On the hunt for furniture

Ian Grant travels around the world to find the unique pieces that make up his inventory at Björling and Grant

For two months out of every year, Ian Grant hunts. For indigenous tools, rare finds and lumber, that is. On his buying trips, the East Isles resident and owner of St. Louis Park-based Björling and Grant studio both salvages beautiful slabs of lumber from fallen trees and hits the biggest bazaars in corners of Asia and Central America.

“It is the quintessential treasure hunt,” he said, “because you have to start asking all sorts of questions.” He lost count of the number of countries he’s visited after the fiftieth.

With his bounty, Grant returns to the United States to sell the trinkets individually while refining the wood to create one-of-a-kind furniture pieces. He has a vision for what his products bring their owners.

“For the rest of your life, you walk by that piece in your room and go ‘Yeah — I know why I got that,’ or ‘I know where that’s from,’” he said.

Grant also had a show on the Travel Channel called “The Relic Hunter” that invited TV viewers on his journeys. It just won an Emmy.

At his studio, despite being surrounded by his souvenirs — an antique cot from Myanmar, a set of grinding tables, wagon wheel hubs — Grant admits the supply is low lately, as his trips have focused more on lumber.

The trips are more than just searches, though. They’re confirmation that the goods Grant gets are made to his standards — fairly. “I personally… go into any factory or workshop,” he said, “in large part to see who’s making [the goods] and the conditions.” He knows literally the origins of every single good he brings back.

“I’ve seen absolutely miserable, miserable stuff,” he said. “But fortunately, you’re going to work your way through and find people that are actually treating their people well.”

Due to the different dialects — even alphabets — of the many regions he visits, Grant’s calculator serves as his interpreter. “That’s all you really need” for bartering, he said. “[Merchants] type in a number, they hand it to you, you look at it, type in a number, pass it back to them.”

Grant sees his wood finds as natural art. “This is amazing in the world of lumber,” he says, admiring a 17-foot slab of lumber from a Ceiba tree in Costa Rica. It’s one of many slabs he gets in his work salvaging the lumber from dead trees. “It was a little melancholy because there’s this huge tree lying there,” he said of the find.

A hunk of wood like this one might be a good candidate for one of Grant’s specialties, “book matching.” This is the practice of having a continuous grain of wood along, for example, the top of a table down to its legs. “They’d be mirror reflections of each other,” he explained.

Clientele for this type of one-of-a-kind furniture can vary widely, and some requests are odd. A colleague of Grant’s used a 40-foot slab of wood, from the same tree, as a backdrop for an in-home elevator shaft. “Some of these things get a little obscene,” he said humbly, another example of Grant’s light-hearted outlook on his work.

While salvaging such a huge slab of lumber from one tree is half the magic, the refining and polishing process to turn it from a dead tree to a dining room table is where the manual labor matters. For a dining table piece, the wood may require up to eight different sandings, Grant said. It’s a weeks-long process.

This isn’t menial work for Grant, though. In his airy studio in St. Louis Park, the seasoned traveler plays hip music while he works. Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” gives the studio a decidedly breezy feel.

Before owning his own store, Grant worked with the Navab Brothers Persian rug business. There, he had a full range of duties. “That got me in the frame of mind of running a small business,” he said. He decided to branch out after four years there in 1999. As if to foreshadow his lifestyle now, his first solo venture was a brilliant display of spontaneity and adventure.

“My last day there was on a Friday, Saturday morning I got on a plane and Monday morning I was on my own sitting in a hotel room on the coast of southeastern Asia,” he said. “That was my first buying trip.”

Grant partially credits his childhood for his love for travel. With his parents, who emigrated from the United Kingdom, Grant and his sister traveled all over Europe in a Volkswagen bus.