Martin Zemp, Artist Cabinetmaker
I came in contact with Martin Zemp from Zee Design in Comox, BC in 2001, when I started working for a small Kitchen and Bath Showroom in Victoria.
Martin is originally from the village of Sissach in Switzerland, and came to Canada in 1990 to study English. Back in Switzerland he had grown up in his Father’s cabinetmaking workshop, and -if there is such a thing- was born with a cabinet making gene.
After officially immigrating to Canada in 1992 he worked for various cabinet and countertop producing companies, before going out on his own and launching Zee Design.
(Little sidenote here: my personal impression is that essentially none of Martin’s employers were up to his work standards, so he had no other choice than to take that step!)
For the first year my contacts with him were solely over the phone – he was an acquaintance of my then-boss, and every once in a while he would build the odd small custom cabinet or accessory for us.
I remember quite vividly my first phone conversation with him – I was supposed to tell him from my boss that we needed several lengths of a particular custom crown for a project, and Martin questioned the way we intended to attach that crown to the cabinet.
Of course, what he really wanted to tell me in his typical ‘Martin way’ was that none of us down in that fancy showroom in the big city of Victoria had given any thought to what we were asking from him, and that it was actually a rather stupid request…Oh course he already had a solution in mind, but I was quite intimidated by this first encounter!
Needless to say – this was also the early beginning of my life here in Canada, I had to speak English with him (although the German version of Swiss, and German itself look pretty much the same on paper, once the sounds come out of a Swiss throat I can hardly understand them…), I was still challenged with my English speaking abilities , and here I was trying to discuss intricate cabinetmaking details with him over the phone…
As you might guess we overcame that stage eventually (this phase took about 2 years, though…), but what I want to point out is that I consider Martin my most influential teacher in regards to all things cabinetry and millwork production.
He is certainly the main reason why I feel very competent when designing custom cabinetry nowadays, and when he gets me to design his newest kitchen project I know that I can take out all the design stops, as he will be able (sometimes muttering a lot of curses under his breath, though) to make them come to life.
The two of us have a bit of a weird long distance work relationship – up to this day most of our collaboration happens over the phone, resulting in hour-long conversations about cabinetry details, but because of his incredible sensibility, his sharp eye and attention to detail this way of working together has proven to be very successful.
I deeply respect his incredible skill, his willingness to endeavour into new one-of-a-kind designs, his sharp eye, his imaginative solutions, his acute sense of proportion, his elegant style, and the attention to detail and love for his trade!
Without him I would certainly not be the accomplished custom cabinet designer that I think I am today…
Thank you, Martin, for your most positive influence on my life!
Working with you is always exciting and a huge pleasure and privilege for me!
Zee Design – The Workshop
I am a big fan of any sort of workshop and manufacturing plant.
Part of my university education was a mandatory 3 months stint in a cabinet makers workshop. It was a bit boring for me, though – of course those professional tradesmen were afraid that I (a woman…bless their hearts, but gender equality takes hold rather slowly in those parts of life, especially in a small Bavarian town) could sever some part of my body during that time, so I wasn’t really allowed to touch anything really important, especially not the huge machines.
I helped sanding, assisted in the spray booth, and was sometimes allowed to help with cabinet assembly and lamination.
When Klaus and I started creating phantasy store settings things got a bit more interesting – we did a lot of the work ourselves, and worked hand in hand with cabinet makers to create our merchandisers and display props, and I became a very good acquaintance of the large beltsander…
So going into any cabinetmakers shop is quite a wonderful experience for me, and I always try to encourage my coworkers and especially my clients to go and have a look themselves. The amount of machinery and the intricacy of tools will astound you, and there is an inherent beauty in a well run shop.
Martin’s shop is especially picturesque – in true Canadian West Coast style it’s located somewhere in the woods of Comox,BC on Vancouver Island.
To get into his shop you have to make your way through a group of Highland Cows, you are being chased by geese and dogs, and his goats will search your purse for edibles (when they are not busy jumping onto his worktable, or your car, that is).
The shop is very beautiful (in a workshop kind-of way), spacious, organized (of course), with the newest project propped up somewhere, plans mounted to the walls, equipped with exquisite (often German and old Swiss) machinery.
My only problem with Martin is that he is always superbusy creating something, so in case you are interested in working with him you have to make sure that you get in line well ahead of time.
You should realize that good things take their due time, and are worth waiting for!
And it helps to have a slightly unusual project – I think Martin really enjoys a good challenge…
Update August 31, 2015
It is with an immense sad heart that I have to say my premature final good-bye to this very special specimen of a human being. I would like to share a letter to Martin from a client and friend, which sums up my own experiences with this generous and dedicated artist.
As per email from Jackie Wilson, Queen Charlotte, Haida Gwaii:
Letter to Martin
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT DESIGN is a national and international award winning, full service architectural and interior design firm. We service Vancouver, Kelowna and the BC Mainland, Victoria and Vancouver Island, Seattle and the Gulf Islands as well as international clients. Principal Ines Hanl and her team specialize in the creation of artful, bespoke interiors in any style for their discerning clientele.