Terra Amico: A Friend to the Earth
Written By Jordan Rosenfeld
Inside the wood shop of San Martin’s Terra Amico, four dogs emerge from their sleepy spots between wood piles and under tables laden with industrial saws and works in progress. Happy music accompanies the whine of saws, and employees stop what they’re doing to wave and smile as I’m given a tour by owners Joe and Lisa Ranieri of their furniture design and woodworking business, Terra Amico in San Martin.
It doesn’t just feel like a family operation, it is one. The Ranieri’s are grooming their 24-year-old son Trevor, who helps out, to take over one day. Their thirty-odd contractors and employees are free to bring their dogs to work in the laidback environment.
Terra Amico is relatively new to San Martin, but it’s been around for seven-plus years, during which the business has undergone dramatic changes.
“I started it in my backyard,” Joe explained. “I had some old wood I’d taken from a project at Silver Creek Country Club that I designed and built a table out of.” The table sat in the Ranieri’s yard for some years until Joe finally put it up on Craigslist. It sold that same day and spawned a series of similar requests he could barely keep up with fulfilling.
Before that, Joe, a LEED-certified green builder, had spent many successful years in real estate. After the fallout from the 2008 market crash and recession, in which they lost a lot of money, work opportunities were drying up.
“I had a lot of wood and we decided to see what we could build out of it. We’d done a lot of flipping properties, but the furniture thing was a whole new game for us,” Joe said.
The Rainieri’s believe in sustainability and keeping materials out of landfills. In fact the business name, Terra Amico, means “earth friend” in Italian—which is Joe’s heritage.
“We’ve accumulated a lot of stuff that might look like garbage,” their son Trevor said during our small tour, “But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Back in the beginning, when they still worked out of their yard, code enforcement issues and complaints from their neighbor about the noise had them looking for a new location. In 2011, Joe moved his operation to an old redwood lumber yard in the Coyote area near Bailey and Monterey. He worked out of a 12 foot by 20 foot space for a couple of years until they were able to move into a vacant barn in the middle of a farm field, also in the Coyote area.
The space was perfect, but in 2013 tragedy struck: the barn burned to the ground, taking all their tools and supplies with it.
“We lost everything,” Joe said.
However, after the San Jose Mercury News reported on it, they received an outpouring of support from the community.
“We had people showing up with tools and wood, just helping us get back on our feet,” Joe recalled.
They were deeply grateful, especially because the structure was uninsurable due to its age so they could not recoup their losses.
“We managed to rebuild just from donations.”
Two more moves later and they settled in San Martin, not only in the shop—where they have 6,000 square feet of woodworking space and 1,500 square feet of metal shop—but the couple also bought a house on five acres on California Avenue. Their son is building another small home on the property.
“We love San Martin, and the large property sizes,” Joe said.
Despite earlier setbacks, business is booming. They regularly service such big tech companies as Google and Facebook, as well as a host of residential customers who come to them for the unique pieces that Joe is known for.
“We try to do things differently, one-of-a-kind, stuff that doesn’t look like everybody else’s work. There’s a huge artistic component to what we do,” Joe said.
As the child of an artist, Joe admits that the process is absolutely a creative act for him, and not just all a means to a paycheck.
Lisa pointed out that people have started coming to them for custom pieces inspired by furniture they’ve seen elsewhere that won’t quite fit in their homes.
They get some unusual requests. “We had a client that didn’t like anything on the ground, so we designed every piece to mount on the walls,” Joe laughed.
They also do a lot of design work for people who have a general idea of what they want but need help fleshing out their ideas into real pieces.
And the newest piece of their business is a Willow Glen retail studio where they showcase smaller, more artistic pieces of Joe’s work in the Midtown Arts Mercantile—an idea they’d love to bring to Morgan Hill.
“Anyone who is onsite there has to fabricate something,” Lisa said.
The studio allows them to create smaller projects, and to experiment with other materials such as concrete, zinc and reclaimed materials like used bike tires or fire hoses.
They aren’t complaining about the thriving state of business now, but they do foresee a time when their son Trevor will take over a larger stake in the business. Since they have worked non-stop, seven days a week for the life of their business, they are looking forward to taking some time off.
“One of our goals is to be not solely custom, but to use Joe’s artistry to build and create and sell what he makes,” Lisa said.
They feel embraced by the local community of San Martin and do everything they can to give that love, and their dollars, back to it.
“We think it’s really important, especially to the community in South County, to do business with other local small businesses,” Joe said. “We want to encourage the dollars be kept here rather than go to big box stores.”