Against The Grain

Carpenter turned international shopfitting company owner, and now bar owner James Louw

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

This is totally unrelated to the new space that he recently opened, but it’s still worth mentioning that James Louw just bought a shipwreck.

“These Chinese guys came here and said that they were scrapping their ship because they had to get back to China quickly. They had some sample pieces of wood in the back of their bakkie that looked like rubbish, but we put it through the planer anyway and it turned out to be Burmese Teak and some other exotic Asian woods.”

If you’ve admired a window display in a mall or put your phone down on a countertop around the country, then chances are that James was the joiner responsible. And with retainers for Levi’s, Woolworths, Lindt, The Foschini Group, Sunglass Hut and the Harbour House Group, he’ll probably get to turn this wreck into a profit soon enough.

Wearing a uniform that includes a black T-shirt, black jeans and beat up Redwing boots, James has a relaxed demeanour that has resulted in those close to him calling him ‘Slow’ – a play on his surname and the fact that quality takes time.

Working from his factory in Paarden Eiland, James buys rough-cut timber straight from the mill and timber merchants and then machines it to workable planks. There are about 25 large three-phase machines at JL Joinery, things like drum sanders, panel saws, rip saws, band saws, radial arm saws, overhead routers, spindle moulders, separate spray and steel fabrication divisions and large three-phase extraction as well. Despite all this activity on the day of our shoot, James says things are actually quiet.

“Half my team is doing Levi’s installations around the country, and then the rest are at the new La Parada in Camps Bay, some are at The Grand in Granger Bay and I’ve got some guys at my own bar who are busy installing. There are about 40 artisans working here in the factory and if you include my accountants, quantity surveyors and admin people we’re a team of 50 and growing. The bigger we get the simpler it becomes because we can now afford the right people.”

The catalyst for James starting JL Joiners and Shopfitters was an international Levi’s campaign rollout a few years ago that he really didn’t have capacity for, but pulled off successfully despite the odds. For the last three years he hasn’t closed his factory’s doors, running night shifts and working seven days a week in order to get through his workload.

Working as hard as he does means that James is obviously partial to a beer after work, and despite spending his childhood in the water with big wave surfer Frank Solomon and picking up a world downhill skateboarding title from his days of bombing hills with Smooth Mike from PH Fat, some would say that drinking is James’ sport.

“I’ve always liked a bar, and always wanted my own bar, and when I realized that I was building everyone else’s bars and then spending my money in everyone else’s bars it made sense to open my own place. My passion for woodworking has allowed me to do that.”

So far it has cost two and a half million rand to shop fit The Sorrows, which James has used as a platform to showcase his skill, building it exactly as he wanted to build it. The result is immaculate, with light French oak and white marble at contrast with the bruised blue and moody grey colour palette of a stormy sea. The roman columns and disbodied sculptures are hand-painted throughout the space and there’s a massive model ship overlooking the entrance from the boutique hotel. James is particularly precious about his back bar unit.

“That was a month and a half of work. No nails or screws were used. It’s all joinery. We really didn’t hold back.”

The ‘we’ that James refers to is him and his good friend and business partner Daniel Holland, who you may remember from the profile we did on him earlier in the year when he opened his third Yours Truly.

“There’s a good understanding of what each of us brings and needs to do. Dan is obviously excellent at what he does and my role is to set it up and then keep the shop looking beautiful. We hope to do many more and have actually found a second location and a potential third.”

The bar has a concave in it so that if you spill your beer it won’t run onto your pants, and the pressed ceilings and French chandeliers make throwing your head back when taking a large sip even more of a pleasure. The Sorrows looks good, the taste levels are high and the right people have been brought in to ensure all other senses are accounted for.

So what of the victuals and libations, to use the parlance of The Sorrows? Well, the latter is easy with cold beers on tap and all the other liquids that we choose to drown our sorrows with taking pride of place in the abovementioned back bar. But then what about eating your feelings?

Chef Shayne Schutte who has worked around the world and was most recently private chef to South African retail billionaire Christo Wiese, plans to regularly switch up the menu every other week, and has an arrangement with the boutique hotel upstairs to keep his exposed kitchen bustling by doing their breakfast service.

With the resources, the team and the passion to turn out more spaces like The Sorrows, James is in the fortunate position of being able to shape his future with his own two hands. And what better time to do just that than when the sea is calm and bountiful and all seems to be plain sailing.

Visit The Sorrows at Shops 3&4, 16 Kloof Nek Road, Tamboerskloof, Cape Town