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Catching up with John Malecki, Pittsburgh’s quintessential builder

April 8, 2016

John Malecki is a dying breed. Technically, he’s a millennial. But this sage 20-something is more likely to be found sporting a sander than he is an iPhone.

The Green Tree, Pennsylvania resident is Pittsburgh’s most popular woodworker, perhaps best known as “the builder.” From the basement of his Homestead studio, he churns out “industrial, reclaimed” furniture — tables, shelves, sliding doors, benches — as well as more commercial pieces, like custom signs and wall murals.

For this craftsman, handwork has always felt natural: “I grew up in the suburbs [in Pittsburgh], where every person works construction or does something with their hands. My dad and grandfather were always construction workers, so I grew up around home renovation and DIY stuff. I always liked being hands-on.”

Malecki soon realized that his dexterity expanded well beyond operating a circular saw. A football player since age 11, the offensive guard went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh, and later, for five professional teams — including the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I grew up in Murrysville [Pennsylvania], went to Pitt, and was a Steeler. So, every yinzer kid’s dream,” he adds with a laugh.

The athlete saw the end of his NFL career as an opportunity to return to his roots. He started to build — and never stopped. He launched an online shop and worked out of a garage for 18 months before settling down in his current space on Cherry Street. “This was an easy transition for me,” he says, “because it came out of necessity.”

What strikes me as interesting is that Malecki’s entire workspace seems to function out of necessity. It’s not glamorous, or tidy, or all that bright. But it doesn’t need to be. This guy’s in it for the craft.

“This room’s chaos, but it’s a process,” he admits. “I usually just have shit everywhere, and sawhorses and stuff.” He leads me around his wooden haven, where every seemingly misplaced piece of lumber has a methodical home. I jot down his blueprints as quickly as he recites them: “I build over here … and then I do more of my finishing in this room … and that’s storage … and obviously more wood back here. Just trying to make the most of the space.”

With a sole focus on his work, Malecki has managed to garner an extensive clientele and social media presence. Between frequent blogging — past headlines include “5 Ways to Take Your DIY Projects to the Next Level” and “3 Tables You Can Build with Only 2 Tools” — and Instagramming to an audience of nearly 20,000, we’re not convinced the multitasker ever sleeps. After all, he has found time to do his own marketing while simultaneously constructing original, impeccably built pieces of furniture.

“I’ve been fortunate enough — like I said, I played football for a while — that I had a decent social following,” he says. “And everyone in the city’s been a great supporter. Like, what I’m doing now … everyone loves the concept of reclaiming and repurposing. I have a great network of friends and businesses around Pittsburgh from growing up here. My business has grown and my client base has grown from, more or less, just being in Pittsburgh.”

When it comes to inspiration, Malecki says that our former steel city drives his aesthetic: “I love what Pittsburgh stands for. Everything’s based around steel and bricks.” And, naturally, so are his projects. Utilizing repurposed, reclaimed goods from local contractor friends and exotic wood from a lumberyard in Mars, Pennsylvania, the ‘Burgh-proud builder has gained national recognition for his embodiment of the city’s industrial architecture.

Pittsburgh, essentially, is an interactive portfolio of Malecki’s professional work. His visions have come to life not only in clients’ private homes, but in a range of local businesses. Among them: artist Baron Batch’s Studio AM; Lawrenceville’s Toll Gate Revival; Squirrel Hill’s float-pod center, Levity; our own Lifespace office.

His all-time favorite? A one-point perspective bridge, constructed from reclaimed barn wood and hand-fabricated metal. A clear tribute to our City of Bridges, the mural has been on display in Lululemon Shadyside since December 2015. “That was a pretty cool project,” he shares. “It was the biggest thing I’ve done conceptually. I do a ton of dining tables, comfy tables, benches, trunks, stuff like that. So, when I get something that’s a little out of the blueprint, that’s usually really fun.”

The young entrepreneur has mastered the art of turning a vague idea into something tangible and — even more impressively — functional. It’s a rare quality, and one that his customers have come to value. “Everything I build, I try to incorporate the client’s vision as much as possible,” he says. “Something will pop into my head, and I’ll try to create it out of nothing. That’s what I love about [building]: bringing someone else’s vision to life.”

Malecki personifies ambition that can’t be tamed. As his business rapidly evolves, he’s embracing self-made success with humility, authenticity, and one hell of a work ethic. “For me, everything Pittsburgh embodies is who I am. I’m a suburban dude from 20 miles outside the city who was fortunate enough to go and do something [athletically] that a lot of kids dream of around here. So, I’m trying to do everything I can to grow a business in the same context … put my head to the ground and work my tail off until it works.”

If there’s any place that rewards this kind of dedication, it’s Pittsburgh: a city that rose from the Rust Belt, sweat the dust off its shoulders, and came back to life with a strength that refuses to waver.

Says Malecki, “I don’t ever plan on leaving Pittsburgh. I don’t think there’s anything bad going on here right now. Everything everyone’s talking about — whether it’s food, culture, art, music, housing, business, all of it — is just on the rise and growing. It’s great to see some place with a throwback, industrial, steel mill connotation getting national publicity for all the cool shit that’s going on that we all see because we’re living here.

“Plus, I’d love to raise my kids playing football in the same places I did when I was younger.”

And that’s how you hook ’em.

Photos by Tara Bennett


Below: Reclaimed barn wood and hand-fabricated metal bridge mural. Made by John Malecki for Lululemon Shadyside, December 2015.