You cannot mistake one of Dan Pauly’s buildings for anyone else’s. They look like something Sam and Frodo could have happened across in some remote, forested pocket of Middle-earth, or a place where Santa Claus would store his reindeer tack. In an era when architects single-mindedly design glass and steel boxes, it is refreshing to see buildings actually meant to delight.
“What I do breaks all the rules of carpentry,” said Dan, “and I’m at the point now where I don’t even think about what I’m building. You won’t find a drafting table in my shop. I’ve taken my level and square and thrown them away. After 27 years of perfecting my style, it all just falls out of my head.
“I don’t think my buildings look out of place – even if they do look like they just fell out of the sky.
“I try to keep my secrets by not letting anybody into my shop. I’m sure there are people all over the world who would love to knock off my style. Still, they’d find it pretty hard to pull off. Most carpenters nowadays only need to know about four angles, and I would say 95 percent of them have never used a square before. I’ve had master carpenters from the union come to help me on occasion, and they were all wrecks by the time they left at the end of the day.”
Dan scours the Midwest in search of decrepit barns. Only these can deliver the experienced wood requisite for his creations. As a fourth-generation woodworking artisan, Dan occasionally dismantles a barn built by his own great-grandfather. He recognizes his ancestor’s flourishes and marvels at his Old World craftsmanship as he unravels it.
“When you take apart a barn and truly appreciate the work that went into it, the respect you feel is just incredible. To find a single piece of tamarack and realize it must have grown for three centuries before men with axes and horses took it away … it’s unbelievable what the workforce of my great-grandfather’s generation accomplished.
“The Old World Scandinavians were very conservative people who farmed for themselves, made all their own food. Whatever they built, they built for future generations. You rarely see people make anything these days that’s meant to last forever.
“But I have something that they didn’t – the internet. About six years ago someone posted a photo of one of my buildings on Reddit. It got 1.3 million views within eight hours of hitting that website. Since then my work has gone from some little curiosity only Minnesotans could have known about to something people talk about across the world. My buildings especially seem to resonate with people who love fairies, and they pop up on their websites pretty often. I guess they could be fairy homes.
“I most enjoy the reactions I get in person at the state fair. I’ll see people walking down the other side of the road stop and become mesmerized. To take them out of the moment with some sales pitch at that point wouldn’t be right. I just let them stand there and take it all in. They’ll never forget it.
“I have no children. I walk only 80 feet to work. My wife jokes that I haven’t seen my own mailbox in years. I have a lot of freedom, which is selfish, but that truly is why this business could exist.
“If you love what you do, it’s no longer work. It’s your life. And I feel like that’s what I’ve given to this world.”
Dan’s business is The Rustic Way. He has a considerable waiting list for his work, but that only makes the moment you finally own one of his singular buildings more spectacular. You can learn more about Dan and his life’s work at rusticway.com.
By David Scheller