Close your eyes and imagine a harbour in Southeast Asia, facing the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal or the deep blue waters of the Andaman Sea. Cheerfully painted boats bob in the water at the end of their ropes, bright bubble gum colours in turquoise seas beneath a deep blue sky. Such sights are common in this part of the world yet they never fail to delight; the contrasts cry out to be captured, and a photograph seems almost mandatory.

 

Few outsiders linger to witness the whole cycle of a day in a small fishing village. In Jepara, Indonesia, boats gather in the river delta in the evening, anywhere from two to 10 men to a small vessel. Using oil lamps to show them the way, the fishermen ply the Java Sea in search of fish at night and return to port in the morning with a deck that glistens as the sun glints off the scales of twisting fish. During the height of the day the men sleep, while the colourful boats attract the gaze of visitors. On Java, the fishing boats often sport boastful prows that curve upward like daggers, decorated with white curlicued lines.

A traveller may wonder what becomes of the wood when the boats themselves reach the end of their lives. We at Artemano continue the story for selected Indonesian boats by recycling the weathered wood into contemporary furnishings.

Despite the cheery postcard images taken in Asian harbours, the seas in these parts of the world are legendarily rough. Over a boat's lifespan of a few years (typically less than a decade) the repeated action of rolling waves and sea salt — not to mention the heat of an equatorial sun — gradually tempers and hardens the wood. As a consequence there is untold, hard-earned strength locked in the grooves and ripples of the wood, as in the sinewy arm of a wiry and experienced fisherman.

After everything this wood has survived, virtually nothing can hurt it now.

The wood that Artemano reclaims and re-uses shares for furniture could be thought of as sharing traits with madeira, a fortified wine that's finally coming back into favour after several decades of neglect. Madeira hails from the flower-covered Portuguese island of the same name. Five hundred and eighty kilometres west of Morocco, it sits well off the African coast. During the Age of Discovery, it was often used as stopping point on the way across the Atlantic Ocean. The wines added to the ship's hold tended to be simple, rustic stuff when fresh — relatively uninteresting and often too sweet. Sailors took what they could get. Later, however, the heat of a ship's hold “cooked” the wine, and the undulating motion of a sea voyage left it oxidized — that is often considered a flaw in a wine, but it turns out to be strangely alluring in madeira. Norwegian aquavit and English India pale ale share similar stories: It was once believed that the sloshing of a maritime adventure improved them, and while they're mostly aged in warehouses today, a few superstitious makers of these centuries-old beverages will age a batch in barrels in the hold of a sailing vessel, on the rare instances that such an opportunity arises.

From the 18th century up to the present day, lovers of fortified wine also marvel that madeira is virtually indestructible. A sip can taste fresh months after the bottle is open, whereas other wines go flat in days. So it is with Artemano's recycled Indonesian boat wood: The ocean and the sun have dealt it all the punishment they could, and the material survived with its strength and beauty intact. A life at sea has made it strong.

Even some of the salvaged boat wood's bright colour survives. The reclamation process leaves behind patches of vivid paint that alternate with each other and frequently overlap — royal blue here, crimson and mustard yellow there, sometimes a strip of bright lavender. It's like discovering the layers of colourful history in the painted walls of an old house.

The staves of wood in a single piece of furniture can come from multiple boats. The workers lay the pieces out and improvise an arrangement that fits, solving the puzzle using their natural feelings for aesthetics and beauty to guide the process. Most of the craftspeople lack any formal design training, and yet they display an intuition for the process as if it runs in their veins. They manage a balance of shape and colour that would make a Zen artist proud.

In creating the final piece, Artemano contrasts the wood against the straight lines of monochromatic metal to create a sophisticated industrial aesthetic. It derives authenticity from the impressive strength and rugged history of the wood.

Where the paint has all been stripped away, the plain wood speaks for itself in a language of faded hues and deep cracks. Here and there, tiny notches could be a skipper's little notes to himself. Perhaps this one records how many fish were caught on a particular day? Maybe over there we have the initials of the crew members scheduled to work? It's impossible to really know, but the mystery only lends allure to the piece.