It’s okay, you can say it: “Woodworker” as a job title in 2016 sounds about as promising as “bookshop owner” or “postman.” It’s a forgotten craft that peaked in the 19th century — when horse-drawn carriages, monocles, and Civil War were all the rage.
Since then, woodworking as an art has disappeared in a plume of sawdust thanks to Ikea’s idiot-proof furniture design. That’s why Nathie Katzoff is so unique. He’s a sort of iconoclastic carpenter punk — a bold title that manages to hold water, just like Katzoff’s curvaceous, rule-defying wooden bathtubs.
This 28-year-old with a 200-year-old soul is a rare bird, every bit as unique as his creations. Take, for instance, the fact that he swears that he sleeps standing up. Or, even more impressively, the incredible string of design awards he’s collected. The man is a talent, building floating staircases so extraordinary you can’t help but scale them in awe. And his aforementioned bathtubs — made with stone, metal, and wood — inexplicably possess more curves than the people who soak in them.
Katzoff is at once fearless and fierce — unafraid to try things that haven’t been done before. He sees the word ‘no’ as a challenge, an affront to his artistry. Much like experimental jazz (an influence of his), rules don’t phase Katzoff, which is how he’s been able to continually elevate his art form, one step at a time.
“My life is work and my work is my life… there’s no clocking out for me,” he says. “I didn’t get into this out of an interest in capitalism. I got into this out of interest in craft.”
The proof is in the carving. Take his first staircase for example. Four years ago, fresh off a stint as a shipwright in Maine — Katzoff’s first exposure to the marriage between wood and water — he returned home to Seattle and volunteered to help a friend build a staircase. He obsessed, he drew and dreamed and revised, throwing his heart, soul, and vision into the project. It ended up winning the prestigious SMA award for design.
That was his first staircase.
“Stairs are put together like Legos [nowadays] and furniture is mass-produced and not expected to last,” he explains. “If you’re going to build something and it’s going to last for 200 years versus building something that’s going to last 10 years… the materials, the scale actually broadens what you can use.”
Since his first award, Nathie has done what he can to keep upping his game. His shop NK Woodworking & Design has gone on to win other awards while becoming one of the most sought-after woodworking studios in the country. It’s also doubled and then tripled in size — currently employing 25 people and some of the most masterful woodworkers in the trade. A nice turn of events for a kid who used to go dumpster diving in his teens and spent lots of time sleeping outdoors. With the trees.
“I didn’t have the passion behind it early on. And then, as soon as I had the opportunity to build these beautiful pieces with compounding sweeping curves, it just became really captivating and I fell in love with it,” says Katzoff.
It’s this passion for work that’s made Katzoff into a success as he carves out a new definition for the word “woodworker’. And his staircases? They may not be stairways to heaven per se…
But according to people who give out awards, they’re close.