They call him the German Hammer King. That’s because Christoph “Willow” Wildgrube has made a name for himself in professional skateboarding by dropping “hammers” – or high-impact stunts – down the burliest obstacles from a young age onward.
As a teenager, Willow raised the bar at some of the most notorious skate spots in the German capital (watch his legendary part in 2004’s ANZEIGE Berlin video). He quickly advanced from rookie to international household name backed by A-list sponsors, including the rare honor of earning a pro model on US-company Almost Skateboards; founded by skateboard wunderkind Rodney Mullen.
But in recent years, the German Hammer King has also picked up an actual hammer – plus some professional-grade power tools – to do some hammering away from his skateboard.
In the quietude of his workshop, the 35-year-old has perfected a unique blend of modern furniture sold under the Willow’s World label. Dramatic fusions of wood and metal with sleek finishes, his tables and benches incorporate recycled skateboard decks in a signature style that’s a breath of fresh air in custom furniture design. As word continues to spread among design aficionados, Willow has his hands full keeping up with pre-orders, and has already landed gigs creating custom orders for clients such as BMW and Porsche.
For the inside scoop, ILLUMINATED PAPER magazine caught up with Christoph inside his wood workshop in the town of Erftstadt near Cologne, where he lives with his wife Nicole and two sons. Welcome to Willow’s World.
Willow, you have been putting the hammer down on furniture designs recently. Do you have any professional training in working with wood and metal?
Back when I was 16 and had just graduated from school, I decided to start a vocational training as a carpenter. But they had me working mostly on dry wall instead of wood, raising walls and carving out windows. Plus, I had to be at the construction site at 5:30 a.m. in the middle of winter. So, after six weeks I stopped showing up, got into confrontations with the wrong people and ended up getting canned. That was my carpenter career, initially (laughs).
Right around the time you started making a name for yourself in skateboarding, so you were probably not too worried?
Yes, I got into ‘professional skateboarding’ quite early on. But I also made sure to earn my technical diploma in Economics on the side, just to have a complete education. Still, those were my early beginnings in carpentry. Then, when I broke my foot in 2013, I suddenly found myself asking: “What am I going to do with all my time? I can’t skate, I’m totally going up the walls!” Of course, I had my two kids – but I desperately needed some kind of equilibrium in my life.
That’s when Nicole showed me a chair with a nice design she had found online for our terrace. I decided to take a shot at recreating that chair design myself, simply using a rip saw and basic tools. Just trying to mimic the design without incorporating any professional furniture joints or the like. It was really more about myself and the wood – becoming acquainted with one another and getting a feeling for the whole thing. Really putting in blood, sweat, and tears. When the chair was finished, I posted it on Instagram and people thought it was really cool. That opened the door for me. I knew I wanted to do something with carpentry again.
How did things progress from there?
Every time I got hurt skateboarding, I would hit up our local wood supply store for materials for my designs. It had a carpenter workshop attached, and the master carpenter and his senior would teach me the ropes. I always brought in my latest furniture pieces and asked how they liked them and what I could do better. They practically ended up training me.
It was really more about myself and the wood – becoming acquainted with one another and getting a feeling for the whole thing. Really putting in blood, sweat, and tears.
DIY FURNITURE DESIGN
Learning directly from others with more experience sounds a lot like kung fu or skateboarding. Also sounds like they really took a liking to you?
Totally. They said: “We think your furniture designs are really killer! Keep going and we’ll help you!” They walked me through how all the processes and techniques in furniture design really work. All the different types of joints – like lamellos, dominoes – and how to set it all properly in a professional way. That continued until they closed down the workshop, so I went and rented my own space.
That’s a DIY-approach we see a lot when skateboarders apply themselves to other things, right?
It was totally do-it-yourself. I finessed my way in through the side door (laughs). But I had the best education, because these two master carpenters were hyper-critical and placed high demands on my work. We had a connection because one of them, Klaus was his name, was also into crazy furniture designs. Stuff like three-dimensional hexagons that revolved on their own axis. But nobody bought them because they were too far out.
Did having your own workshop help finding your own signature style?
Definitely, and my father-in-law told me that I had so many used skateboards around, since I always horded everything, why not do something with them? He said: “Skateboarding is your calling card. Go ahead and incorporate skateboards into your furniture designs!” That sounded great, but I had no idea whatsoever how to go about it.
One of my friends was creating picture frames from used skateboards. One day I watched him peel apart all the layers of a skateboard deck and that’s when I discovered all the different colors inside the laminated wood. I knew I needed these colors in my furniture and began experimenting with slicing up the decks.
How can we imagine the slicing technique?
In the first step, I sand off all the graphics and lacquer finish. Then I take off the nose and tail before “fileting” the boards into millimeter stripes. The thinner, the better – because the boards still have a concave curvature to them. When they are sliced thinly, you can add pressure to straighten them into panels in other types of wood, like oak or birch. I also make tables crafted entirely from skateboards, but it’s almost too much because you need 100 boards to get one square meter of surface. Most of my tables feature a wood surface layered with skateboard sheets, framed by wood liner according to the customer’s choosing.
That sounds like a lot of prep work to get the skateboard layers just right, a lot of work with power tools…
Yes, and four years ago I ended up cutting my finger pretty badly with the jig saw. Right before an exhibit of my wall art I had to build all the frames under time pressure. I slipped and reached into the saw blade… but they were able to reattach everything at the hospital. It wasn’t that crazy but still quite a shock. Because when you’re working on a mission making 30 picture frames at the same time, you forget to have respect for the power tools. But since then, the respect has definitely been back (laughs).
It was totally do-it-yourself. I finessed my way in through the side door.
REFINING THE STYLE
You’ve paid your dues! But your laminated wood strips from skateboard decks really add a distinguished effect. At what point did you decide to make that style your signature?
When you add these strips to, let’s say, a top sheet of oak wood that’s otherwise left pretty plain, it creates a nice accent. So when I saw that, it was on for me! I couldn’t stop. It was like skateboarding. Whenever I completed a bench or a stool it was like landing a nollie tre flip down 13 stairs. I felt exactly the same euphoria looking at the finished piece. I couldn’t sleep at night because the euphoria was keeping me awake. Furniture design has become an addiction, just like skateboarding.
What was your process for refining your style and polishing up the surfaces and finishes?
You always progress from one project to the next. When I look back at some of the things I made three years ago, I often wonder: “What was I thinking?” (laughs) You improve over time, just like you advance in skateboarding.
Your work includes very strong geometric lines and patterns. Where do you find inspiration for new designs?
There is an artists’ community called Worpswede outside the town of Bremen that I really like for its Art Nouveau architecture. I’ve been there a few times already and the interior and exterior architecture made a lasting impact. That’s where the honeycomb-like tables came from, for example, together with lots of other influences from the outside world. There are so many hashtags on Instagram like #furnituredesign or #upcycling with tons of ideas. But I also had to learn that ‘less is more’.
In how far?
I would build the most elaborate tables featuring the most complex patterns where I would spend 18 hours on a single table. Then I simply made a natural table with oak tree top and untreated, dull edge with just three stripes from skateboards. And that one sold quicker than the more complex pieces. There’s definitely a way to overdo it! (laughs) The simple things are often the most beautiful ones, especially if you are going to spend time with your furniture over the years.
Too much of a good thing…
Yes, too much crazy style. (laughs) I also learned that if you want to build furniture to last you a lifetime, horizontal stripes look better than diagonal stripes. Nicole would also tell me that the surfaces speak for themselves and I shouldn’t add too many layers and patterns. Some of my designs were too futuristic, too USS Enterprise. The iconic furniture designers like the Eames brothers were all about simple, understated designs which have since appreciated in value. Once a month I need to look at my classic furniture coffee table books to get myself back to reality.
Furniture design has become an addiction, just like skateboarding.
BUILDING WILLOW’S WORLD
Now that you have locked down your style, what types of products are you offering?
There are origami wall art pieces and Willow’s World clothing like shirts and beanies. Also side tables with metal frames, benches with pin legs, and large writing desks that also combine wood and metal.
Is there a philosophy behind this choice of materials?
For me it’s a mixture of hot and cold. Wood is warm, it creates a warm feeling. And iron creates a cold feeling and combining the two creates things of beauty.
Browse a selection of Willow’s World designs…
Where can people buy your products?
My website is Willow’s World where people can see all my goods. I would have honestly never expected for it to evolve like this. I started the whole thing entirely for myself, as well as my wife Nicole and for brightening up our family home. Now I’ve already done commissioned work for special clients such as Porsche and BMW for seating elements featuring striped accents. But that’s still the exception.
Overall, modern furniture design is really having a moment right now with tons of mail order websites catering to that style. Then again, a lot of it is mass-market variations on the same blueprints, whereas your work stands out as custom pieces. Who are the people you design for?
The people I design for really see that it’s something unique that they can’t get anywhere else. They can see that it’s hand-made. All the layers are implemented by hand and it’s hard to describe how much work goes into making one of these tables. People’s responses are really intense when they see “their” finished pieces and that makes me really happy and motivates me to keep going.
I ended up cutting my finger pretty badly with the jig saw.When you’re working on a mission making 30 picture frames at the same time, you forget to have respect for the power tools. But since then, the respect has definitely been back!
On that note, what is your process for working with your clients?
I’m always really close to my customers. As the first step, we meet in person and discuss what they want, which you can’t really do over the internet. You really need to get to know the person you are building furniture for, what type of character they are. I’m not just incorporating random strips of boards I have floating around the workshop, but really identify with the person when it comes to choosing colors that work for them. After all, the furniture lasts for a lifetime.
As the final question, what kind of hammers will you be dropping next in skateboarding?
I just had a part in the etnies “album” video and in September a new part for OWN skateboards will be dropping at the reinstated European Skateboard Championships in Basel. OWN is based in Stuttgart and they manufacture all their boards in their own woodshop, and I really like the philosophy.
Can’t wait to see the new part. Thank you for the interview, Willow!
Explore furniture designs, artwork, and apparel on the official Willow’s World website.
Opening photo by Stephan Hauptmann.
DISCLAIMER: Don’t call furniture design a second act in Willow’s career just yet, as the award-winning rider still holds it down for sponsors including etnies shoes, OWN skateboards, SkateDeluxe, STANCE socks, and Forvert. The Hammer King just dropped a heavy-hitting part in the etnies “album” video (watch Willow’s outtakes below) and has a few irons in the fire for later this year.
The subtitle of this story is inspired by Werner Herzog’s 1974 sports documentary “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner”. It follows world-class ski jumper Walter Steiner, who won a silver medal in the 1972 Winter Olympics and effortlessly broke every ski jumping record in his prime but preferred to work as a carpenter in the quietude of his workshop. You should really watch it.