, Wallin quickly found a studio at Black Creek andWeston Rd., bought welding equipment and hired an electrician to put in the power. (He’s still there although he and Elliott’s business partnership ended when their relationship did earlier this year.)

Today, Salvage Interiors has become successful enough that Wallin works at it full-time, focusing almost exclusively on custom commissions. He also moved into a one-bedroom apartment onSudbury St., the recently-opened, 18-storey affordable housing project a stone’s throw from The Gladstone Hotel. A partnership between St. Clares Multifaith Housing and Verdiroc Development Corp., 180Sudburyhas 190 apartments. Most rents are slightly below average market prices and 25 per cent of them are subsidized. Wallin pays $950 a month for his 500-square-foot unit.

The apartment is filled with art — an eclectic mix that includes one of American artist Marilyn Minter’s limited edition skateboards, one of local artist Jon Todd’s Mexican skulls and an ominous-looking sculpture that turns out to be an antique hand-held welder’s mask. Two of Wallin’s pieces stand out. His TV stand is a steel base on which sits a striking piece of hemlock with pewter and grey-green tones. It’s part of the wood unearthed when the historic Queen’s Wharf was found buried at the foot ofBathurst St. A waist-high console table is made from a piece of oak — probably timber from a barn — Wallin found at an antique market and put on a rolled steel base.

“My parents owned our home, but whenever I’ve thought about my future I’ve focused on the kind of place I’ve wanted, the location of it and how it fit my lifestyle. Whether I owned or rented it wasn’t the issue.”

A dedicated downtown guy, all Wallin wants to do, he tells me, is make furniture. He knows that earning a living as an artist is usually precarious, so he’s not interested in risking his passion by becoming house poor just to say he’s a homeowner.

“Sure, it would be great to own someday,” he says, laughing. “But I don’t know if I’ll ever make the kind of money that would let me buy the kind of place I’d want to own.”

Although there seems to be a gradual change in this kind of thinking as house prices in the city soar, our culture still equates homeowning with success. “I feel that’s just one of many social viewpoints that I don’t care about,” says Wallin. “I have good friends who see things that way, and that’s fine. They don’t treat me negatively because I’m a renter. But it’s such a common view that even I start to think, gee, maybe I should be considering it. Then I think, awww, no, it’s not important.

As Nathan, his affectionate, 6-year-old black American Staffordshire terrier/boxer cross nuzzles his leg, Wallin looks thoughtful. “I think the things you want to do with your life are more important than whether you own a home or not. Ultimately, it’s just about paying to live somewhere, isn’t it?”