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3-course interview: Matthew Holdren, carpenter 

The woodworker on building out restaurants

click to enlarge matthewholdren.jpg

Local carpenter and woodworker Matthew Holdren ( has worked on a number of restaurants in the city including Blue Oak BBQ, CellarDoor, Ursa Major, Booty's Street Food and The Franklin. Holdren spoke with Gambit about building out a restaurant and current trends in the industry.

What's the creative process like when a restaurant owner commissions you to build a restaurant?

Holdren: A lot of people just see me as the carpenter — the guy building out what (the designers) already came up with. I think the owners come to me because they respect what I do and they appreciate the work. Even if there's an architect or a designer, there's still a lot that becomes something where I can put my signature or stamp on it.

  I might get approached by someone who says, "We love what you do, and we want you to do that in our space." I might show them the material, and we'd go over the dimensions and talk about whether we want (the space) to be light or dark, how refined or how rustic we want it to be; there's definitely a big conversation happening.

  With Ursa Major, I came up with six different ways we could do the banquettes to make them interesting. Then we all talked about it; we got input from everyone, from the waitstaff to the chef. As someone who builds out spaces, I'm learning more and more about restaurants, but I've never worked in a restaurant, so I want to know these things.

How do you describe your aesthetic?

H: Trying to mix old material — found material that I get from around town — with a little bit more modern and contemporary look, and then trying to meld the two of them together. Really, trying to find material that's interesting. ... I'm always trying to do what I think is original, so I'm kind of always pushing myself. I'd say the material really pushes me and takes it from there — looking at the material and looking at the space.

  I try to not just do what everyone else is doing or what is in at the time. There are definitely things that I've done in the past that I don't do anymore because of those reasons. You start to see things that are getting done (often) in restaurants, like the reclaimed wood look. I've been working a lot more with steel, which can be very trendy, too. So, I'm always battling that. I don't want it to be too trendy; I want something that people are going to look at in 50 years and think that it still looks good. I'd like to get more into the classic look that's a little bit more refined, but that can still push into the modern world.

  I just finished Blue Oak BBQ. That was my total design and build out ... so that was a lot of fun because I really got to push myself into the flow of a restaurant and work on how to make the space work (and) how to change the way it was laid out. The idea was to make it rustic but a little bit more refined, while still keeping in mind that it is a barbecue spot where you would stand in line to get a pile of meat.

What's the most challenging aspect of restaurant design?

H: There's always this crazy deadline. I never get enough time to do it. When doing the retail spaces ... I tend to have more time to work on them, and there's definitely less issues as far as health department (codes) and inspections go. (Blue Oak BBQ) took me about a month and a half... but it was realistically a four-month project. In most cases, it takes about two to three months, and if I'm building everything in the restaurant it might take me a while.


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