By Peg Lopata, Contributing Writer
Cambridge – Life takes us all kinds of surprising places. Who could’ve predicted that Susan Rioff, 74, once an urban planner would come to be a wood craftswoman making rustic furniture? Though a long-time city dweller, a walk in the woods is one of her favorite ways to relax.
Like many who come to Cambridge to go to college, Rioff, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, stayed put. Her first job was in the planning and development office for the city of Cambridge. She lived here from 1968 to 1989 and then again from 2014 to now.
“I couldn’t stay away,” admitted Rioff, mother of three adult children ages 42, 40 and 29. Rioff considers those children her greatest accomplishment.
“I gave birth to three babies who grew up healthy and kind,” she said.
Besides being a mother, Rioff worked in a variety of fields including urban planning: affordable housing, day care administration and infant day care, including volunteering in a neonatal intensive care unit. She retired from her professional career in 2013.
Besides making rustic furniture, she’s also usually busy singing in choral groups, though not at the moment due the pandemic. She sang with Back Bay Chorale for more than 25 years and continues to sing with the Boston Minstrels. In addition to making rustic wood furniture, she makes greeting cards, decorative cardboard boxes, handmade books, baby quilts, samplers and knitted items.
Her rustic furniture, such as stools, small tables, benches, chairs, and planters are carefully crafted from found wood, branches, and bark. She aims to create pieces that are both useful and attractive, practical and sturdy. She works with many different kinds of wood: birch, cherry, maple and others, finding each having their own admirable qualities.
“Birch reminds me of old-time American furniture. Cherry branches can be cleaned and oiled to bring out the depth and beauty of the bark, and maple is straightforward and easily available,” said Rioff.
But wood is more than something merely from a tree for Rioff.
“All the branches and boards I use have had ‘past lives’ in different ways, such as being part of a forest, what holds an old barn together, or a piece of a discarded chair. It can be easy to forget that every piece of wood has had an earlier existence and can keep on giving in other ways,” she explained.
Rioff collects wood from many places, including fallen branches in a forest, along a city sidewalk or scraps from a construction site. As she explains on her website: “In the back of my truck, there are always a bow saw and a set of pruning shears.” She’s keen to keep inventing. “It would be good,” she says, “to work harder on building unexpected shapes.”
The proceeds from the sales of her creations are donated to the Boston Minstrel Company, a nonprofit group that offers music to homeless people in shelters throughout the Boston area. Rioff explained, “Folks in the shelters can sing in groups or come up to the microphones to make music. It’s a very uplifting experience for everyone.”
And that experience fits right in with what Rioff wants to continue to do. As she says, “What I want to accomplish in the future is to make a positive difference to other people. This is what matters most to me.”
Photos/Andy Weigl, Weigl Photography