interview NANCY GORDON
photography DIRT HAEHNEL
portrait photography ELIZABETH McDONOUGH

. . .


“Before my time in movies, sanding out a dining table was a boring chore
that took all day. Now, after the movie world, it’s a chance to listen to NPR,
zone in, a good excuse to take it slow.”

Maker Dirt Haehnel.
Elizabeth J in profile.
"She has always had such a stunning
and cultivated collection of jewelry.
I wanted my piece to wear her
treasures like she does,
with pride and grace."
The Elizabeth J, front view.
The Benjamin
"My best friend had just moved into a room on the
upper east side of Manhattan that was big enough
to fit his bed, but nothing else. I wanted to build him
an elegant piece to make his queen size feel like
a high rise home office."
The Heidi
"My Mom always had such a hard time finding
anything with her name on it—from purses to
those little mini license plates—so she
taught herself how to embroider."
The Omega Rain
"I've never known anyone so naturally bold, unique and comfortable
in their own skin as my sister. I've always admired this."
The Kait
My sister Kait once told me, "You are never in enough of a hurry to run.
So posh and dignified—felt like I was in the presence of royalty."
A group of Kait.
The Niko
"He's almost always the smartest guy in the room, but he still genuinely
laughs at my low-ball humor and I've always loved him for that."
The Conrad, front view.
"Every year we'd meet his Grandma and Grandpa at that little
cabin up on Lake Champlain and we wouldn't hang our suits
to dry until the motor flooded or the tubes popped,
whichever came first."
The Conrad, side view.

Sorry, but it begs the question … Is Dirt your real name?

Nope. My legal name is Jacob Augustus Haehnel. Most of my boys back home still call me Jake, but pretty much anybody outside of White River Junction knows me as Dirt.

Rather than going to college, you chose an interesting and tough business to pursue. Tell us about being a film redirector and a grip, and heading to New York from your home in Vermont.

College was never really in the cards for me. I’ve never had much success at learning in academic environments. I still credit my graduating high school to the fact that for the first few years Killington resort was handing out lift passes for A’s and B’s. Plus, my dad taught there, so the principal always went easy on me. I also knew I wanted to make movies for a living and was convinced that on-set experience would be more valuable in the industry than a diploma.

NYC was never really a destination for me. I just sort of followed the jobs there. I started on my first movie, A Brief Reunion, shot in and around Lyme, New Hampshire. I was [in the] art department; they hired me for my carpentry experience. From there it was a few production assistant jobs and then I found the grip and electric crew. It’s funny thinking back about how much I wanted to be a big-time director when I was little, long before I even knew what that entailed. It didn’t take more than a year in the film industry to realize how completely opposite I was from the director types and how well I fit in with the gripping guys. I don’t think I fancy myself an artist the way that most directors do. I’m a builder; grips are builders.

How has your grip experience affected your life now?

There’re definitely some technical skills that have stuck. A lot of my experience in that career was about building things the simplest yet safest and strongest way, so I think I often look at structure with that same sensibility now. Even in the designs of my smallest pieces. Simple, beautiful, but strong and lasting.

The movie industry in general has taught me how to handle a frantically fast work pace. Everything on-set is done with an extreme sense of urgency. I guess it really taught me to appreciate a normal, slower work environment. Before my time in movies, sanding out a dining table was a boring chore that took all day. Now, after the movie world, it’s a chance to listen to NPR, zone in, a good excuse to take it slow.

Any advice that has stayed with you?

Yeah, and I think this probably came along with that fast-paced, need-it-yesterday movie set mentality, but I used to get really, really tense on sets. Especially when I was leading a crew. I remember picking fights with higher ups in production when they broke for lunch 60 seconds or asked for an extra 10 minutes of shooting at the end of the day. Minuscule stretches of the rules in the long view, but they seemed like astronomical injustices in the moment.

There is one day I remember … I was huffing and puffing in the back of the grip truck for some reason or another, steam coming out of my ears, and my good friend, Tim Bruno—he’d been on set a lot longer than I had—came up and said, “Hey, just let a little go.” That piece of advice from Tim has always stuck with me. When it’s all too much and overwhelming it’s OK to just let something fall off. It’s not all going to happen all the time. I carry that one with me.

You were also making indy films with friends. Subjects of these films?

From 9 or 10 years old up through high school, me and a group of buddies used to make short films together. They started as Jackass-style compilations of us jumping our bikes off logs and sledding off cliffs set to Three Dog Night and AC/DC and eventually graduated into real stories with scripts and actors. A couple even did OK in the festival circuit, but they were always super-lighthearted and mostly just an excuse for us to all spend time together.

Any plans to return to filmmaking?

Not in any real capacity. I still regard gripping as one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, but the lifestyle just wasn’t sustainable for me. Although me, the boys and my dad have gotten together every October for the past couple of years to shoot a horror short for the annual Halloween-a-thon competition in my hometown. My dad writes a script then we all take a weekend off to regroup out at his camp in Vermont and shoot it. It’s something I’ve really begun to look forward to every fall.

You supported your films with carpentry jobs. Was this the start of Dirt Wood Brass?

Definitely. I have been doing residential carpentry since I was 11 or 12 and my mom needed help turning the west wall in the living room into a railing above the stairs. My first real position in a shop was at Meeting House Restorations in Quechee as an antique refurbisher. That was back when I still thought that carpentry was just a means to an end. But I gained an appreciation for fine craftsmanship there that has stuck with me, whether I knew it at the time or not.

After moving to upstate New York and making my decision to leave the film industry, my passion for woodworking crept back to the surface. I was lucky enough to meet Michael Robbins through a shared contact and spent three-plus years working at his shop building custom furniture in New York’s Hudson Valley. My time in Robbins’ shop showed me the possibility of turning my passion and curiosity for woodcraft into a real career. After hours in the Robbins shop is where the idea for Dirt Wood Brass was born and where the first few designs were roughed into existence.

What value did your monthlong fellowship at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Camden bring to your craft?

I wanted to use my move from upstate New York to Maine as a jumping off point for Dirt Wood Brass, so I immediately reached out to the CFC. I was honored when they accepted me as a fellow. Of course, this was early in the year, late February, and weeks before my stay there was to begin, the school was shut down due to the pandemic. Luckily for me the worst of the virus only manifested as a few healthy months of working the lumber aisle at Home Depot, in an orange apron. Not at all where I imagined I would find myself after leaving Michael Robbins’ high-end, nationally recognized furniture shop, but I am grateful nonetheless to have found work at all during a time when so many were left without.

I was a fellow at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship for one month once they were able to safely reopen their shop. I used this month to test and workshop a number of designs that had been sketches in a notebook before. My time at the CFC was invaluable concerning my growth as a business. There are many pieces in circulation now, that I believe would not have come to fruition were it not for the time I was gifted to explore at their shop.

Each piece in your current series of work is named after family and friends. How did this come together? Which was the first piece?

The first design I created was the Elizabeth J, named after my girlfriend. This piece was designed before I had the notion of opening up my own shop. I gifted it to her for our third anniversary. The second piece was for my brother, Ben, which I would eventually coin the Benjamin. These pieces bear the names of the people dear to me that they were first created for. Even though the designs that came after may not have been created with a specific person in mind I still wanted to stick with the theme and name them all after, as my mom would say, “my humans.”

Each product page on the Dirt Wood Brass website features a quote that goes along with the piece’s namesake. The Heidi, my mom, who could never find a purse with her initials. The Kait and the Omega Rain, my two sisters.

All of these pieces look alive and have personalities. Were these qualities intended?

Dirt Wood Brass pieces are meant to form to their owners. The Elizabeth J, for instance, features a proud stance with an open face that acts as a canvas for what is hung on it. It is meant not only to be a beautiful object on your vanity, but to showcase the treasures you hang around its neck. Its look, personality and mood change with the jewelry featured on its bust.

For other pieces, like the Benjamin, I have purposefully incorporated natural materials, like leather, that will physically grow with those who use it. Over time the Benjamin’s prominent blotter and leather straps will form to everyday use and become completely unique to any other with the same design. The subtle indent from your favorite coffee mug in the top right corner, the rolled spot on the handle from your wedding ring…

What is your favorite personal furniture style?

The furniture I grew up with was almost always hand-me-down or thrift store finds. I remember there being much less emphasis on style and much more on function. In this regard, I am drawn to simple farmhouse furniture. I like a breadboard dining table that still shows the cuts from mom’s chef knife or the smoke ring from grandma’s ash tray. I like to make pieces that, 20 to 30 years down the road, may start to look like this. I make pieces that are meant to last and be handed down so that 80 years from now someone can look at the wear on an Omega Rain and know the owner was left-handed.

Will you be designing any home furniture in this style?

I do plan on going bigger with my next designs. Right now, with the Namesake Collection everything is mostly tabletop-size. I have designs for some full-size benches and desks that I’d like to realize in the near future. I do plan to keep the look and feel in line with pieces I am already running. I think coherence in a collection is very important.

. . .

Favorite …
Is bourbon a snack? If bourbon is a snack then Bulleit Bourbon, neat. Otherwise, one of those giant cartons of goldfish.

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