Martha Stewart Living
A PLACE IN TIME
One Pennsylvania couple embraces the mindful life—crafting home goods with care and considering their own eco-footprint with every step.
The act of saving string might sound like a throwback to the Great Depression or the tactic of a contestant on Survivor. But for Jan Hoffman and David Woodward, a married couple living in the rural town of East Berlin, Pennsylvania, the frugal habit is a way of life. “We have a favorite saying,” says Hoffman. “No string is too short to save!” Adds her husband, “Why would you throw it out? You can use it to tie up a tomato plant, lash pickets on a fence, or wind it around a handle for a better grip.”
Over the past two decades, the couple, both artisans long before they met, have been honing their craft as makers of furniture and home goods, often enlisting techniques that date back to the 18th century. They sell their studiously simple pieces—from stools and daybeds to plates and apple pickers—at the storefront in their home, and can count design connoisseurs like Bunny Williams and Carolyne Roehm among their admirers. They’re also regular vendors at the prestigious Trade Secrets garden and antiques show in Sharon, Connecticut. But the singular way in which they live day to day may be their most remarkable achievement of all.
Their lovingly preserved 1790 stone home has no air conditioning, so in the summer they sleep in an open-sided shed on comfortable linen cots they built. They irrigate their kitchen garden with rainwater. They save seeds and raise chickens. They spend their evenings not watching Netflix but tinkering in the woodshop—and they get around on vintage bikes. When the handle recently fell off their favorite glass pitcher, Woodward, a skilled metalworker as well as carpenter, made a new one out of old tin. “When something breaks, we don’t discard it; we fix it,” Hoffman says. “It’s what my grandparents called ‘making do.’”
While their devotion to self-reliance and reducing waste may seem extreme, it’s second nature to them. “We’ve built our life around not needing a lot of dollars to live,” says Woodward, adding that their furniture business isn’t particularly profitable, considering the hours that go into each piece. “There’s a satisfaction and peace of mind that come from paring down.”
The couple met 19 years ago in East Berlin, where Hoffman had moved and opened a woodshop. She grew up in Pennsylvania with parents who owned a poultry hatchery, but never intended to become a poster child for sustainability. “I studied fashion design in college,” she says. “Then I discovered I was more interested in the making of the clothes than the fashion.” She met Woodward—who grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland, and began restoring furniture as a kid—when she needed someone to build some drawers. “A friend said, ‘I’ll take you to a fellow, Dovetail Dave,’” she recalls fondly. “He knew how to make every single kind of furniture joint.”
Their shared love of early-American design rules the aesthetic of their home, a haven of pure forms and a patinaed palette, accented with shades of robin’s-egg blue (a rare but much sought-after color of Colonial-era furniture). But it would be wrong to think that the twosome are living out a ye-olde fantasy. They’re fond of their tablet and laptops—they learned how to propagate certain herbs from YouTube—and in so many ways are ahead of the curve. Says Hoffman with pride, “We have a 1982 Mercedes that runs on vegetable oil.”