Waste not, wood not

Summit + Whole Foods Market

Summit + Puka's

Date
Text James Charisma

Summit is partnering with Whole Foods Market to tell the story of Hawaii brands that sell through the premium grocer.

Bar and restaurant with outside eating at Kahala Mall launched by Whole Foods Market.

In the specialty section inside Whole Foods Kahala, a beautifully designed wooden panel hangs above a refrigerated section filled with packaged salsa and dips. Spanning the length of the aisle, the piece is composed of different slats of wood—mahogany, maple, koa, red oak—all arranged side by side, pinstriped vertically or in alternating triangle patterns. It’s a dynamic visual piece, striking to the eye without being ostentatious, and unmistakably handmade.

Elsewhere in the store, more wood accent pieces reveal themselves: display table islands between aisles supporting wine and other bottles, sign placards at the front doors promoting specials and upcoming events, and wooden roll carts and countertops and tables. They’re not the first thing you notice when you step inside the bustling Whole Foods, but they add another dimension to the shopping experience. Like so many of the people and products here, these display items are local.

They’re the creations of Tyler Gregorka, former Maintenance and Visuals Supervisor at Whole Foods Market in Kāhala, and current principal at Retrospect Designs, a company he founded dedicated to “a daring combination of metal working, wood working, hand painting, brainstorming and a whole lot of improvising.” Through reclaimed wood and resourced metal, Gregorka and partner Lauren Finley create timeless structures, fixtures, or furniture items, built for function and to inspire.

“I decided on the name ‘Retrospect,’ because it’s a word that means something good to look back on, in the past. Woodworking has ancient roots and is an older style of handcrafting, and I also think of it like looking back to my own past—where I’ve come from and the people in my life who have helped support me,” Gregorka says.

As a child, Gregorka’s maternal grandfather was a chief engineer for aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, but the knack for building skipped a generation: Gregorka’s own dad wasn’t the best with tools. “If dad installed anything, it’d be a little concerning,” he says with a laugh. Anything in the house that needed to be fixed or built, Gregorka took on. In junior high, after accidentally breaking a brand new skateboard that his parents had recently bought him, Gregorka built a new one from scratch using an old shelf from his house that he added wheels to, shaped, and sanded. Soon, friends were approaching him with requests for custom skateboards. By then, he was hooked, taking shop classes in high school and working on personal projects at home to hone his abilities.

Both Gregorka and partner Laura Finley are from Las Vegas; they originally met several years ago, while working at a Whole Foods in Fort Apache. Finley worked in the customer service department, but frequented the store’s dedicated personal care products section, Whole Body, where Gregorka was the team leader. The two had a shared interest in vitamins and supplements. For Gregorka, it was Whole Foods’ commitment to quality which was the original reason he applied to work there, back in high school.

“When you go into a grocery store and you start looking at the products and their ingredients, you find all kinds of chemicals and artificial ingredients. But at Whole Foods, I didn’t see any of that; there were no bad ingredients here,” Gregorka says. “And everyone who worked there had a great vibe; I wanted to be part of that energy.”

When Finley eventually moved to Hawai‘i to work at the Kāhala branch of the market a couple of years ago, Gregorka initially stayed in Las Vegas. He ended up getting transferred to a store in Tenaya, Las Vegas, where he was responsible not just for inventory but now marketing and promotion too.

“We had to figure out how to do promotions with a zero dollar budget [in Tenaya],” Gregorka says. “I encouraged my team to make more mistakes, because if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying new things.”

Part of developing promotional elements on a limited budget led to Gregorka working with wood in order to create display pieces for the store. Up to this point, woodworking was only a passion for Gregorka, save for a stint building shelves and installing cupboards with the R & B Craftsmen company for a year after high school, but it wasn’t something he had much fun with professionally.

“I thought [working at R & B Craftsmen] would be a good fit because I’d be able to woodwork and build new elements,” Gregorka says. “And we did build fixtures and shelves and stuff, for hospitals and trade buildings and offices, but it’d be the same particular board style cabinet, over and over again. I wanted to do something unique that I’d be able to help create or design.”

Whole Foods loved Gregorka’s initiative and the polished wooden display pieces that he created. They gave him a wide berth to develop the projects that he wanted and free range to explore his creative side through his craft. “I loved it. I could express creativity and ideas without limitations; Whole Foods really allowed me to do what I wanted in my department,” says Gregorka.

A few years after Finley left Las Vegas, Gregorka visited her in Hawai‘i and fell in love with the islands and the local lifestyle here. He requested to transfer stores, which Whole Foods approved, placing him in the Whole Body section again, this time in their new Kāhala location. Team leaders there had seen images of what Gregorka had created in Tenaya and asked whether or not he’d be interested in developing signage and shelving for the new store as well, which he was excited to help with. Before too long, requests for Gregorka’s woodworking talents were piling up. At the most recent store holiday meetings he attended, team members shared ideas for wild display items—reindeers flying on the ceiling, a full sled filled with food, and more. Gregorka’s name kept popping up.

He was excited to work on these projects—but he still had the entire Whole Body vitamins and supplements department to run. He brought this to the attention of store team leader Tim Talkington, who moved him from Whole Body to becoming the store’s Maintenance and Visuals Supervisor, a new position created specifically to utilize Gregorka’s woodworking talents. It was in this new position that Gregorka settled in to for the next year, creating everything from wooden holders for supplies and pamphlets and stands that showcased products, to skateboards with pukas used to serve beer flights (complete with wheels and grip tape). He would later go on to build many items for practical purposes behind the scenes, including ladders, platforms, step stools, chairs and whole office remodels.

Although Whole Foods Kāhala had plenty of projects for Gregorka, the store wasn’t a workshop. He needed room and space for the tools and equipment needed to create an entire wooden display mount. Gregorka also began to realize that he was interested in pursuing woodworking full-time, in a business of his own, with Finley.

“In a lot of ways, those years working at Whole Body let me experience what it was like to run a little business. I had to stay on top of margins, product lines, inventory … but with the benefit of guidance from the [Whole Foods] management,” Gregorka says. “When I mentioned to Tim [Talkington] about my idea to start a business doing woodworking, he was very supportive. The entire Whole Foods team was. He helped us with the paperwork to become a Whole Foods vendor and helped provide lots of continual support.”

By September, 2014, Gregorka had Retrospect Designs established as a business in Hawai‘i. He quit Whole Foods on a Friday and resigned his position as Maintenance and Visuals Supervisor, then went right back in on Monday, as an independent contractor hired out to create large visual display pieces using wood and metal. They also contact him about picking up used wooden shipping crates and spare lumber so the store doesn’t have to throw them away. It’s a win-win for both companies although it always makes Gregorka laugh: “I wonder if my old coworkers think that maybe I’m not doing so well; they always see me digging through the trash [for reclaimed materials].”

Recently, Gregorka and Finley celebrated the one year anniversary of Retrospect Designs, which has grown beyond work for Whole Foods to include other retail clients and companies. The duo complement each other well; Gregorka leading the design and construction jobs, and Finley keeping an eye on the business end and financials. An accomplished photographer, Finley also captures their work on camera, helping to build their portfolio of projects. Recently, she’s been getting more into the design and construction side of the business, as well.

“Tyler’s designs have a lot of sharp angles and come from an industrial influence, maybe from his grandfather who worked at Lockheed. A lot of his friends in Las Vegas were into the [car] racing scene, with sturdy roll cages in drift cars. Structure and support were hugely important and play an influence in his designs,” Finley says.

It’s a foundation that Gregorka expresses through use of the elaborate triangles so often present in his work; stronger than a square, Gregorka sees pattern and triangle shapes as a form of stability, both in meaning and form.

“I feature it a lot in my designs because when I see the triangles, it’s a reminder for me about support. It slows me down, and promotes mindfulness. So I’m not necessarily concerned about having tons of products, it’s about the time taken to build these pieces of art or wood. I want people to get the feelings that I get for making it.”

“In my designs,” Finley explains, “I tend to lean more towards organic shapes and elements. I’m inspired by nature. So if we collaborate on a design project, it’s often about finding ways to take my natural elements and merge them with a modern or industrial structure.”

Finley studied ethnobotany at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, inspiring Retrospect Designs with unique treats like small wooden planters for succulents in the home, raw wood shelves, and more natural curves and elements. “We work with all kinds of reclaimed materials,” Gregorka says. “It adds a duality, especially when there are multiple concepts behind the piece.”

Pieces like their ‘surf-ving boards,’ hand cut and shaped mini 6” by 16” surfboards with alternating wood stripes that can either be wall decorations or used as serving trays. Or skateboards like their Kapi‘olani Cruiser, built with hardwoods such as red oak and reclaimed ironwood flooring mimicking old-school skateboards of the 1960s.

It’s part of a process that Gregorka and Finley refer to as “purposeful building”—the idea of expressing creativity and celebrating sustainability on a small scale. Every shelf, planter or custom-designed project that Retrospect Designs makes and sells means new life for a resourced material, and another vote that people are willing to invest their money in something meaningful. Gregorka and Finley take pride in the work they create.

“In Las Vegas, it’s hard to come by reclaimed or resource materials because when something ages out there, they blow it up, demolish it and build something brand new. And they don’t save the materials, so where does it go? Las Vegas is such a commercial melting pot, I didn’t feel the strong sense of native culture,” says Gregorka. “But people in Hawai‘i have a real passion and appreciation for their community, for reusing materials. So doing what we do, where we create something new out of something else and we make use of recycled wood and metal—it’s a perfect fit for us.”

For more information about Retrospect Designs, visit retrospect-designs.com

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Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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Ikaika Hussey
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Mae Ariola
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Will Caron
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Karen Shishido
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James Charisma