STORY BY SANDRA S. SORIA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID ENGELHARDT
PRODUCED BY DANNY SEO
Tucked into the Vermont woods is the house that the Jacksons built. They live off the grid and connected to the land, raising their children, tending to a large garden and a small menagerie, and, somehow, finding time to craft and market some strikingly cool, handmade home products that have gotten the attention of lofty outlets such as The Met Store and Pendleton Woolen Mills.
The Vermont forest and mountains that surround the Jacksons serve up both inspiration and materials for the handcrafted line of wooden housewares and furniture they create under their Ironwood brand. But the family’s own practical needs are also a springboard. It all started after their 5-year-old twins, Scarlet and Magnolia, were born. “It was important for me to stay home with them and our son, Zealand,” says Bay. “I was keeping my hands busy and started to design things that I would like to see in our own house—stuff that fit our lifestyle.”
Going to wood as our medium for artistic expression is really about where we are. There’s an incredible community of lumber mills and tree stewards. It just made sense to tap into that.–Josiah Jackson
The line kicked off with their popular cutting boards, and has grown to include kids furniture, stools and benches, and countertop compost bins—with plenty more ideas on the drawing board. Their designs are handmade from woods that range from rich, black walnut to pale white oak—all FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified—and brightened with food-safe, natural clay paint. The artfulness of their designs lies in the balance they strike between the vivid paint and the natural wood, along with the clean geometry of their designs.
Their style secret is in the merging of skill sets—his love of trees; her “mild obsession” with color. It’s a collaboration that goes way back. “Jo and I have been friends since we were about 8 years old,” Bay says.“Our families are all friends—it’s a rich, cool connection that we have. It was all kind of written in the stars, though of course we didn’t know it at the time.”
The designs develop because I’m a painter with a mild obsession with color and Jo has the eye of a sculptor and woodworker. Our pieces are a way that both of our visions could come together. –Bay Jackson
Back in the day, Jo’s mom, Anne Cady, was Bay’s first art teacher— and Jo’s too, of course. “He had been going to his mom’s art classes since he was in a snuggly sack,” Bay says. She must have been a fine teacher. Bay went on to study studio arts in college, where she honed skills in painting and sculpting; Jo studied plant science, where he gained a love of trees and working with wood.
The two did some globetrotting—both separately and together— that helped focus their worldview and also led them right back home to Bristol, Vermont. “Traveling puts things in perspective,” Jo says. “The idea of leaving a place and returning to it. When we leave Vermont, coming back feels much better than going away. That’s when you know you’re home.”
So they put down roots, cleared off a parcel of land and started building a house and a life together. Using their design skills and Jo’s hands-on, 10-year experience as a homebuilder, they built a 560-square-foot house using wood from the property. Their environmental footprint is as small as their home in the forest. They drilled a well for water and built their home off the power grid because being self-sustaining is important to them and because, well, there was no grid. “It’s located where there is a void in the power lines,” Bay says. “So we built it off the grid using solar panels. Which is wonderful and can be horrible—but just on those 20-degrees-below-zero nights where we have to go out and start the generator.”
Jo has a slightly different perspective. “No part of it is horrible,” he counters. Though they both agree that solar technology hasn’t evolved as much as they thought it would over the 10 years since they tapped into it. “When we set it up we felt that solar would evolve and improve,” he says. “But it really hasn’t changed as quickly as we anticipated. In 10 more years it will be different; we’re just now seeing the technology catch up.”
We want to make products that are sustainably made, but that are also made in such a way that they have the durability and the quality that will last for generations and not contribute to mass consumerism and landfill issues. –Bay Jackson
That said, the Vermont sun, for the most part, powers their modern conveniences. “We have a dishwasher and washer and dryer,” says Bay. “We just can’t use them all the time or all at the same time. But it’s an amazing opportunity to communicate to our children about what means to use electricity. It’s made all of us more aware of how much power we use in our daily lives. You’d be surprised at how much power a toaster uses!”
They built their house before the tiny house movement started getting big, but for now they’re happy within their cozy confines—even though their posse has grown from two to five (granted, three of the occupants are quite small). But they have expanded their homestead to include an “art barn” that Jo built to house their studio and, in the summer, an art and adventure camp for kids aged five to ten that, according to Bay “is very fun and very messy.”
Their total living space, however, is as big as all outdoors, where a lot of family activity takes place. Everyone takes part in a garden that provides fresh foods in the summer, and canned and frozen goodies in the winter, though Jo and his green thumb guide the efforts. Zealand is particularly fond of picking out piglets and caring for them. The pigs are raised for their meat as well as their instinctive habits. “They’re great for turning up the soil and helping us establish a pasture from our woods,” Bay says. The four pigs also help out with fertilizer for Jo’s garden, as do two Cotswold sheep and lots of laying hens.
If creating their own little circle of life based on self-sufficiency seems like a throwback—it is. But it’s also an increasingly popular, modern lifestyle choice for those seeking the satisfaction of a more deeply rooted, authentic path. For the Jacksons, that ideal informs their life and their art. “We are not going for mass production,” says Jo. “Our goal isn’t to make millions. We want to make pieces that are exciting for us to make but last a long time for people who care about that. We think about the time when people had three bowls in their cupboard and their uncle made those bowls. It’s that idea that inspires us to make high-quality, useful products.”
Meet Jo Jackson: The ultimate tree hugger and former homebuilder who’s funneled his admiration for our woody friends into fun and functional furnishings. He was raised by a pack of fine artists and loves to travel the world—but not as much as he loves coming home.
Meet Bay Jackson: A painter with a love of color, she sketches out rough concepts for the pieces that Jo perfects at the saw. Bay’s parents are the owners of Danforth Pewter, where she learned to appreciate finely crafted pieces with a purpose as well as things you don’t learn in school—like how to hawk those handmade works. Check out Ironwood and shop their line at www.ironwoodbuildvt.com
WHAT’S IN A NAME? IRONWOOD
Ironwood is the common name for many super-hard woods, including the Hophornbeam, an understory tree that grows in the woods around Bay and Jo Jacksons’ home. It’s used mostly for heating, but the Jacksons have plans to include the wood in some limited-edition pieces. It’s also one of Jo’s favorite trees. “The connection to me is that it grows in our state and our forest,” he says. “But I also like its structure, and where it chooses to put down roots is pretty cool. You can see it from far away and know what kind of tree it is.”
Five Tips for Working with your Spouse (without killing each other)
- Maintaining your friendship is priority one.
- Be willing to compromise more than you ever thought you could.
- Encourage each other to take personal time away from work and home.
- Discover where the points of contention are between you—then hire someone to help with that part of the workload.
- Find humor. Taking yourself too seriously is no fun!