Canada 2017

These hand-crafted chairs sell for over $33,000 — from small-town Nova Scotia

Halifax may soon be getting a new IKEA, but an hour away, Jonathan Otter is keeping an age-old tradition alive: the art of handcrafted furniture.

Stunning designs reach far beyond their Earltown, N.S., workshop

Self-taught furniture maker Jonathan Otter and his design Lounge Chair No. 2. (Jonathan Otter)

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Halifax may soon be getting a new IKEA, but an hour away, Jonathan Otter is keeping an age-old tradition alive: the art of handcrafted furniture.

Otter moved out to Earltown, N.S. — which he describes as being the equivalent of "the ends of the earth" — from Halifax back in 2008. If you're driving up Highway 311 from Truro to Tatamagouche, you'll notice the sign for his workshop at the end of his driveway. But there aren't many locals with enough cash in their pockets to drop a few grand on one of his beautifully made stools or chairs.

Stool No. 6: "Its seat is sculpted so deeply it provides lumbar support that encourages lingering at the breakfast bar. Or any other bar." — (Jonathan Otter)

Otter's work is exquisite, and he admits that he himself couldn't afford to buy most of the pieces he makes. "People deliberate about the furniture I make. There's hardly any snap decisions, as it's a big outlay," he says.

This is why he looks outside of the province and even the country for his customers. "I've sent furniture to Texas and Bermuda. A lot my customers live in other parts of the world but have second or third homes here, so many of my pieces haven't left the province even though my customers are from far away," he says.

"It's a unique situation, an export but not an export."

People find Otter through his website and social channels. He recently won the 2016 Niche Award for his most difficult piece of work to date, Lounge Chair No. 3. An international competition celebrating innovation in American and Canadian fine craft, the Niche Award has significantly boosted the visibility of his work.

Lounge Chair No. 3 is stunning. And labour intensive. "Its very sculptural and curvaceous and very hard to do. Right now it is still taking me about 500 hours to make each one of them, and they go for just over $33,000 a piece," he says. Otter currently has a client in Vancouver inquiring about a set of dining chairs in a similar style.

Lounge Chair No. 3: the exquisite, award-winning design features a frame sculpted from black walnut and a seat formed from carbon fibre fitted with hand-stitched leather. (Jonathan Otter)

At first glance, Otter's home and workshop in Earltown looks pretty idyllic.

"A guy from New York, who is the chairman of one of the world's largest legal firms, bought a piece from me. [He] stopped outside the doors of the workshop and said, 'This is spectacular, you don't know what you've got.' Well I do know what I've got. It's not quite as idyllic as they think it is, and this life is not for every body," he says.

Otter says that owning a business in Nova Scotia is tough, whatever that business is. "I think if you can make it work in Nova Scotia, you can make it anywhere," he says. "Even now with international recognition, good exposure and building a website that's half-decent, it's a constant threat for me."

Despite this, he loves living in Earltown for the quality of life that it brings his family, and loves the freedom of working for himself.

Otter at work in his studio in Earltown, Nova Scotia. (Jonathan Otter)

Living rurally means that Otter has to drive to Halifax, over an hour away, to pick up supplies, or he has to order them blind from suppliers and hope that when they arrive they're up to his meticulous standards. This raises the price of materials and can be frustrating. "Sometimes I've had to have quite thorny conversations with suppliers and say, 'you're getting this back, I don't care, its not up to standard' and they didn't like it," he says. "But if it's not perfect, I can't take it. It would be ludicrous to skimp on the materials when 75 per cent of my cost is labour."

Otter's pieces are an investment for people who want to own something rare and exceedingly beautiful. But he's is no furniture snob. In fact, when IKEA opens a new location in Halifax later this year, he says he will be going there.

"I like their design," he says. "You can bet I'm going down there to check out their stuff."

Otter crafts Sofa table No.6 is a variety of wood combinations. Here, mahogany and white ash. (Jonathan Otter)

Find Jonathan Otter's furniture at


Freelance writer Lola Augustine Brown moved to Canada in 2004, but was born in England and has lived in the U.S. and Australia. She loves her adopted homeland and is settled in Nova Scotia with her husband, three kids, two dogs and 12 chickens.