For professional woodworker Greg Arceneaux, money really does grow on trees.
Don't you dare call Greg Arceneaux a tree-hugger. That term has negative connotations. Besides, Arceneaux doesn't drive a Prius, and he doesn't compost. No, he's more of a tree friend—or maybe advocate. As a skilled and professional woodworker, he has the utmost respect for not only his craft, but also the once-living material that makes it possible for him to do what he does so well. "Wood is a mundane material that most people take for granted. And yet, it impacts our lives in more ways than people even realize," Arceneaux says. They do so much for us,"from providing us oxygen, to growing [other] trees, to shading us in the hot summertime, to holding our land in place, to preventing floods."
Greg and his wife Liz are the team behind Greg Arceneaux Cabinetmakers, a Northshore business producing handcrafted wooden furniture and other items. They make everything from small wooden roux spoons and cutting boards to giant armoires and room-filling tables. The biggest piece that Arceneaux ever made is a 25-foot walnut table (which, to put it in perspective, is nearly twice as long as a Volkswagen) that found its forever home in an office building in Gulfport.
With no formal training in woodworking, Arceneaux taught himself the trade by reading Fine Woodworking magazine and through a lot of practical experience. Although he had tried his hand at the fine arts, he quickly decided that those hands could be put to better use making cool furniture out of wood. "I studied fine arts in college (LSU), and I never quite felt like that was enough. I always wanted to connect the beauty of sculpture with the utility and purpose in people's everyday lives."
So, after only two years at the university, he realized that he was barking up the wrong tree. Therefore, he decided to end his college career and take up a real-life one in carpentry. Arceneaux jumped into this new calling with four feet—making chairs. And, it turns out, that is a tough place to start. "No one told me that chairs were one of the hardest things to build," Arceneaux says. "So, I built chairs as some of my first projects."
He also began experimenting with recycled materials, including repurposing hardwood from motorcycle and piano crates and building pieces out of lumber salvaged from homes torn down in his then-hometown of Lafayette. But his artistic background remained a lasting influence on his creations—well over 40 years later, Arceneaux is still creating wooden artwork that is both practical and pretty.
"There are plenty of people out there who are good mechanics at gluing wood together or sawing it efficiently or shaping it efficiently," he says. "But because of my training as an artist, I try and raise that level up a degree, by using the wood grain to accentuate the movement in the piece or to create a composition out of the whole project."
As a native of Louisiana with a name like Arceneaux, it's obvious that Greg has some French blood in him. And when his Lafayette home began experiencing a French and Acadian cultural renaissance in the 1970s, Greg became curious to learn more about his own roots. "I was always curious about the furniture that my French ancestors used and what the colonial styles of Louisiana were," he says. "Louisiana's always been a little bit different than everyplace else. I discovered that we had a whole style of home furnishings that was unique for the country, and nobody was really pursuing it. It was more or less a forgotten art that was about to be neglected. So, that's what spurred my interest in it."
His cultural curiosity and his desire to preserve the heritage of Louisiana prompted Arceneaux to focus heavily on Acadian and Creole styles in his furniture design.
Today, the Arceneaux couple is enjoying a prosperous and
highly respected business. Their furniture can be found in museums,
restaurants, plantation houses, courthouses, and homes, from here to Alaska and
the Bahamas. Arceneaux is often called on to make reproductions of furniture
for historic homes and museums. That way, historians can tuck their antique
originals safely away from sticky fingers and damaging HVAC vents, and
Arceneaux's exact replicas can stand in for them and take the heat (or air
Greg has been featured on HGTV and in countless magazines, and the two
have received multiple awards (including one for having done at least 500
furniture restorations of pieces damaged in Hurricane Katrina). Had it not been
cancelled, Jazz Fest 2020 would have been their 34th year in a row as a vendor
at the renowned fest. The Arceneaux are highly respected in their field and
have built a very successful woodworking business. Knock on wood.
Arceneaux insists on traditional techniques in his furniture-making and still does everything by hand, sometimes with basic, old-school instruments—though he is not averse to using the occasional modern tool. Yet he strongly objects to the mass-produced, commercialized, homogeneous Ikea-tization of the furniture industry, and he prioritizes integrity in craftmanship and dislikes monotony in furniture pieces. "I want to maintain the quality of the craft—of actually using your hands to produce a product" he says. "And, of course, that product should have a longevity to it and not be disposable and something that's just trendy."
To own a piece from Greg Arceneaux Cabinetmakers is to own a little piece of history and of nature, handcrafted to exude both quality and tradition. Yes, he still makes things like they used to. And his furniture is not only sturdy and nice to look at, but functional as well.
"That's where my focus has always been in my designs—trying to create classic designs that fit in any time period, in any era," Arceneaux says. "Where would people be if we didn't have chairs to sit on? Chairs are complicated to build, but they also have a certain beauty to them. That's always been my quest—to combine beauty and utility."
Above all, Arceneaux is always quick to acknowledge the importance of trees, for the environment as well as in his career. After all, trees mean life—and a life filled with beautiful furniture. "I try to feature the natural character of the material. I love being able to honor the living being that was sacrificed to supply that material. I've always tried to give it a second life."
Hearing him talk and seeing his work is enough to make you take a second, more reverent look at a tree. You might even find yourself wanting to hug one.