Third Annual Made in the South Awards

by Vanessa Gregory, Elizabeth Hutchison and T. Edward Nickens - December 2012/January 2013

Dixie's best in Home, Style + Design, Outdoors, and Food

(Photographs by Stacey Newgent and Jason Wallis)

2012 Overall Winner

Two generations of artisan woodworkers
 create the perfect rocking chair

>Watch a behind-the-scenes video with the winner

In an age of particle board, Wood Studio’s Lookout Mountain Rocker stands as a testament to craftsmanship and solid wood. “We’re not fancy people,” says builder Keith Cochran. “I don’t need it to be real curly or carved; I just need it to be nice and tight and smooth.” And perfect: Keith and his brother, Dylan, lavish eighty hours on each of their signature pieces, working without computer-controlled tools or hired help in their Arley, Alabama, shop near the remote gorges and waterfalls of the William B. Bankhead National Forest.

For the Cochrans, the perfect rocker starts with native wood, such as walnut, cherry, or maple. It has to have been air-dried for two years, never speed-baked in a kiln the way commercial lumber often is. The slow method, Keith says, preserves structural integrity and natural luster—the dark browns and variegated purples that give wood its character. For the rocker’s seat and back, they will buy only vegetable-dyed, hand-stretched leather.

The process doesn’t get much faster in the shop. The brothers scrutinize the wood grain, aligning pieces so that any humidity-induced expansion or contraction won’t stress the frame. They create smooth corners with traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery, finishing each junction with a brass pin designed to lock the joint forever. “We just love wood, love looking at wood,” Keith says. “We’re insane, man. We’re wood geeks, I guess. You do it long enough, I guess you get good at it.”

Or maybe passion just runs in the family. Keith and Dylan’s dad, Randy, built the first Lookout Mountain Rocker more than thirty years ago, when his sons were babies; today it’s his TV-watching chair. Randy studied industrial design at Auburn University, where he was exposed to the minimalist and Bauhaus design theories reflected in his rocker’s understated lines. “I wanted it to be reduced to its simplest essential form and do what it’s supposed to do,” Randy says. Consider the low arms, which he configured to make holding a toddler easier.

The rocker also has roots in the soil and woods of Fort Payne, Alabama, Randy’s hometown. He drew inspiration—and the chair’s name—from a mountain where he spent countless solitary hours as a kid. On Lookout Mountain, he gained a respect for the way things grow in nature, which is why Wood Studio designs aren’t dominated by ruler-straight lines or contrived curves.

Randy founded Wood Studio in the mid-1980s in Decatur, Alabama, and later ran the business from Nashville. His sons joined full-time in 2001. When the economy slowed after September 11, Wood Studio struggled to stay afloat, but the Cochrans persevered. Eventually, their rocker was picked up by the Utah-based Sundance Catalog, and Wood Studio began to enjoy some stability.

The brothers later moved to Arley, near the campgrounds of their childhood, and built a bigger shop. Randy returned to Fort Payne, where he manages the books and builds whatever he fancies. No matter where they’re making sawdust, the Cochrans have a supporter in gallery owner James-Ben Stockton of Greeneville, Tennessee. “Their work is just consummate, beautifully executed wood without any need to make it appear something other than what it is,” Stockton says. He calls the Cochrans’ distinctive style “Shaker contemporary.”

It’s a fitting label for woodworkers who put their faith in the inherent beauty of white oak and ash. Painting wood or otherwise forcing it to look uniform, Keith says, would ruin everything. “Even if it’s two walnut chairs with natural tan hide, they’re two different chairs—the color and texture,” he says. “To me, that’s what makes it cool, to have something that nobody else has.”