Artisan Leaf's 'majestic' surfaces steeped in Wilson's tobacco history
Artisan Leaf products are made with 100 percent natural tobacco leaves that formulate one-of-a-kind designs. Custom fabrications include bar tops, panels, tables and other furnishings and decor.Posted — Updated
Much like Burberry's signature plaid pattern or the front grill of a BMW, an Artisan Leaf piece is distinct and unmistakable.
"Our product — it's a furniture product, a decorative accessory product, but it's also artwork," said Artisan Leaf partner Reggie Harrison.
If you're fortunate enough to be served a drink at Wilson's Downtown Public House, you'll understand what Harrison means. The custom bar top gleams and glows with a unique epoxied tobacco leaf pattern that customers fawn over.
"Most people actually are speechless when they first see it," said Downtown Public House owner Teddy Olson. "They actually spend a minute just looking at it and studying it. It's unique — nobody else around has a tobacco leaf bar top."
The 16-foot-long, 8-foot-deep bar is set off by light fixtures so patrons can "see the depths of the actual leaves inside of it." It's a showstopper that displays Artisan Leaf work at its best.
"It's majestic," Olson said.
Artisan Leaf products are handcrafted tobacco leaf surfaces you have to see to believe. Only then will you be able to visualize and experience the artistry up close.
Manufactured in Wilson, Artisan Leaf products are made with 100 percent natural tobacco leaves that formulate one-of-a-kind designs. Custom fabrications include bar tops, panels, tables and other furnishings and decor.
"My partners joke all the time with me, because I say, 'We're using real leaves that are so much like snowflakes, [so] no two pieces are alike,' " Harrison mused.
Harrison and his two partners, George Newsome and Sebastian Correa, have known each other for years. Harrison and Correa met 22 years ago when both worked at Standard Commercial Tobacco Company in Wilson.
They credit Artisan Leaf's inspiration to their friend and former colleague Louis Thorpe.
As Harrison recounts, Newsome hired Thorpe, a contractor, to fix up his office and showroom. Thorpe asked Newsome if he could have some of the leftover tobacco leaves because "he had an idea for something."
"He took a bundle of leaves, dried them in epoxy and made a bar," Harrison continued. "It's in the upstairs of George's office and [for] years thereafter, many of his clients, friends and family loved the bar and commented, 'You should sell this.' "
With no background in the furniture industry, Newsome looped in Harrison and Correa, and the men officially launched Artisan Leaf in 2014. Thorpe still subcontracts, but isn't involved on a day-to-day basis.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In fact, the history of tobacco in Wilson makes Artisan Leaf's work all the more meaningful. Last year, the Wilson Times reported that a third of U.S. tobacco is sold in the Wilson market. The tobacco industry has historically been a primary economic resource, and tobacco farm acreage grows each year.
"I had no idea that the historical market over here was going to be so big," Correa said. "So many people around the area that stayed here grew up on tobacco."
The shiny surfaces of Artisan Leaf products seem to cast a reflection that bridges the past, present and future.
"The art they do is beautiful," Olson said. "It represents Wilson a lot."
Jesse Clayton, owner of Jac's Grill in Wilson, is the proud owner of eight Artisan Leaf bar tables in the starburst pattern. Each one looks different, and Clayton said the look, the history and the heritage that Artisan Leaf evokes are what drew him to the products.
Harrison said viable leaves are not as easy to procure as one might think, as they are very selective about what will be used in their products. Leaves are cured, which sets the spectrum of colors that don't fade over time — from rich, golden hues to the dark chocolate colors of cigar leaves. The design is then set in epoxy, a type of coating and casting material.
"If we're making wall pieces [or] wall panels, we prefer that they have less epoxy coating on them, so that you have a textured wall, a different look; whereas if you're doing bar tops, tabletops and so forth, you really need a level, flat surface [so] that your glass isn't going to spill over," Harrison explained.
Navigating Tobacco Road hasn't been without bumps though. Harrison described the challenges of attracting a larger market and Correa noted the growing pains of starting a business from scratch.
"One of the things we try not to do is flood the market. [In] a place the size of Wilson, it can get difficult if you get too many places offering the same thing," Harrison said. "A lot of people that see our products like them, but figuring out the best way to distribute our products and reach the markets we want to reach has been one of the bigger challenges for us."
Artisan Leaf values its roots in Wilson, but is also looking to expand beyond the Tar Heel state. Aside from projects in Wilson, Durham, Charlotte, Wilmington and other North Carolina cities, the company has done commercial work in Kentucky, Florida and even Indonesia.
Artisan Leaf recently celebrated the grand opening of its storefront in downtown Wilson in June. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in Artisan Leaf's story; one that the company is writing as it go.
"[Wilson] is kind of reinventing itself from being just a tobacco capital to being very artsy," Correa said. "Artisan Leaf is the only decorative tobacco company in the world. Everybody that gets the tobacco that we do, they choose to make cigarettes or chewing tobacco or pipe tobacco or cigars. I think that gives us tremendous advantage: being the only player in the industry, we [get to] design the industry."
Added Harrison, "I just find [our stuff] to be a beautiful product. A lot of the time when we meet new people and we’re showing it, especially the people in this area, there’s usually some connection to tobacco, either directly or indirectly. We definitely enjoy making things for those people, but I like the fact that it has a natural aesthetic that is beautiful to anyone. You don't have to be a smoker or have a tobacco background to appreciate the natural beauty of this product."
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