Concrete Jungle

Story | Angela Muñiz
Photography | Mark Lipczynski

I set up my laptop and notes for this story on a table at Cartel Coffee Lab and lean in to start work. A chill runs up my arm that makes me reach for my mug, and Jason Silberschlag’s words run through my mind: “Steel is cold.”

In the five or so years since Silberschlag, who opened Cartel with his wife Amy in 2008, built these tables and other furnishings for the coffee shop, he’s learned a few things about both design and business. But in his latest project, Five Letter Word, he’s finding out there’s still plenty of arc left in the learning curve.

Silberschlag and business partner Austin Walker have quietly taken their interests in creating custom furnishings from tinkering and side projects into a full-time business. The two have designed pieces that range from the simple to the elaborate for the newest Sip Coffee & Beer House, the downtown Phoenix mixed-use space Palabra, and a series of co-working spots in San Diego.

Palabra4Palabra8Of the three elements they use to build: wood, steel and concrete, it is the latter that is their favorite.

“Wood is warmth. Steel is structural,” Silberschlag explains, “Concrete gives you character. With concrete you can get unique shapes that are still organic and precise.”

Concrete designs are made from molds, he explains.

“With a mold, [concrete] is extremely smooth. It takes on the life of the mold and creates a more refined product. The only limitation is in figuring out how to pour it in one pour.”

Other techniques allow him to add color and thinner, lighter finishings.

Palabra1Palabra6As Five Letter Word marks its first year in operation, the two self-trained craftsmen have found out the hard way that there’s nothing concrete about mastering their new medium.

“There’s so much more to ‘go wrong’ from the build in the shop to the install,” says Silberschlag.

They’ve poured the hairwashing sinks for Palabra multiple times, he explains. While it’s an expense, it’s taught them more than studying books and videos ever would.

As the Palabra projects wraps, Walker is currently in San Diego busy on the next job—designing desks and office furnishings for Union Cowork. It involves creating varying heights for the desks, cubbies for storage and drop in holes for cords.

Palabra5Palabra3“Molds are perfect to replicate these features,” says Silberschlag. “It adds value to the pieces and to the business.”

They see these office designs—the table, chair, shelf and other five-letter word pieces—as their core products. They hope that they can use all three elements to bring their work to a wider clientele.

“As we do more designs, we want to push all three materials and let them accent their strengths. The more you use these materials, the better they look. They become heirloom pieces,” says Silberschlag.