The Custom Furniture Patrick Ryan Crafts For Breweries And Restaurants Embodies Plenty Of Character

The Benevolent in Benevolent Design isn’t just branding. No, a conversation with Patrick Ryan, the brain, hands and heart behind this company, may be as likely to include talk of character, Eastern philosophy and the detriments of a fear-based culture as it is furniture design. He finds that the journey of his three-year old business has turned him “inward.” “It’s not what you do that makes you happy,” he reflects, “but who you are.”

A one-time sales rep for the surf industry, Ryan, whose son is now 10 and his top priority, found that he wanted to spend less time on the road. Benevolent Design was backyard-born as a way to curtail Ryan’s travel and celebrate his life-long love of the handmade.

Located in The Alley in Virginia Beach’s vibrant ViBe District—the nerve center of creative, largely artisanal, small businesses—Benevolent Design’s approach to custom furniture is “to take something old and make it look new, rather than the reverse,” an approach Ryan finds more authentic.

The workshop—
more intimate than his former digs in a commercial space—is snug and inviting with neat stacks of old wood, an enticing array of power tools and estate sale hand tools and gleaming furniture-in-progress with a current sensibility. The overall effect is an appealing balance of looking both backward and forward: a stylish hybrid of a hip design-build studio and grandpa’s shed.

Rather than distressing new lumber, Ryan, who crafts all of the furniture in-house, works only with reclaimed wood, much of it that he “pulled down” himself when he had more time, but also reclaimed barn wood and wood procured from another company with a like-minded business model.“The reclaimed aspect means a lot,” he asserts. It is an antidote to overconsumption, an act of environmental stewardship and a means of embodying narratives that lend layers of character to each unique piece of furniture.

The barn wood, typically tight-ringed old growth lumber, is high quality, already milled and insect-free. The wood from fallen trees—Ryan can tell you which hurricane brought down many of them—is milled at the site by a fellow small business owner with a portable sawmill.

With no investors and a belief in “doing everything myself in house,” Ryan hand planes the surfaces of each wooden slab, filling cracks with epoxy that he polishes to gleaming perfection and achieving a rich, durable finish by hand rubbing coat after coat of oil-based varnish into the surface with old cotton T-shirts.

College-educated and “handy” from a young age—but self-taught when it comes to furniture design—Ryan fashions his rustic-refined slab-built furnishings largely from oak, walnut, chestnut and various other woods. Welded square steel tubing forms the legs and bases of some designs in a wood-and-metal relationship that he calls “symbiotic.” His evolving aesthetic has become highly sought after in the area, especially for breweries and restaurants where, though his work is recognizable, his goal is to give each establishment its own look and feel.

This direction for his work began at Virginia Beach’s Back Bay Brewing. After running into president, Josh Canada, at a yoga class, Ryan found himself designing and building the furniture for the fledgling brewery’s tasting room. He also worked at the brewery for the first year they were open as his own new company was taking root, hoping that feedback on his designs would fuel future work and that negative comments would drive improvement, which they did. A patron sipping his craft brew and dishing out criticism about the craftsmanship of Ryan’s welded joints led to welding that has earned him the respect of folks in the know.

The long tables and benches at Back Bay Brewing, a locals’ favorite, feature live edge Aromatic Red Cedar with metal frames. The walls, moldings, railings, bathroom fixtures and light fixtures are all made from hand-selected reclaimed metal and wood: a barn tin roof, salvaged trees and, in the case of the lighting, growler and bomber beer bottles.

At Esoteric—another southern Virginia Beach destination for craft beer lovers in search of eclectic, thoughtfully-prepared food—a fresh take on the Parson’s table features metal frames with tops made of reclaimed heart pine floor boards dating from the 1700–1800s. A bit further afield in Harrisonburg, Wolfe Street Brewing’s distinctive look derives from long live edge redwood tables with metal frames and metal barstools with comfy wooden seats. At Pizza Chapel—a former wedding chapel reincarnated as a pizza parlor—white base metal frames are married to reclaimed mixed oak for a look that recalls the establishment’s origins as a wedding chapel while evoking a certain masculinity.

On tap are furnishings for Farmhouse Brewing Co., a partnership between Back Bay Brewing and Axis Global Enterprises Inc. to transform the Wood family’s 1910 Virginia Beach farmhouse into a brewery for farmhouse-style beers complete with tasting rooms, lounges, event space, fruit orchards and crops to support the onsite brewing operation.

Ryan’s ultimate goal is to spin off furniture collections from each brewery and restaurant that “tell the story of people I have partnered with.” Though Ryan wants to grow the business, he is committed to spending as much time as possible with his growing son. “I want to be remembered as a positive influence on people,” Ryan recently reflected, “not as a furniture maker.” But it seems likely that he may well be remembered as both.

Benevolent Design

Written By

Betsy DiJulio