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Jermain Todd creates tables, chairs, banquettes and more from woods and metals stacked high and deep in his spacious shop at the Lemp Brewery complex.
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The weathered wood panels above the door to Todd’s studio subtly reference his stylish logo with its crisscross energy and stylized ‘M.’ The coincidence is somewhat startling.
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A large communal table and several two-tops await delivery to Corey King’s Side Project Brewing space in Maplewood.
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One of Todd’s organic designs for a bench incorporates the bark edge of a board.
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Barrels hold small scrap wood in the center of Todd’s neat work area. His trademark neon green color pops in the space.
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Banquettes ready to install at Side Project artfully set against a modernist orange rectangle and red square painted on Todd’s studio wall. The wood was repurposed from several sources, including flooring from a home in North St. Louis, barn wood and the gymnasium floor from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy tear down.
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Three samples of chair designs in strong afternoon light appear nearly sculptural.
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Mwanzi tables in place at The Libertine. Owner Nick Luedde believes memories of restaurants evoke a nostalgia in diners that adds to the experience. The memory of his father’s grey wool worsted subtly striped suits inspired the designs for tables, napery, linens and upholstery at The Libertine.
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Todd gave a nod to Luedde’s Chicago background when he selected this wood branded with the Nutting logo.
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Tables, stools and bar cladding, subtle and bright, incorporate sherbet shades of pinks, oranges, yellows, blues and greens at Jilly’s Ice Cream Bar. The job was Mwanzi’s first venture into extensive color work.
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Mwanzi’s careful attention to detail shows in this intentional hole in an ice cream table at Jilly’s. Todd painted it in the store’s signature pink color.
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The wood slat wall by Mwanzi uses different grades, grains and colors of wood pieced and stripped into a classy wall at Jilly’s that provides visual interest through texture, pattern and light reflection.
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The ‘made in STL by Mwanzi’ logo branded onto a Mwanzi table at Jilly’s.
Repurposed, recycled, up-cycled, salvaged and chic – we continue our exploration of the alternative green designs embraced by several St. Louis restaurateurs. Today we visit woodworker and marketing maven Jermain Todd of Mwanzi, whose guiding principles include a healthy eco-consciousness. He repurposes woods and materials destined for landfills and works with new woods grown sustainably to create some of the hottest tables, banquettes, benches, bars and stools in town.
Jermain Todd fell into the green design business by accident. The Lindenwood College marketing major landed the job of his dreams with a large health care company in Toronto just after graduation. He thought he was set. A year later he was downsized. He took a job with a company that sold bamboo products just as the demand for the sustainable resource hit the upward curve in the design world.
After his wife, Jamila Owens-Todd, completed four years of medical school to earn her N.D. in Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, the couple decided to move back to St. Louis. When his company offered Todd a distributorship for the fast-growing bamboo business, Todd took the opportunity and started Mwanzi.
“In Swahili, ‘Manzi’ means bamboo,” he explained. “In Africa, the ‘m’ is silent, but not in St. Louis. MMM- wănzē. I want people to find me,” he said. Although he’s known for his work in restaurants and hospitality, his first big job was strictly business.
“I got a call from Brown Shoe. They asked to buy bamboo plywood, about half a shipping container full. They showed me a design for a simple store display for an eco-friendly brand of shoes.
“I said ‘I could do that for you’ and I got an order for displays for 500 stores. It looked easy to me.”
It wasn’t as easy as it looked, but Todd pulled it off. “A friend who had woodworking experience helped me. We worked every day for 2 months straight, sometimes 15 hours a day. We had blades dull and belts break. We kept at it and finally nailed it. Then they ordered more.”
Todd and Mwanzi soon became known as the go-to-green place, but most of his business was in the residential flooring and custom furniture. Then he made the handsome, hunky tables at the 4-Hands Brewing Company and his business took another turn. Repurposed woods rocked the restaurant industry.
It didn’t faze Todd that he wasn’t a trained woodworker or metalworker. He knew he could learn.
“I learned from friends and from watching tutorials on You Tube. I didn’t follow any one woodworker, but I was always interested in tables, so I studied table technique. I learned how to use tools properly and safely and I expanded my materials to include repurposed woods and new woods, sustainably harvested and certified by the FSC, the Forest Stewardship Council.”
Todd prefers working with old woods. “Part of the attraction of old wood is the history,” he said. “Fifty years ago we couldn’t have done this work. The wood’s available now as the buildings have aged and deteriorated.
We’ve experienced a shift in traditional furniture design, too, away from the perfect and impersonal. Away from over-refined and overworked pieces to forms and materials that are more organic. More honest.”
His fresh approach, clean design lines and the elegant sturdiness of his tables, chairs and benches brought restaurant owners and designers to his shop. You’ll find Mwanzi’s distinctive wood-burned name at places fashionable and cozy as The Libertine in Clayton as well as in the sprawling beer-hall at Urban Chestnut Brewing Company in the Grove.
When Jilly’s Ice Cream Bar opened, they asked Todd to incorporate color into the recycled boards that make up tables, stools, bar wraps and accents.
Todd chose blond boards, then used eco-friendly paints and finishes to pull off the sherbet and ice cream colors, soft to high, in the striped tables. He covered one wall with a mélange of textured smooth woods that bounce light from spacious windows and from the patterned shades of sconces.
Look for more Mwanzi magic at Grapeseed, the newest eatery on Macklind Avenue in south St. Louis. When Corey King’s Side Project Brewing opens in Maplewood, you’ll find banquettes and tables made from gymnasium flooring complete with color from logos and court markings paired with barn wood and wood from floors salvaged from a big residence on the north side that was dismantled.
Next on the boards for Todd: a trip to South Africa where he will build the bar and all the furniture in place, on site for the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Johannesburg. The hotel dates from the mid-1800s.
“I will use domestic woods sustainably harvested along with repurposed woods, all local. I’ll have some fantastic choices,” he said.
“I’ll hire two local people, which was my request for this contract. I don’t want to come in and take jobs away. I want contribute to the local economy.”
Even though most of his work is now commercial, Todd still makes custom pieces for individuals. “I had some wood salvaged from the old Arena, the Checkerdome. A customer asked me to build a bench using that wood. He gave it as a gift to a retired Blues hockey player.”
The bench, with its history, became a gift well given.