Flat Out Comfort
Local man turns a hobby into a comfortable business—and celebrates 30 years of success.
Brian Bloomfield stands in his woodworking shop and surveys an assortment of cedar boards that are neatly laid out against a wall. The rough-hewn Western Red Cedar is standing vertically—like a dense forest of trees. Bloomfield examines each one carefully, sometimes reaching out to touch this one or that, as though the wood might energetically relay a message to him or tell a story.
He has hand-picked every single piece of cedar in his shop. During the selection process at local suppliers he looks for the best old growth lumber harvested from Vancouver Island. He has an artistic eye for fine details, matching colors and wood grain patterns, while imagining whether the individual piece of wood is destined to become part of a chair or a table… or something else.
Bloomfield developed an interest in woodworking when he was a boy growing up in rural Manitoba. His first introduction to the craft was at a church at the age of six.
“I lived in Napinka, a small town of 250 people,” he recalls. “There were four churches and one offered woodworking projects for kids. It was there that I discovered that I liked the smell of fresh cut wood. When I was a little older, I spent endless hours working alongside my grandfather and uncle, both of whom were carpenters. They stressed to me that anything I build should be built to last. It is a life lesson that I have never forgotten.”
Decades later, Brian Bloomfield is now the wood craftsman/designer/manufacturer/owner behind a successful Vancouver Island enterprise called Bloomfield Flats Custom Cedar Furniture. His wife, Judy, “does everything else”—including managing orders and keeping the books from their home-based office just south of Courtenay. While they are a company of only two, the Bloomfields have built a solid reputation for excellence in custom-crafted cedar furniture. Their furniture has been sold to hundreds of customers on Vancouver Island and the mainland, as well as clients across Canada, the United States and into Europe. People recognize a superior product when they see it and appreciate the beauty and durability of Western Red Cedar.
Brian Bloomfield moved from Manitoba to Vancouver in 1979, where he continued what would turn out to be a 35-year career in the aircraft industry. He also worked hard to build a life on Vancouver Island. From 1981 through 1989, he commuted from the Comox Valley to his Richmond-based job—often by motorcycle—every weekend.
“We met in 1981, on the lawn of the Heriot Bay Marina on Quadra Island,” recalls Judy, a Vancouver Islander by birth. “There were a group of us traveling by boat to view real estate on Maurelle Island. I was looking for a recreational property, not a relationship. Four years later, we were married. Our son, Orie, was born in 1989. Orie still lives on Vancouver Island and has acquired a skill for working with wood from his father—he is a third year carpentry apprentice.”
The chair that would change the course of the Bloomfield’s lives appeared soon after they met. Judy came home one day with a couple of rickety old wooden chairs that she had purchased for $5 each at a garage sale. She had no idea these ‘treasures’ would be the start of a new enterprise built around her husband’s hobby.
“Sure, the paint was chipped and they wiggled if you sat on them but I knew that Brian might be able to fix the chairs,” recalls Judy with a smile. “At the time, the only outdoor furniture we owned were two very flimsy and uncomfortable folding chairs.”
“I immediately threw one of the chairs onto our burn pile,” says Brian with a hearty laugh. “The other—a Cape Cod-style wooden chair—looked interesting. I brought it into my workshop, dismantled it, analyzed it… and then burned it! But that chair became the inspiration for a pattern to construct a modified version with twice the thickness of cedar (not fir), a wider seat, extra reinforcements, routered edges, and lots of sanding. Now, THAT was a thing of beauty! Thirty years later we are still using that chair!”
‘That chair’ was a welcome addition to the couple’s yard. It was so comfortable that friends and family fought over who would get to sit in it. Soon, he had to make more for the yard—and for others. The orders started coming in.
“Brian, can you make me one just like that but higher for my long legs—or shorter for my short legs?”
“Brian, can you make me one just like that but a loveseat?”
“Please make me two chairs with an attached table in between.”
Lorna Bridge of Country Catering and Brian Walker of Walker Small Engine Repair placed the first ‘official order’ of six chairs. They still own and enjoy them 28 years later.
The Bloomfields soon realized that they had found a market niche. They decided that Brian would officially make chairs as a sideline business and attend a couple of events per year to showcase his products. This would give some focus to the furniture enterprise without cutting into other work commitments and family time too much. They needed time to work on the hobby farm and to enjoy the cabin they had built on Maurelle Island.
In the mid 1980s, the general public got their first view of what was then sold as ‘BNB Cedar Furniture’—short for Brian N. Bloomfield. They displayed their wares at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market and the Filberg Festival.
In 1986, the Bloomfields purchased a 20-acre parcel of raw land from Comox Valley environmental crusader Ruth Masters.
“We had been living in a small house across the road from this spectacular piece of land, located on Fraser Road, just south of Courtenay,” explains Brian. “We loved the mix of trees and natural pastures and that Millard Creek—a spawning bed for Coho and Chum salmon— ran across the back half of it. We made a solemn promise to Ruth Masters that we would respect the environmental integrity of the land.”
The Bloomfields then began carefully selecting trees and milling timber from their new acreage. “The land gave us enough lumber to build a workshop, a barn and corrals for Judy’s horses, and a home,” explains Brian. “The first building constructed was, of course, a workshop, so I could continue to build cedar furniture on weekends. The last building to be completed was a large timber frame home. Where possible, I used re-cycled materials, some of which I brought home from the mainland on the back of my motorcycle.”
The farmstead became known as Bloomfield Flats when a family friend made up the name, crafted a wooden sign, and hung it on the entrance gate. The name stuck.
Years later, the Bloomfields fulfilled the environmental stewardship pledge they had made to Masters when they purchased the property. They registered the first legal covenant in the British Columbia Agricultural Land Research (ALR)—a designation that ensures the land will remain undeveloped in perpetuity. Inspired, in part, by Masters’ commitment to environmental stewardship, Brian became a dedicated social and environmental crusader, too. In addition to many volunteer commitments over the past 25 years, he is the outgoing president of the Millard-Piercy Watershed Stewards, a local non-profit organization with a mission to maintain and restore the watershed.
The Bloomfields would enjoy life at Bloomfield Flats until 2006, when they decided to sell the farm and downsize. Fond memories and many friends had been made during 20 years of community gatherings and potluck dinners held at the acreage. The chicken wire backstop and ball diamond that Brian had built in the corner of the hay field had become an integral part of almost every gathering and had provided seemingly endless hours of fun and laughter. But it was time to move. Considering that they loved living in the rural triangle between Courtenay, Royston and Cumberland, they purchased an existing home with a view of the bay, just down the road from Bloomfield Flats.
Says Judy: “We enjoyed living in this neighborhood so much, we just didn’t have the heart to leave the area!”
In 2009, Judy left her job with the School District. One month later, due to the economic downturn, Brian’s 35-year career in airframe sheet metal abruptly came to an end. Once again, their lives would take on a new direction because of ‘that chair.’
In January 2010, with the help of Community Futures Strathcona, Bloomfield Flats Custom Cedar Furniture became a fulltime business. Weekdays you will find Brian busy building furniture in his workshop. Weekends (and some evenings) he, Judy, and their Australian Cattle Dog, Winnie, take a trailer packed with furniture and hit the road. The product is displayed at venues throughout Vancouver Island.
“The feedback from customers of all persuasions has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says Judy. “People appreciate Brian’s craftsmanship, attention to detail, design and comfort.”
Over the years, Brian had continued to tweak the design of the Cape Cod/Adirondack or Eastcoast-style chair he had started with until he was 100 per cent satisfied with the finished product. Now, with more time on his hands for research and development, plus a number of customer requests for a chair that was easier to get in and out of, he designed his own style of seating that he labeled the ‘Westcoast’ chair. It was officially launched in January 2010.
“My Westcoast chair is ergonomically designed with the seat higher off the ground, a more upright back for better lumbar support and—as requested—it is easy to get in and out of,” explains Brian. “These comfort and ‘ease of exit’ features are especially appreciated by the Baby Boomer generation. The Westcoast model has been very well received and now out-sells the Eastcoast chairs. I also build short or tall versions of my chairs, to custom fit people with longer or shorter legs.”
Brian guides me through his workshop, which is piled high with cedar furniture in various states of assembly. He points to one of his custom-crafted Westcoast chairs. “Please be seated,” he says with a smile.
I settle down into the chair and am amazed how comfortable it is. Without a doubt, “sitting is believing!” The only thing that could improve the experience is a cold beer and an ocean view! I get a flashback to when I was pregnant more than 20 years ago. I had made the mistake of settling down in a low-slung Eastcoast-style chair at a friend’s house. It took a Herculean effort on my part to exit that chair without the assistance of a crane! I remind Brian that a wide variety of people will appreciate the ‘ease of exit’ feature of the Westcoast chair, not just Baby Boomers.
While the custom-crafted range of chairs built to accommodate most sizes of individuals remain a customer favorite, Brian also makes loveseats, combination table/chair models, plus a variety of tables, barstools, footstools, garden trugs, and other custom-built items upon request. For example, he crafted the beautiful 12-foot long cedar banquet table in the lower level of the Old House Restaurant.
“Growing from a side-line business to a full-time venture was a huge leap of faith for us,” adds Judy. “Thirty years ago we never could have imagined that Brian’s love of building things with wood could be our main source of income. We are grateful to Community Futures Strathcona, the Comox Valley Home-Based Business Association, the members of the Chamber of Commerce, and the hundreds of customers who have been so supportive of this adventure.”
Brian agrees. “As we celebrate our 30 years of success this summer, Judy and I extend our sincere thanks to the people of the Comox Valley and beyond for supporting our business,” he says.
“We are confident that our furniture will stand the test of time. In our ‘throw away society’ it feels good to know that Bloomfield Flats Custom Cedar Furniture will last.”
For more information visit www.bloomfieldflats.ca.