In a 1957 Time magazine article, the iconic German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said of furniture made by architects: “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.” That’s why, when Atlanta architect Jonathon Quinn decided to become a furniture maker, he started with a chair.
“I told myself that if I could get a chair that worked well into production, then I could make it as a furniture designer,” says Quinn of his bestselling Z Lounger. In the almost five years since that first project, he has added sofas, platform beds, storage pieces, and custom designs to his line—many made of reclaimed timber from fallen trees or discarded wood.
The University of Florida grad came to Atlanta in 2005 to work with an architecture firm and study at Southern Polytechnic State University. But five years later, he stumbled into a new career when, after purchasing his first house in Cabbagetown, he struggled to replace his student-grade apartment furnishings. “With a background in architecture, I had standards for design,” he says. “But it’s hard to fill up a house when you’re looking for heirloom pieces.”
One Monday at lunch, Quinn spotted a Craigslist ad offering a hundred pieces of midcentury modern furniture at fire sale prices. A Florida boat dealer was liquidating a cache of highly collectible Heywood-Wakefield and Danish modern pieces that he had received when a customer defaulted. Recognizing the once-in-a-lifetime deal, Quinn rented a car, drove seven straight hours to Mt. Dora, and bought the entire lot for $6,500. He furnished his home, then began restoring and selling the rest—offering to design new pieces when he didn’t have what a customer wanted. The side business grew, until Quinn started working full time with his company, South of Urban, in 2012.
“After Mad Men, midcentury design was a huge deal,” says Quinn, whose initial creations had a definite retro flavor. As he’s grown into his new craft, though, his work—such as a bar cart he designed for this past June’s Modern Atlanta exposition—has become more original.
Sometimes inspiration comes from the reclaimed materials themselves. “I feel like they tell a story,” says Quinn. “I look at the grain, and I think about these trees growing during the turbulent times of the ’60s. I feel like I’m continuing the narrative.”
Limiting production enables Quinn to incorporate fine details like book-matched boards, which are sliced from the same log and placed side by side with opposing grains. “The fabrication is something I love—the craft and the skill of it,” he notes.
Quinn says the name South of Urban is meant to imply movement—a fluid direction and a nod to what is typically the more industrial side of a city. Equally significant is “Urban,” as Quinn sees his studio and his work as part of an effort to reclaim skilled manufacturing and revitalize the city’s core.
This article originally appeared in our Fall 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.