I was at a friend’s chic home clinking glasses and nibbling on cheese, when something on the lovely board caught my eye…and it wasn’t the gorgonzola. There was seal on the beautiful wood that read: 100% Grown and Made in Singapore by Arthur Zaaro. How could the Red Dot possibly have a local timber market? A quick Google search revealed a small but brilliant niche business. Before long I was off to Arthur Zaaro’s showroom and workshop at the Richfield Industrial Centre in Geylang to make a cutting board of my own and learn more about his work.
Setting up shop in Singapore
Arthur, his local staff and two very friendly dogs welcome me to the showroom. Sitting at one of his beautiful tables Arthur and I chat about how he came to woodworking. Originally from the United States, Zaaro has lived in Singapore since 2005. He first trained as a zoologist and later worked on movie sets in New York City, before moving to Singapore after marrying a Singaporean. “She wanted to live in New York City,” he says with a grin, “and I wanted to live in Singapore.”
Arthur got his way, the couple relocated and he founded an eponymous furniture and design business. To source his high-end tropical hardwood, Arthur travelled to Indonesia and Malaysia to purchase top quality lumber, at the same time trying to verify that it came from sustainable forests with good management practices.
He quickly ran into problems. “Lumber is a highly unregulated industry,” Arthur explains. “When your computer chip says, ‘made in Taiwan’, it was. But your lumber could be stamped with anything and no one actually knows where it came from.”
Sourcing from trimmings
Frustrated by the difficulty he had securing sustainable wood, Arthur had an epiphany. Singapore’s streets and highways are lined with some of the world’s most fabulous trees, including African Mahogany, Rain Trees, and Angsana. This was thanks to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who launched a tree planting campaign in 1963. By 1967, Singapore was already known as the “Garden City.”
But as every motorist knows, where there are gorgeous trees, there is tree maintenance. Singapore disposes of more than 10 tonnes of urban-cut branches and trees on a daily basis. Some of the world’s most desired and endangered wood was being cut down and turned into mulch.
“Singapore isn’t set up to mill lumber. It’s easier to pulp it,” says Arthur. “But African Mahogany is what you make violins, guitars and the dashboards of Rolls Royce cars out of. Angsana is the national tree of the Philippines. It’s so endangered there that it’s illegal to cut it down. It’s treated like ivory. You will be shot trying to log it. Yet it grows abundantly here.”
Once he established relationships with the companies hired to trim or cut down local trees, Arthur was able to supply his workshop with trees he knew with absolute certainty had not been illegally cut down in another country’s national park. Arthur Zaaro’s showroom is now a stunning showcase of what this beautiful wood can be: statement tables with live edges and marble-like veining, end-tables, thick slab cutting boards, bowls and spoons.
While the finished products were beautiful, I was more interested in making my own board. Arthur recommended Angsana, which has a light scent reminiscent of Sandalwood. I took his advice and carried the plank to the industrial workshop down the hallway, where a friendly and patient staff member walked me through the steps. I needed to sand down the edges, drill a hole at the top (I chose to place it dashingly off-centre) and round the corners and edges with a router. The industrial machinery was a bit intimidating and visions of missing fingers danced through in my mind, but with gentle advice, I quickly figured out how to safely shape the wood and survived the experience with all 10 fingers intact.
Returning to the showroom, I took in all the benches, tables and boards again and was impressed with this sustainable business model that caused no habitat destruction. Nearly everything around me represented trees destined for mulch and that instead were turned into beautiful functional pieces.
I ask if other cites could follow this business model? “There are a few places that are trying but most cities are nowhere as green as Singapore,” Arthur explains. “If you look at New York City, it doesn’t have many big trees outside of Central Park. African Mahogany and Angsana are literally endangered in their homelands, and you just find them growing by the side of the road here.” He pauses and smiles. “One of the amazing things about Singapore is there are hardly any billboards on the roads. You drive and all you see are these beautiful green trees.”
A week later a package arrives at my door. It’s my new Angsana board, now sporting the seal that brought me to the workshop in the first place: 100% Grown & Made in Singapore.
ARTHUR ZAARO: 122 Eunos Avenue 7, Richfield Industrial Centre #08-07, 409575*
*email ahead from the website to schedule an appointment