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Home: Out of the Woods

Jorge S. Arango

When Bobby Kennedy Jr. and Mary Richardson Kennedy wanted a stunning floor installed in their recently reconstructed home in Mount Kisco, New York, they called John Yarema. The Kennedys had kept about 600 feet of flooring from the house they had dismantled, and they wanted Yarema to incorporate the boards into a new floor with a design of interlocking circles and squares. But the boards would not be enough for the 4,800 square feet of flooring the new home required. "I went to D.C. and found, through an architectural salvage company, three houses scheduled for demolition," says the 45-year-old Yarema. "I bought the wood from those houses for a dollar a foot and shipped it back to New York." His team cut the wood into pieces and installed the floor using all salvaged materials.

To look at the Michigan-based woodsman’s work, you would think he had been doing it all his life—not so. "The Michelangelo of wood," as Mary calls Yarema, has specialized in such handcraftsmanship for about 20 years. "I was always very artistic," he says, "but I did nothing about it. It’s one of those things that came out sideways." He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and in 1988 joined a firm as a systems engineer—a job he hated. His love of woodworking came about in 1991, when he and his wife, Lisa, bought a run-down mid-19th-century schoolhouse in Attica, Mich., and restored it as their home. There he laid his first floor.

Since then the self-taught craftsman and his staff (now 12 strong) have done everything from parquet de Versailles floors for the Detroit Institute of Arts to installations in private residences. Yarema’s floors range from the geometrically patterned to the intricately pictorial. After he makes an initial drawing, he explains, "a graphic artist breaks out the pieces into a kind of paint-by-numbers rendering. Next, wood is matched to each piece. Even then, things constantly change. I’ll need a piece of maple that goes from light to dark; the grain has to be specifically oriented. And I need to know how it will age: Some woods darken, others lighten or go more orange."

One of Yarema’s commissions—an allegorical depiction of the struggle between good and evil—shows a lion, a lamb, a dragon, and two angels. The lion’s mane alone comprises 4,000 individually cut pieces of wood. Pricing for such pictorial floors depends on the degree of complexity, but the average cost is approximately $1,000 per square foot. Parquet patterns start at roughly $70 per square foot, historical reproductions at about $200 per square foot.

Each floor, Yarema says, is as much a learning process for him as it is for his clients. "You know you don’t know anything, and [you] start from the bottom," he says. His aim, he adds, "is a new thinking in design and what a floor should look like and feel like to walk on."

John Yarema, 248.798.8388, www.johnyarema.com

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