Martin Zemp Artist-Cabinetmaker

    January 18, 2010

    Martin Zemp, Artist Cabinetmaker

     Martin in action

    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!

    Hutch in Faceframe construction, Comox residence


    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…

     Island for THE SKY IS THE LIMIT DESIGN Showroom

    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.

     3 colour island with rounded door and decorative posts

    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

     The shop, with goat

    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.

     the shop, without goat

    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

          I can still hear your big laughter, and your even bigger snoring. The part of you that will stay with me the most is your caring heart. I never told you that some
    days when I came home from work it wasn’t the newest and beautiful handiwork that impressed me as much as the way you treated my pets. Watching you walk around
    cuddling the dogs or letting the cat claim you on the couch really meant more than the stuff.
    Your friends were important to you, you were fiercely loyal to them.
    You went out of your way to try and make my dream become a reality. To the point of sleeping on
    the floor during the first ferry trip to try and save me money. Seriously, I don’t know anyone else who would do that but you.
    A few other things that only you would do……. asking me to remeasure (3 times no less) and it had to be with your tape measure that you sent up because mine apparently
    wasn’t good enough.  Only to find that you had mis-measured when you initially did it.
    Sending me the Richelieu catalog to highlight what I wanted installed inside the kitchen cabinets – only to have a good percentage shot down because “you didn’t like it”
    You referred to me as “the boss” but I’m pretty sure we all know who the real boss was on this job.
    I find it oddly comforting to see your name plastered all over the shipping labels on the Island Top crate still in my driveway. I wish I had texted you more the day it arrived.
    That was the last time I heard from you.
    My wish for you is to some way, some how, be able to see in yourself all the good things we see in you.
    My wish for the people that know you is to find a way to get beyond the intense sadness and remember a truly remarkable person with a lot less pain.
    When the time is right, I want to continue on with what you started. I think you would expect that. My hope is that you are able to check in on us now and again to see how we are doing.
    Just promise that you won’t haunt us when we mess up because that would just be weird.
    You made a very big impression on me Mr. Zemp and I am not the type of person who impresses easily. Saying that I am going to miss you is a ridiculous understatement.
    Lots of love,

    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.

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