A Fondness for Wood’s Irregularities

A craftsman opts for simplicity, using the minimum amount of materials
Santiago Campomar is still tinkering with his prototype mahogany deck chair, seen atop a Felder table saw in his Noyac workshop. Durell Godfrey

A bumper sticker in the rear window of Santiago Campomar’s Toyota Tacoma pickup truck shows Bob Marley’s tousled, dreadlocked head and quotes from his “Redemption Song”: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”

Turns out bumper stickers aren’t always political. Here’s one that might even say something other than puddle deep about the man who put it on his truck, a maker of all manner of high-end furniture and cabinetry who did just what it suggests, first freeing himself from the mental slavery — read: boredom and lack of creativity — of a career in international business, which he studied in college, and then further freeing himself from the idea that he needed to stay in his native Argentina.

“I was traveling around the world for two years surfing when I realized I did not want to go back there,” he said one morning as the calendar page was at last about to turn from a too-cold March. “I was in Ecuador” — the surf’s better there — “hanging out and doing crafts with indigenous people, when I met some surfers from here.”

Short story even shorter, they recommended the South Fork as surfer-friendly and livable, if somewhat less paradisiacal than coastal Ecuador. He arrived here not long after the turn of the new century and stuck around, eventually settling in Noyac, where he lives with his wife, Maria, whom he met on a plane from Argentina, and their two daughters. He works out of a detached two-car garage at his house on a hillock dotted by bagged surfboards. A small covered sailboat in the scraggly woods awaits warmer weather. 

But slipping the bonds of mental slavery can also mean refusing to give doubt the time of day. In Mr. Campomar’s case, woodworking was not something he was taught by a beloved grandfather in a dusty workshop redolent of plywood and glue, well-worn hand tools lining its pegboard walls.

 “I had no experience in it,” he said. “None.” He just did it, starting as an adult and following his bliss wherever it might lead, for example, into the depths of construction Dumpsters in search of discarded but perfectly usable wood.

Along the way, Mr. Campomar uncovered innate talents and learned he had an eye for the craft. (He still uses his first project as a coffee table at his house.) Taking a job as a woodworker’s assistant in an old potato barn in Water Mill, he received some sage advice: Finished with a piece though you think you might be, “keep sanding.” Seven or eight years later, he was on his own. 

Mr. Campomar has progressed to the point where, for one example, untold board-feet of his walnut cabinetry and closets figure prominently in a sleek new house on North Haven designed by Blaze Makoid, the sine wave patterns of the wood’s grain aligning and repeating flawlessly despite the gaps from door to door, or vertically from drawer to drawer. 

“The challenge in working this way,” Mr. Campomar said, “where all the grain must match and all the wood is from one tree, is if you make one mistake, everything has to go.” 

“Challenging” is the word Mr. Campomar uses most frequently in discussing his work for such clients — half a dozen times, in fact, in a 90-minute visit. Quiet-spoken and blue-eyed, he had the pillow-combed hair and pilled wool sweater of a craftsman.

As such, he’s as adept at improvising with a family dining table as he is skilled in perfecting a cabinet. At another client’s house off Palma Terrace in East Hampton, a nearly room-length table fashioned of walnut shows two knot holes, a deliberate touch. One, on the table’s top, is small, offering a peephole down to the floor. Another, the size of a softball, darkly adorns one of the broad legs. The knots led to a family argument as to whether they were welcome. The dad, a builder, won.

“I love wood, so I work around what the wood gives me,” Mr. Campomar said of irregularities. “I like simplicity. I like to build things simply, with the minimum amount of wood I need.”

With practicality, too. This particular table can be easily dismantled for carting away, featuring as it does linchpin nuts and bolts hidden at either end by small wood blocks that attach to the legs magnetically. “I feel like I always build things that are like prototypes.” Despite the table’s length — it is fit for a Henry VIII banquet — a craned-neck peek underneath reveals metal runners — it can be extended.

Mr. Campomar said that friends often remark that he seems to have an ideal job, designing and assembling such pieces. “But it’s difficult. It’s one thing when you do it as a hobby, another thing when you do it as a business,” he said, referring to the expectations and responsibilities. “What happens out here, the architects and designers are amazing, but what they ask can make it challenging for woodworkers.”

He wouldn’t trade it, safe to say. He’s even applied his affinity for repurposed wood to what he called a five-year project near the beach in Ecuador. “I like to recycle wood from old houses. In Ecuador these 200-year-old houses are being taken apart.” And he’s been right there to make new use of it on a vacation place for his family.

In a house on Shelter Island, above, a custom banquette, table, and chairs of knotty pine were inspired by the furniture of Donald Judd. Below, projects for a client in East Hampton involved a piece as functional as it is decorative, its high gloss achieved with four deep blue coats of paint carefully brushed. Anastassios Mentis
Durell Godfrey
Mr. Campomar built this locker closet for a private gym in a Bridgehampton house. Santiago Campomar