ATL

Lamon Luther

Rebuilding Hope for the Craftsman

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A man with a job is a force to be reckoned with. The parallel between the materials we use and the men we hire is poetry

__Brian Preston

I don’t usually include an Author’s Note, but seeing as this story has sensitive narrative information, I want to address the fact that I am both honored and nervous to write this story. It is humbling to give an account of Brian and his once-homeless coworkers. I cannot claim to understand poverty or any of its complexities, but my hope is that this account revives and nourishes an inner quality within us for human equality. May we learn together from Brian and the craftsman at Lamon Luther about the power of a “hand up,” a way to make a living, and reviving human integrity.

A new awakening moves through the veins of America’s economy. A revival of the craftsmen and craftswomen. A belief that locally obtained goods outweigh their mass-produced counterparts. The movement started in the food industry when Sinclairs’ nightmarish The Jungle became common, abrasive knowledge. Now, it is difficult to find any product in a big box retail chain that you couldn’t find in another local shop, on Etsy, or by an individual maker. Perhaps it is our starved tactile sensabilities that have finally won our attention and demanded that we know where our products came from and who touched them. Brian Preston, founder of Lamon Luther, answered some of the first rumblings of America’s cry for locally-made products, carving out a niche for himself and his team in the furniture market. However, Brian understood something beyond the basic carpentry: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Artisan furniture is only the means. His end is creating jobs for abandoned communities and individuals. Brian redefines the power, life, and integrity of a job by hiring homeless carpenters to “build reclaimed wood furniture all by hand.” (west elm)

Lamon Luther’s story begins with a crash. Well, actually it begins with a rugged, gentlemanly carpenter in the 1930’s, but more on that later. In 2006, the housing market crashed. With it, Brian and his wife’s residential development company came tumbling down. They lost their house, their car, and drained their savings trying to save the once well-to-do company. “For the first time in our lives, we knew what [the threat of homelessness] felt like. I remember calling mortgage companies to help us out and wondering how we were going to put gas in the car.” Soon after, they sold a majority of their belongings, downsized, and held their options up for examination. Brian eventually rebounded and settled into a job as a creative director at a church. However, at his core, Brian felt a detachment from his first professional love: carpentry.

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Our circumstances, especially the troublesome ones, often create fertile ground for fruitful innovation. Add a little bit of destiny or fate to the mixture and the stars align for the perfect concoction. Endless stories navigate the Earth spreading the epiphanies of individuals who were exhausted from the search: Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa to name a few.

Brian and his wife’s revelation occurred at the crossroads of poverty and Pinterest.

During this time of their lives, two things happened. First, Brian and a friend discovered “the village,” a community of homeless people living in the woods of suburbia. Secondly, Brian and his wife began “Saturday Pinterest Garage Day,” a day devoted to building DIY furniture from their Pinterest board. Upon first visit to the Village, the camp leader, Scott Miller, introduced himself and offered to show them around the community. Scott had lived there for four years and had seen this woodsy community swell with displaced men – many of whom had once worked in the housing industry. The trees integrated with the homes of these men, fusing nature and shelter. Tarps hung for covering, holes in the ground had been dug for warmth, and an assortment of trash had been repurposed for functional use. Make no mistake – the village boasted nothing of the Walden-esque romance you may envision. Weather threatened these shelters. Rain could mean several cold, sleepless nights, and much consideration was given to where the next meal would come from.

For the next two years, Preston would continue to develop his friendship with Scott and the other “villagers,” providing necessary supplies like firewood, propane, and batteries. Strangers turned into friends. Friends who had a couple of strokes of bad luck and eventually found themselves here. Remembering his own encounter with momentary poverty, Preston confirms how “easy it was to fall into [homelessness]. Potentially, we’re all just a few steps away from it.” However, he couldn’t help but wonder if his provisions we’re enabling homelessness rather than providing the opportunity to overcome it. This eventually led him to ask the question he feared, but could no longer ignore. One day he sat conversing in the village with Mitch, another local of this homeless habitat. With honesty and humility, Brian asked Mitch in truth, “How can we really help?” With equal frankness, Mitch answered, “Brian, what we really need is a job. We don’t have driver’s licenses, cell phones, or cars.” The implications were obvious: who’s going to hire someone without any source of identification or transportation?

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Meanwhile, Pinterest DIY days began to turn over a profit in the Preston household. These side projects had now turned into a somewhat lucrative business. Late one evening, Brian encountered what Edison called his “one percent Inspiration.” What would it look like to put these guys to work building stuff, Brian asked himself. As previously mentioned, many of the villagers used to work in carpentry. They had the experience, they just needed the opportunity.

With the help and support of his family, Brian left his safe job to risk living the story he wanted his life to tell. On January 1, 2012, he arrived at the village to pick up Roger Anthony Curtis or TC, Lamon Luther’s first employee. Together they worked on a client’s basement; not quite furniture yet. Within a months time, they received enough furniture orders that they were able to devote their focus completely to that industry. For the first time in fifteen years, TC now had a consistent way of providing for himself.

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Before any of Brian’s carpentry skills or dreams, though, a legacy began in a quiet, rural town nearly a century ago. Lamon Luther Wilson, Brian’s grandfather, was born in the foothills of Randolph County, Alabama in 1930. Brian affectionately refers to him as a “rugged gentleman,” a farmer, a mechanic, and a carpenter. He describes him as a benevolent man, a craftsman who built instead of bought. It was the legacy of this man that influenced Preston to build with his hands and revive a fading generation of craftsmen. Lamon Luther Wilson’s legacy continues with Brian as he makes the unfinished work of his grandfather’s his own, spreading the joy of that narrative to his once homeless craftsmen.

Preston continued to hire on more homeless builders and carpenters. In only two months, the men he had hired now had enough money to move into a halfway house. A new personal philosophy for Lamon Luther began to emerge around this time: Build Hope. Their shop revolves around restoration and reclamation. Their products are built from old barns, parts of houses, and pallets to make beautiful, up-cycled furniture. In the same way, Lamon Luther provides jobs and, more importantly, hope for men who have lost home, dignity, and often, connection with their families. Preston further affirms that a “man with a job is a force to reckoned with. The parallel between the materials we use and the men we hire is poetry.”

Such poetry can be seen in the case of Jeffery, Lamon Luther’s third employee. Previously homeless, Brian describes Jeffery as rough around the edges, hard at times to know what to anticipate from him. He is also the father of two girls, Madison and Ella. However, he wasn’t in their life because of his inability to provide for them. Brian noticed that Jeffery gradually began talking more about his girls at work. Eventually Jeffery approached Brian with his desire to buy his daughters new school supplies and shoes. Needless to say, Brian helped that happen. A few days later, Madison, then 9, called Preston to tell him “thanks for all of the cool stuff and for letting daddy work. For the first time in years he’s not mad any more and he comes to visit.” The job of a craftsman restored the inner dignity within Jeffrey and gave two girls their father back.

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It’s important to recognize that Preston’s efforts are not purely philanthropic; they are empowering. He describes Lamon Luther’s ability to give a “hand-up, instead of a hand-out.” All of his craftsman are incredibly talented, intelligent, and capable of building beautiful furniture. Brian simply extended the opportunity for work, hard work with tangible rewards. TC affirms this truth, “I’m grateful for being able to meet new people and associate instead of hiding from them [..] it’s great being able to buy the things that I need and go places I wanna go” (CNN).

This story carries the rugged tradition of craftsmen and gives it a future. It reveals the ability of working hands to restore a broken past. Brian, like many of us, wants to leave the world in a better condition than he entered it in. Together, the woodworkers of Lamon Luther are preserving the craft of handmade furniture and revealing the power of restoration. In his TedxAtlanta talk, Brian closes with the idea that “[We are] created to build something beautiful.” Whatever we choose to apply ourselves to, may we carry this principle into it. Lean into your art, your work, and your ideas. Remember we are all building a legacy – the question is, what kind?

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