Making a Mark
In creating custom wood pieces through Mwanzi Co., Jermain Todd is taking the St. Louis maker movement around the globe.
If you were to walk into the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, Zydeco Brew Werks in Tampa or even the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa, you might spot a familiar logo on the custom wood tables and displays. The burned-in words “Made in STL by MWANZI” immediately mark it as a piece of woodwork by St. Louis-based Jermain Todd, owner of Mwanzi Co.
The tables at some of the Gateway City’s most popular restaurants, workspaces at the Cortex Innovation Community and circulation desk at Nerinx Hall all bear that same mark. Mwanzi woodwork has been around since 2005, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Todd was able to purchase his own wood shop in the old Lemp Brewery to work fulltime on his creations.
Learning how to run a business while simultaneously producing furniture, Todd had his work cut out for him. But his passion for wood and craftsmanship outweigh the stress of failing.
“When I’m in a space and all I’m thinking about is woodworking and how great it is to be in here, then the sky’s the limit,” he says.
Standing in his studio, surrounded by hundreds of pieces of sustainably sourced wood, Todd notes, “If there were wood just on all the walls and not one piece of furniture, I’d [still] feel like this was an amazing place.”
Todd is a member of the wider maker movement that started overtaking the country around 2005. He even wears the mark of one — the word “maker” is tattooed on his right forearm.
The maker movement represents a shift in consumer desires from widely produced products to small-batch, unique pieces created by (mostly) local artisans. Ecommerce websites like Etsy punctuate the movement by helping artisans reach beyond tradeshows and local events. And even Amazon joined in on the movement with Amazon Handmade in 2015, which it included in its annual Prime Day in 2019. In St. Louis, it’s happening at spaces like MADE in the Academy neighborhood, at Arch Reactor in the Downtown West neighborhood and in garages, craft rooms and schools around the region.
But while Todd has received plenty of recognition for his woodworking, it’s not the movement that drew him in. It wasn’t even experience — he didn’t have any background in woodworking, and he can’t even remember having to take shop class in high school. Todd’s background is in marketing, and he mostly worked in sales until he volunteered to put together some displays for Caleres (then known as Brown Shoe). He worked with a friend and watched YouTube video after YouTube video to teach himself the trade.
He bruised himself a couple of times, stubbed his fingers over and over again, but the work filled him with pride. And it’s something he still feels today.
“There are times where I’ll walk around and be like ‘Yes! Nailed it! They’re going to love this!’ and that makes me feel good,” Todd says.
Even without the background in woodworking, Todd has a passion for wood itself. As a child, he would walk among the trees whenever he could, and now, as an adult, he talks about trees and wood as if they’re books he has yet to read.
“I have some boards in here that I probably will never use because I just love how it looks,” Todd says. “They’re like little trees in here, and each piece of wood has an amazing story.”
Mwanzi’s mark has reached far beyond the St. Louis region and into hotels, restaurants, offices and homes around the globe. Todd has been featured in Dwell magazine, Vice Italy and Make magazine, and he’s become a face for New Balance footwear and has collaborated with JORD Wood Watches.
And while his Mwanzi mark takes a small piece of St. Louis all over the world, for Todd it also does one simple, important thing.
“I discovered the power in making something that challenges me every time,” he says.