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This Isn’t About the Latest Trend

If you’ve watched HGTV often enough, I’m sure you’ve come across plenty of interiors that use live edge furniture — island counters, dining tables, coffee tables, bars … you name it.

It’s definitely a favorite look with the California cool crowd, the mod and hipster crowd, the mountain cabin crowd, and the tree-hugger, minimalist, Scandi crowd.

Well, I like rustic design if I’m going to a cabin in the woods, but day-to-day, I like my interiors more fresh classic, traditional-with-a-twist. Do you feel similarly?

Never fear. Live edge furniture looks wonderful with so many different styles.

There are TONS of sources for live edge furniture, from ETSY, to various custom craftsmen across the country, to WEST ELM, and WORLD MARKET.

But I guarantee you, NONE of them has the story that the furniture maker I profile today has.

If you want great design, and you want to support a great cause (and the people of a great state!), keep reading.


Riverbank House and Vantz Furniture: Helping Addicts Reshape Their Lives

This story has been a long time coming.

If you’re not from New Hampshire (which most of you aren’t from the demographics that I see), you may not know about about the opioid drug epidemic here. Or maybe you do, seeing that President Trump called our state “a drug infested den” and that the epidemic has been covered by CNN, the NEW YORK TIMESUS NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, and so on.

Forget the fact that OUR CRIME RATES ARE SUPER LOW (that the national median for crimes is 3.8 per 1,000 people and New Hampshire’s is 1.99), this is an enormous problem for our state.

However, one man is combating this problem in a very interesting and exciting way. And, strangely, it has to do with furniture. First I’ll tell you his story (which is, honestly, way more compelling than decorating), then we’ll get to the pretty stuff.

Randy Bartlett first started using drugs in the 4th grade. Pot and booze from his parents’ liquor stash, mostly. At age 16, he tried cocaine for the first time, and he was hooked for good.

Needing a change in the way he saw recovery, Randy went to Burning Tree Ranch, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center whose focus is not only treating addiction, but also preventing a relapse into the old patterns of addiction through long term relapse prevention planning.

“I’d had enough of crashing and burning. It was the first time I ever saw recovery through the lens of long-term treatment and the first time I was ever really well.”

He returned to New Hampshire, the heart of the opioid epidemic, and founded RIVERBANK HOUSE in 2012. A spiritual addiction recovery community for men located in Laconia, Riverbank helps residents build new lives — central to the philosophy of long-term wellness — so that they don’t relapse when they leave.

While the normal stay for residential detox programs is 28 days, success rates for such programs only hover around 50% for long- term sobriety. Riverbank promotes an extended care model, leading men through a 12-step program entrenched in meditation and reflection, friendships, responsibility, accountability, and career training. Maintaining a healthy local community is paramount, so residents have to be clean and sober for 5 months before they can begin working for Riverbank’s affiliate businesses.

“What we’re doing is really unique. We introduce guys to a healthy way of life. This is a community of guys who are trying to live and grow spiritually. If you do something out of line — not using [drugs], but just behavior or responsibility-wise — someone is going to call you out. We’re all getting adjusted on a daily basis here,” Randy says with a smile.

Riverbank only sees about one in 10 of its clients relapse within a year of leaving.

“If you get sober for a year, you’re going to change. We don’t have a lot of repeat customers.”

A key piece to that sobriety is learning a skill that can lead to a career.


From Living on the Edge to Crafting Live Edge Furniture

Vantz Furniture specializes in live edge designs and is just one of 6 businesses that Riverbank runs and staffs with residents or former residents.

Randy, always on the lookout for new ventures for his guys, saw an opportunity when one of Riverbank’s businesses, the Karma Cafe in Laconia, needed tables and a bar. Providentially, two of Riverbank’s residents, Kyle Martin and Andi Bauer, had backgrounds in woodworking trades.

Randy brought in volunteers from the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen to train Kyle and Andi to create those first tables … and Vantz Furniture was born. Now, both guys work at the shop full time (in addition to hours spent mentoring current residents) and are supported by 1-2 part-time grant residents, a part-time sales associate, and an administrative assistant.

Andi’s and Kyle’s stories are no less compelling than Randy’s.

Once upon a time, Andi had been a carpenter working to frame houses but had been homeless for a year and a half due to his addiction. He found Riverbank via the internet using a restaurant’s WiFi. Despite Andi’s calling after midnight, Randy answered the phone after just a couple of rings and got Andi into care right away.

Kyle was referred to Riverbank House after overdosing. He had been a builder of custom lobster boats in Maine and found a natural fit in the Vantz Furniture shop.

“I think it’s helped me a lot to be creative and peaceful,” Kyle says. “I just come in, listen to my music, and create stuff…. I got lucky enough to be able to do this, now it’s becoming something. It helps out other people, too, and I like the community. I have real friends now. We’re all trying to do the right thing. It helps my sobriety.”

Andi concurs. “If I can grow this into something that can help others and I can run it from afar… and train all the guys that come through that have an interest in this, and continue to grow all these businesses, that would be my main goal, I guess.  There came a point where I realized that chasing the money isn’t worth it, it doesn’t make me happy at all. I’d rather watch someone else succeed, that’s what life is for me now.”

Vantz boasts a varied inventory of native and exotic live edge slab tables. The venture has already outgrown its first site and has moved to a much bigger warehouse.

Andi and Kyle set up a booth at this past Highpoint Market in North Carolina and almost sold out. Currently, most designs are custom built to order, but their plans for the future include creating an eBay or Etsy shop with some ready-made options.

All profits from Vantz and Riverbank’s other businesses fund grants for residents and the Riverbank program offerings, which I love. Vantz’s prices are definitely competitive, and they give designers a nice discount — which, of course, I love only a little less! I definitely foresee using their designs in an upcoming project.

LACONIA, N.H. — The wood grain’s striations of amber, tan, sienna and gold swirl and writhe across the top and cascade like a waterfall down the table’s side. The bark edges remain as nature created them, rough and wrinkled.

“Whatever stress that tree was going through made it beautiful,” said Andi Bauer, a craftsman at Vantz Live Edge Furniture.

Vantz is one of six businesses that help fund Riverbank House, a residential long-term treatment community where men ages 18 to 65 shed their addictions and rebuild their lives

Each piece of the handmade furniture could serve as a metaphor for the men at Riverbank House: The best feature results from stress, and the structural integrity resides within.

“I can relate it to my sobriety hugely,” Bauer said. The wood begins as “this rough plane, and until you get the work done to it, you don’t know what’s inside. You have to plane the boards down, you have to sand them and finish them all to get this beautiful finished product.”

To join the furniture, a biscuit cutter creates a ¾-inch sliver into the edge of the board, and a football-shaped piece gets glued into that. “That aligns it perfectly and gives it a little bit of integrity,” Bauer said. “It’s all hidden, on inside of the board, in the middle.”

Inspired by woodworking artist George Nakashima’s designs and trained by local craftsmen, Bauer and his co-worker specialize in waterfall and live edge pieces.

Vantz launched in December with ads in the local paper, hoping to be discovered by those who summer in this town of 17,000 near Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H.

The business grossed $40,000 in sales within three months and so far has sold more than 100 pieces. In late September, Vantz went live with its Houzz Pro Plus account and targeted New England and New York state with Google Adwords. It hopes to soon be on Etsy and Wayfair.

All profits from Vantz and all Riverbank House businesses fund treatment scholarships.

Inside Vantz’ 5,000-square-foot shop are the planers, the grinders and the routers, the spray booth and the

welding area, and more than 150 slabs of wood, each about 2.5 inches thick. They average 40 inches wide by 20 feet long and are 200 to 400 pounds.

Contractors and customers can choose from more than 30 foreign and domestic species of wood, ranging from curly maple, walnut and ash to podocarpus, cumaru, tiger wood and Brazilian cherry.

“That’s another fantastic part of the job is meeting with all these people,” Bauer said enthusiastically.

“They usually ask me my story, and I tell them a little bit, and they’re more than excited that they picked somewhere that the money actually goes to something.”

Bauer was homeless 18 months ago when he found Riverbank House on the Internet. He called after midnight, using a restaurant’s WiFi and an app to replace the cell service he couldn’t afford.

Despite the late hour, Randy Bartlett, founder and owner of Riverbank House, answered after just a couple of rings.

“That right there was the first clue,” Bauer said. “It blew me away that he answered the phone at that time of night with that amount of care.

“He told me, ‘Yes, we’re cheaper, but I don’t give a s**t about the money, you come up right now, or you’re not coming. You need help right now.’ I thought, ‘Jesus, this might work.’ “

In and out of recovery since he was 19, “something clicked when I came here,” Bauer said. “I never believed in a higher power, so essentially you think you’re the center of the universe and that you control your own life, you write your own destiny.

“The spirituality part (of recovery) is something that I never wanted to cede, that there was something running my life besides myself.  So once I got into that, it was a lot easier to just take it a day at a time. It’s easier when you put your faith and trust in a higher power.”

The New Hampshire native works 40 hours a week at Vantz, plus another 16 to 32 as a recovery coach to other Riverbank House residents and their families.

He’s sober, but he’s not leaving.

“If I can grow this into something that can help others and I can run it from afar… and train all the guys that come through that have an interest in this, and continue to grow all these businesses, that would be my main goal, I guess.

“There came a point where I realized that chasing the money isn’t worth it, it doesn’t make me happy at all. I’d rather watch someone else succeed, that’s what life is for me now.”