A Conversation With St. Louis Custom Furniture Maker Jermain Todd Of Mwanzi
How did an undergraduate degree in business and marketing help Jermain Todd emerge as a prolific St. Louis-based woodworker, custom furniture maker and creative? Technically speaking, it didn’t. But it did unexpectedly bring him closer to a creative life as a maker, as circumstance had its way. “After I graduated, I worked for a year at a company I didn’t like. It was just … boring. So, I made a decision to take the hard route: to struggle, but to do something that I enjoyed. I found fulfillment in it. If I stayed on the other route, I knew there would be a time where I couldn’t turn back. I wanted to build something I enjoy. That’s what kept me going. I felt like at some point, it was going to take off,” says Todd.
Today, he spends the bulk of his time picking through piles of discarded materials, immersed in clouds of sawdust, and walking amidst gigantic wood panels and hundreds of tools and varnishes for his own custom furniture shop, Mwanzi. The client list has a heavy focus on independent St. Louis businesses such as Pi Pizzeria, 4 Hands Brewing Co, Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, The Wheelhouse and more, for whom he is known to build massive tables, chairs, stools, cabinetry and other custom furniture items from chunks of wood.
The initial shift towards making his own pieces began when Todd started his own company in 2005 as a distributor of bamboo plywood, and his skills grew with curiosity, YouTube tutorials and endless hours plowing slabs of wood through a variety of different saws, all without severing a limb. Born in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Todd grew up in Toronto and came to St. Louis to attend Lindenwood University on a football scholarship. “My focus was always to get an education. Not to play football,” he says.
Keep reading as we discuss Todd’s background, how Mwanzi came together and how to realistically sustain a creative life.
I couldn’t think of anyone better for this St. Louis maker series. You have the words “maker” and “handmade” literally tattooed on you.
Sometimes I look at that tattoo and I think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I actually did that.” I love it, and I always will. It reminds me that when you decide you want to do something, you can’t care about what other people think. You can’t go in it half-assed. You’ve got to go in it with no fear, at full speed. That tattoo reminds me of that decision that I made to do this. It’s permanent. And so it was me telling myself, “I’m doing this.”
I’ve never had a weird look about it from anyone in St. Louis, but that does happen when I travel—I’ve had people give a weird look. Maybe people think it’s narcissistic, or something like that. St. Louis is perceived as a conservative town, but you’d be surprised how many people have tattoos here. They just might not be visible. There’s something about this town—I have clients from all over—and they dig it. It conjures up a feeling of a time when most people in this country made things. There’s still that love. For someone to have that on their body, people are like, “Yeah!” When I got the tattoo, I didn’t have any idea that it would resonate like that. There’s a lot to that word, ‘maker.’
How did you initially become drawn to woodworking?
In St. Louis, there’s obviously a respect for things that are handmade, custom and have an emotional connection. Many of the things I make are from wood that has a story, whether it’s reclaimed works from historic buildings or trees that grew on my clients’ lots. There’s a need and an appreciation for those things, which has allowed me to thrive. I can tell you that not every city has that.
I’ve always been someone who likes to create things. I liked architecture and design—I always did as a kid, even though at that time I didn’t really know, formally, what all these interests were. I just liked design. I started my own company in 2005 as a distributor of bamboo plywood, which I was mainly selling to furniture and cabinet makers. Being around them is part of how I got the bug.
It was really exposure, and perhaps that exposure met with some things that I already had that weren’t fully formed. There were also basic economic needs at home that needed to be met at that time. The economy had really started to tank, so I was looking for something different and decided to go that route one step at a time. I was very fortunate early on to get some really large projects that helped get the word out about what I do. If not for those opportunities, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, or certainly not as successfully. A lot of things had to happen in order for that to pan out.
You are 100 percent self-taught. What was the first piece you ever created?
It was hideous. It was a coffee table I made out of scraps I found while taking the trash out. I found some old pieces of furniture someone had thrown out, not too long after I graduated from college. Money was really tight. Out of necessity, I needed to furnish my apartment. The top was just glued on—there were no aprons or jointery. It was a baroque-period-style piece with turned legs. The proportions were so off. I hated it.
That was really good that I hated it. It forced me to learn how to make something that I actually liked. I don’t know what happened to that thing—I don’t have it anymore. It probably ended up going right back where I found it. That’s when I took the time to learn, and my progress really jumped.
What led you to pursue woodworking, creatively and professionally, at this level?
A big part of it was finances. I’d just started a family. I had a degree in business and marketing, but I didn’t really like what I was doing. So I moved back to Toronto, which was great. While I was back there, I was really able to connect with myself. It was just different, coming from a city like that. My wife is from St. Louis, and she moved to Toronto to be with me, and we had our first child there. We had our daughter during my wife’s final year of medical school. I had started that bamboo distribution company and was doing a lot of business in the U.S. Toronto and markets like that are so over-saturated. If you have an idea, 50,000 other people have that idea. We had family in St. Louis, and we felt there was more opportunity here. We decided this is the place we wanted to be, and it’s been great.
I felt like I had what everybody tells you is necessary—hard work, dedication, smarts—and I felt that if I applied those, everything would work out. That’s what kept me going. And my family—my wife had just graduated herself, and we had a baby. Once you have those things to motivate you, it’s not that hard to strive to make your dreams come true. It was a no-brainer. I didn’t have another option in my mind.
What part of your journey has been the difference between Mwanzi working out or not?
Really, it was those first clients who gave me a chance. I didn’t really have a portfolio then, like I do now. People just opened their arms, liked what I was doing and gave me a shot. That’s what it takes: somebody giving you a shot. You’ve got to do your part, but it requires somebody to help you get to that next level. Since then, it’s never really stopped. I’ve been making furniture now for almost eight years straight, and I can barely keep up with the amount of projects. My clients are people from all walks of life, and the people in St. Louis have been the best. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s really been true for me.
To do what I do, and make handmade things, you have to have a customer base with disposable income. I have different price ranges, but it’s not going to be super inexpensive. This area has proven to me that it’s thriving, and people have that disposable income to support makers and artists. If you’re a maker, entrepreneur or business, you can’t ignore that aspect. If you make something, you have to sell it.
Who was one of those earlier clients?
One was Pi Pizza. If there’s anyone who gave me a chance, it was them. They sought me out. One of the owners reached out to me and called while I was at a jobsite taking a measurement. I didn’t know who he was, and I hadn’t even eaten a Pi before yet. He suggested a project that was huge, and it would have been really easy to say, “No one’s going to believe that one guy can do 40 tables and 30 benches in two months.” But he didn’t have that doubt at all. He just said “Here’s the deposit. And put your name on it.” That was it. That really launched it for me.
How did you build these relationships?
I’m so busy making furniture that I don’t really have the time to get out and network. That’s not really how I built the business. It proves my point about how amazing my clients are. Some people don’t realize how much work it takes to do what I do, or what other makers do. When you’re in it full time, these clients came to me. Earlier on, I would knock on doors, and I did that quite a bit. Many were receptive. But a lot of my current clients either heard about me somehow, word of mouth, saw my work, or just sought me out.
I’m a one-man shop. I do have an assistant who helps me with all of my deliveries that I need help with. That’s new for me. It’s just my style. When I’m in here, I don’t want to manage. I just want to be involved in every little thing with building furniture. In conversations with clients, I find that people really like that the pieces were made from scratch by me, that I spent the time making it.
Cover photo by Izaiah Johnson
Read more about St. Louis-based makers here.