Furniture designer Jessica Skinner creates functional art inspired by her family roots

by Brittany Nader

When Jessica Skinner was a little girl, she and her brother would take family trips down to sunny Pensacola, Florida to visit their grandparents. Her grandfather, whom she called “Papa,” was a farmer who would work magic turning raw materials into functional structures that lit a creative fuse in Jessica.

Her company, J Burgess Designs, is named after her grandfather, who would build dog houses, barns and fencing from ordinary pieces of wood. The summers visiting her grandparents and observing her Papa’s ability to transform raw materials into beautiful, functional structures left an impression and helped inspire her vision to start her own furniture design company.

“The overall goal is to help people be able to make their home be a beautiful space, visually and intangibly,” Jessica says. 

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Jessica’s grandparents lived next to a paper mill and would gather wood pallets to repurpose into new, useful items. She says her Papa’s legacy lives on in her work, as she adopted his resourceful nature and began mimicking his craftsmanship to serve her own life and needs.

“I think my woodwork is also the thing I’m most proud of. There’s nothing to me like being able to envision something and then be able to bring it to life,” she says.

Jessica is a self-taught woodworker and upholsterer, and her designs provide surface storage and seating options for people’s homes, but they are also intricate, textured, multilayered designs that are often repurposed from scrap material.

Recently, she debuted a handmade mirror from her archives on the J Burgess Designs Instagram page. She says it reminds her of the beach in Pensacola, where her grandparents resided. She made the mirror two years ago, and it uses elements of art deco, geometrical shapes, stained glass and layered angles.

The monochromatic layers and textures have become her signature. 

While the designs are intricate, symmetrical and involved, she says she’s only recently started sketching out ideas before she begins building. Prior to that, she was just doing it intuitively.

“I would say I’m 90% an intuitive creator,” she says. “I just get started.”

Jessica is an artist and a mother to three children. She has been homeschooling her kids for five years and says her furniture business has helped her teach her family entrepreneurship and creativity skills. 

“It’s something I incorporate into our schooling, and then also a way for them to figure out ‘What things do I like to do? What kind of business can I start?’” she says.

Jessica began her journey as a furniture designer out of necessity — she married her childhood best friend at 20 years old and wanted to make their house feel like a home without spending a lot of money.

She says she got a “hodgepodge” of different furniture from her family, but she ultimately decided it wasn’t the right look or feel for her space and this new chapter of her life.

She started off trying to master upholstery projects she saw online, then she began honing her skills in creating more original layered, textured designs.

Her great aunt did some upholstery, and her years observing her grandfather’s woodworking inspired her to learn how to make her own furniture and décor. 

Jessica says she is 100 percent self-taught, and YouTube videos were a big help in taking her ideas to the next level.

“Learning how to use power tools, that will make you feel unstoppable a little bit,” Jessica says.

She has honed her craft repurposing, designing and creating furniture more than a decade later. She has spent the last 10 years doing upholstery and the past five honing her woodworking skills.

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She uses fabric and wood scraps to create smaller items as well, including fabric bowls, which she says are some of her best-selling items.

“I try to be zero waste, so I try to use every piece,” Jessica says. “That’s how I got into fabric bowls and baskets.”

She says in the early days of her marriage, when money was tight and her home was sparse, she collected items from dumpsters and thrift stores. She realized she loved making tables and chairs and creating textures in fabric and woodwork. A lot of her pieces have a “built up” quality that make them stand out from other artists’ creations.

Jessica sells her original pieces online and has made use of social media this year since in-person events and opportunities to meet with customers have been limited.

“The major shift for me, I kind of anticipated this being the year that I did a lot more art shows, and of course those things got canceled,” she says. “Prior to 2020, I wasn’t really big on social media because I like to connect with people in person more. I’ve increased the amount of videos I make so people still feel connected to me and to the things that I make.”

Jessica is hosting virtual lessons so others can learn furniture making from her “years of trial and error,” she says.

“The overall goal is to help people be able to make their home be a beautiful space, visually and intangibly… […]if they’re in a similar situation I was in, married at 20 with not a lot of money,” she says.

Social media has helped Jessica feel more connected to the community and share her designs. She does commissions but says she likes helping others learn how to do what she does.

“There’s nothing to me like being able to envision something and then be able to bring it to life,” she says.

Follow Jessica Skinner on Instagram at @jburgessdesigns and view her current pieces for sale at jburgessdesigns.com

Photos: TJ Hicks