A Chat with Matthew Encina
Our good friend Matthew Encina reached out recently about a project he was working on to redesign his wife's office—we were excited to dive in, and get involved in the process to build a very unique creative workspace. After everything was all finished, Matthew and Ken sat down virtually to talk about the process: the inspiration, the process, and what they learned along the way. In the end, it was a great conversation ranging from wood working tips to workspace design and why your space matters.

Check out the video, and read an edited transcript of the conversation below:

I think for creative people . . . sometimes you just need to refresh your space, your environment, your stimulation.

The Inspiration
Matthew: I think when we first connected, Ken, it was at the beginning of this massive project that me and my wife, Belinda, wanted to do, which is to redo her art workspace that's currently in our living room. When I spoke to you and Sean at the beginning of this project, you guys gave me a lot of good feedback in terms of the design, what to consider, things about finishing wood, woodworking, all of these good things that I didn't know before.

Ken: I thought it was pretty ambitious when we last chatted. Having been a professional in that field before, you know, it's hard to build stuff, especially in a condo. I'm curious to see how you pulled it off.
Matthew: My wife had been working in a dark corner of our living room. And she was like "You know what, it's not that inspiring to be in this corner. It's too dark." So we wanted to figure out how we can move her closer to the window [while balancing the workspace with the living room] and she's a multi-disciplinary artist, so she has tons of books, references, mediums, paints, all this stuff that we had . . . to store.
The medium and large walnut wood wall shelves in living room setting.
Walnut  Wall Shelves with Walnut Succulent Planter and Walnut Pen Cup.
The hand-painted black cork support doubling as a built-in bookend attached to the walnut wall shelf.
Matthew: So, we started doing some research—we found all these cool modular systems. But when we were looking into it, it's like we didn't really love the look of these vertical lines that would be on the wall. And a lot of these were super expensive, like $4,000 or $5,000 and [Belinda was] like, "What if we just build everything ourselves?" I was like, "Are you serious?" It's like, "All right, let's do it."

Ken: I love it. I love it.

Matthew: So we just jumped right in. I started building some concepts out in 3D. And I think when you and I first spoke, Ken, and I shared this, I was thinking about just doing some kind of IKEA hack where we get some IKEA shelves and then just putting some wood top on it and hanging a couple of shelves and some artwork.

Ken: Those look like our wall shelves.

Matthew: Yeah. That was the original. And then I think after a lot of back and forth with Belinda, she saw this and she's like, "You know what? I feel like I need more storage. I feel like I need more shelving. And do you mind if I take it over?" She got so inspired. It turned [into] a completely custom build.

Ken: I used to be a custom furniture maker, and most of my work was clients like you guys where there's some kind of space limitation where off-the-shelf stuff just doesn't work. So your wife has unique needs, and looking at your original goals with the nature of her [multidisciplinary, analog] work, you can't really buy that.
The Process: Woodworking
Matthew: We ended up [choosing] white oak—we like the tone, the color, the strength. We were looking originally at solid wood, but man, that was super expensive.
Ken: We love plywood with our products. Building cabinetry out of solid wood can be really problematic because the wood moves. Your project would have been insane in solid wood.

Matthew: So the next part of it before we started cutting everything, we just got a bunch of artist tape and we put it up on the wall. It's a technique I saw from a YouTuber named Rachel Metz. Even though we had [drawn] everything out in 3D, it's hard to still feel what it would be like in the actual physical space.

Ken: Yeah. And you avoided an epic mistake.
Matthew: Right. But, yeah, so we didn't have any power tools, but luckily my dad did. He came over one weekend and he brought over all of his power tools. I don't have a yard. I don't have a garage. I live in a condo. But I have this tiny patio, and it's just big enough to lay down the 4 by 8 sheets. I got lucky.

Doing it this way was actually good for us because it made us more resourceful, because we didn't have these tools, we didn't have all the fancy things.

Matthew: After cutting things down, we refined everything using a table saw that my dad had … and there were a lot of imperfections. So we had to buy this cheap planer which is just a way to shave down some layers.

Ken: I've never done that actually. Wow. I'm impressed that you guys were able to do that with the hand plane and not like rip up the veneer. I can see like a nice shaving coming off there.
Matthew: Once we had all of our pieces cut, then we did buy this dowel jig so that we can combine all of our pieces together. We decided not really to go with any screws or anything that might be visible.
The medium and large walnut wood wall shelves in living room setting.
Walnut  Wall Shelves with Walnut Succulent Planter and Walnut Pen Cup.
The hand-painted black cork support doubling as a built-in bookend attached to the walnut wall shelf.

Yeah. It's nice and clean. No visible fasteners, that's what we call it.

Matthew: And we wanted to hide the plywood edges. I know some people really embrace that like your guy's furniture, which I really like. But I think for this one, we wanted it to look like it was solid wood. So we did a bunch of veneer edging. And then for finishing, we use the Osmo poly oil.

Ken: That is the best.

Matthew: It was awesome. I know you guys had mentioned this … and once I started looking into it and then I started testing it on these pieces of wood you could see here before and then after, my gosh, it's gorgeous.
Ken: It really gives the best look. You know, like, I don't really believe in taking wood and then putting plastic on it, which is basically what spray finishes are. Sure protects it, but then it's not wood anymore. Did you find it satisfying after all that work? Like [finishing] the last step?

Matthew: Yeah. That was very satisfying. We did the the paper sanding technique that you taught me which is just getting a sheet of regular printer paper and then rubbing it down after, and it made it extra smooth.

The thing about oil is you can repair. With a spray finish, you basically have to redo the whole thing. So over the long haul, it's way better.

Matthew: And then, we decided to mount everything using French cleats. French cleats are just basically an angled piece of wood that you mount on the wall and then you have the counter shape of that mounted on the furniture.

Ken: This is a great tip for the DIY viewers out there. The reason it's so much better for an install like this is imagine picking up this cabinet and you're trying to level. It weighs 100 pounds, maybe. And you're like, "Uh, [move it] a little bit, a little bit like this, or you drop it" or whatever. Instead, you level the French cleat and it's like just a piece of wood, super light, and you can just get it right and then you just put the cabinet on that.
Workspace: The Tools You Need
Matthew: [As we were organizing her stuff] we realized, "Well, we can't just stuff everything in [these drawers] because it's really hard to grab stuff." So she designed this whole drawer system that's modular so that she can have all these little pieces of poplar wood that she can just slide in and out and then divide up all of her pens, pencils and medium.

I mean, I love this ... there's no product that exists for this, somebody that uses this many tools and these exact plans.

Ken: Nice. Wow. That's some expert craftsmanship right there.

Matthew: That's all her. That's all her.

Ken: She's a professional artist, so it's worth it. And then, it slides in so you don't have to look at all that clutter. You know, honestly, that's great.
The medium and large walnut wood wall shelves in living room setting.
Walnut  Wall Shelves with Walnut Succulent Planter and Walnut Pen Cup.
The hand-painted black cork support doubling as a built-in bookend attached to the walnut wall shelf.

I've looked at hundreds of workspaces, Matthew, maybe even over 1,000. I've never seen this many pens.

Matthew: Oh, yeah. She collects them.

Ken: Record holder!
Balancing Minimal with Character
Matthew: This is everything. So we installed these cabinet drawers for everything. There's a few things we kept visible like the books just because they look beautiful. They add some color. We displayed a couple of the brushes, put a few pieces on top of the desktop. But it's mostly clean.
The medium and large walnut wood wall shelves in living room setting.
Walnut  Wall Shelves with Walnut Succulent Planter and Walnut Pen Cup.
The hand-painted black cork support doubling as a built-in bookend attached to the walnut wall shelf.
Walnut  Wall Shelves with Walnut Succulent Planter and Walnut Pen Cup.
The hand-painted black cork support doubling as a built-in bookend attached to the walnut wall shelf.
Ken: And I really like how it's clean and modern, but there's still like a lot of warmth. And I think the minimalism of the design makes it so the objects you put on that really stand out. I've always liked that, you know, when you mix old and new. If it's just all modern, it's too cold.

Matthew: We wanted to put a bunch of plants in here. We wanted it to break everything up with these, like, nice organic shapes and just real life inside.

Ken: I love the vines because it kind of breaks up those horizontal lines. I like that brass planter too.
Matthew: Our accent colors outside of the natural wood was brass and black. So we just wanted to add that accent and be consistent with that throughout where we're not using too many materials, but just enough where there's a nice balance of primary, secondary, and tertiary material or color.

Ken: So you guys are cheating because you're not like true DIY because you're professional designers, just DIY on the fabrication. You're not like 100% DIY.

We look at it every day. With a lot of those things, it's just like figuring out the details, what we want to display, what's gonna represent us and her, and what's nice enough to show, and then what wants to be tucked away.

A Workspace That's Just Right
Ken: So one thing that I think is unusual about this workspace [is the depth]: eighteen inches is very narrow … it's not very deep at all for a desk. How does she feel about that as a workspace having used it?

Matthew: Oh, she loves it. She's only been working in it for about two and a half weeks now, but having a very long and narrow space is pretty good because she can be on her computer here in the middle, she can slide that out of the way, she can have all this real estate on the left and right.

Ken: Oh, interesting.
Matthew: Right now, she's working on an illustration where she has a lightbox that she's drawing over a sketch on, and then she has her computer to the right side and then a bunch of different material because it's a mixed media project.
Ken: When we originally designed that small desk pad, we picked the material because it's premium, but also because it slides easily. So our intention was that it slides forward and back. But she's going left to right. It's kind of exciting. She's utilizing our product in a way I've never seen before. We built that because we noticed people do that a lot and they usually just [bulldoze all their stuff out of the way]. But if you have the whole pad, it can kind of quickly move back and forth.
In The End: An Inspired Workspace
Ken: So how do you think the space has impacted her work and then you as well? Can you articulate how it feels different?

Matthew: Well, I think it's because of the contrast of living in the sawdust and construction for a couple of weeks and now having this relief of everything's organized, everything's put away, and because we have all of these plants in here, it just feels very fresh. And it has this definitely more uplifting and positive vibe in there.
Ken: I wanna circle back to why you guys decided to do this, you know. If you go back to, like, your pure motivation, and you got this kind of result where it's uplifting, but why does that matter to you, you know, as a creative?

If you have the same environment, if you have the same stimulation, you're probably going to just keep doing the same work.

Matthew: And that's okay for some people. Some people can stay focused. They can just show up and do the work. But I think her and I are quite similar where, you know, every couple of years or every couple of months, depending on where you're working, you just want to mix it up because that shock, working in a different space or, you know, changing one or two things, and it could be as little as changing a desk, it has a huge impact on how you perceive your approach to work.

It's like every time I clean my place, or every time I organize something it's like, "Oh, now nothing is in my way. Now, I can just do the work."

Ken: Well, this project, I mean, the technical difficulty, I'm, like, blown away. I can't believe you guys did this.

Matthew: The courage is all on her because for me, when I go into any project … I like to mitigate all the ways that could possibly go wrong. But then, you know, after a little bit of research, I'm like, "Okay, I feel confident. I'll go do this." And for her, once she sank her teeth in it, once she realized like, "Oh, this is my space, I can build it how I want to. Let me see what we can design. Let me see what's out there." So it was really her that pushed us both off of the cliff of jumping in and say, "Let's make it a big project."
Ken: Have you collaborated with her creatively before?

Matthew: Yeah, absolutely. Belinda and I met at work [in 2010], so we kind of can understand where the other person's going to think before they even arrive there. And so we just learned how to communicate and know that when we're stepping on the other person's toes and to back off and, you know, know when to release control, and then where to give it because both her and I care about different things.

Ken: I love it because when it works well, which is hard, but if it works well you get a kind of a combination of you two, manifesting itself in the space, and it's probably better than either of you on your own.
Wrapping Up
Ken: Cool. Well, congratulations. Someday we'll get together for a drink. Maybe in a couple of years.

Matthew: In a couple years I know we can see each other again in person. It would be great to have you over and it'd be cool to actually come up to the shop and check all that stuff out.

Ken: Matthew, it's great to chat with you.

Matthew: Yeah. Likewise, Ken. Man, it's really fun and thanks for believing in us, supporting us. and giving us support throughout this project.

Ken: That was inspiring. Have a good weekend, man.

Matthew: Yeah, you too. Thanks, man.
Follow along with Matthew's projects: Mod Musings / Matthew Encina

See Belinda's artwork here.

Further Reading