There’s something magical that happens when a love for expertly prepared food meets a passion for art and design. Just ask Jake Knox, owner of Lucky Star Workshop in Grafton.
His love for food is, after all, a piece of what led to the success of his his woodworking business, which focuses on hand-made furniture and custom interior elements made from upcycled materials.
"I love great food," says Knox. "I love the art of it. I also love the experience of going out to eat. My wife Tara feels the same. And that really makes it so fun to be a part of it, to be involved in creating those spaces where people go and have really memorable experiences. When there’s buzz about a place, it’s a combination of things. There’s awesome food and almost always an environment to match."
Knox says his first restaurant job came about through happenstance.
"My wife Tara and I were eating at Maxie's – which is one of our favorite spots," he says. "And we ran into Dan Sidner, who asked us what we do."
It was a question that sparked a business partnership, leading Knox to design both the Mardi Gras countdown and Kentucky Derby signs for the back bar at Maxie’s, as well as the interior for Story Hill BKC, a project Knox credits with not only being a learning experience, but also launching him headlong into the restaurant world.
"You don’t just build something; you build a feeling," he says. "There’s a huge psychological component. And that’s what I work toward. I’m trying to expose the life in things. I’m really interested in old weathered pieces, things that really contain wisdom. It’s about bringing a space to life. I love creating environments where you think … ‘if these walls could talk, I wonder what they’d say.’"
Since that time, Knox has worked on interior elements for numerous venues including Fuel Cafe in Walker’s Point; BelAir Cantina locations in Oak Creek, Brookfield and Madison; and both the Out N Out and Stilt House restaurants in Cedarburg.
"Jake is a really cool dude," says Scott Johnson, co-owner of Fuel Cafe on 5th. "He’s got great energy, and he brings a lot of imagination to the table. When we built out Fuel, we had a general idea of what we wanted to do, but we really relied on the people we worked with to really bring it to life.
"In the end, we got exactly what we wanted. I’m really not a fan of drywall, and Jake brought a lot of different material options to the table. He did all the wall coverings and finished carpentry, and he worked with our metal guys to really make sure pieces fit together. It turned out great and we’ll keep using him for projects moving forward."
Currently Knox is working on burnt wood booths and a bar featuring a pantinated top for the forthcoming breakfast and lunch restaurant, Toast, in Walker’s Point as well as the dining area for Brandywine, a Cedarburg restaurant that will be run by former Bacchus sous chef Andrew Wilson.
"Jake and I have worked together before on projects for my Stilt House restaurant," notes Gordon Goggin, co-owner of the Stilt House and Toast. "His carpentry work is professional, dependable, and truly impressive … long lasting and eye appealing. Not a day goes by whereby someone does not ask who made his items, and we are always happy to tell them ‘Our friend Jake.’"
Born under a lucky star
The creativity in Knox’s projects is derived from his long-time interest and talent for art, a passion that he says consumed him. "I barely graduated from high school," he says, "And that’s largely because I spent so much time in the art room when I should have been elsewhere."
But Knox did graduate. And then he dove headlong into the working world where he got his start remodeling homes and eventually a series of coffee shops in the Fox Valley area. From there he traveled, building a love affair with the beaches in Costa Rica.
I took a picture of one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in person... so beautiful that I had it painted into a 16 foot long mural. I'm so glad that I did, because hurricane Maria took it away. #hurricanemaria #crashboatbeach #puertorico #brokenheart #beautyremenbered #alwaysremember #ricanstruction
As years passed, he worked in sales for six or seven years, started a construction company and then took a variety of positions, including a position with Anderson Windows. In the meantime, he started building furniture in his garage. The hobby became a form of therapy, he says, and one that got him through countless stressful work weeks and imbued him with hope for the future.
"I was fulfilling a creative need in my soul," he says. "I’d build tables and buffets out of reclaimed wood that I got for free. Essentially, I was using junk that nobody wanted. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. But, I never wanted to be one of the guys that was selling something at a garage sale or on Craigslist."
By 2012, he and his wife Tara (who brings her creativity to the table in the form of artistic finishes) decided to dedicated themselves full time to the business, which they decided to call Lucky Star Workshop. It’s a moniker inspired by a long-standing joke between Knox and his sister.
"My oldest sister attests to the fact that I was born under a lucky star," he says. "She was convinced I got away with everything. And I really did. I’ve come away from so many bad experience unscathed. It was more of a joke than anything."
Knox says learning experience, and not every job has been a success. "I messed up some tables early on because the wood wasn’t dry enough, so they warped. And I had to redo them all. But I’m the sort of person who really nerds out when I have a passion for something, so I read up on kiln-drying and made sure it never happened again."
Over the years, Knox has not only worked with countless restaurants to provide accents and furniture for their interiors, he’s also produced a diverse body of work including the creation of fixtures at ZuZu Pedals bike shop, high end residential dining tables, wall textures, and a variety of cabinetry and art.
Most recently, he established the 5253 Design Collective, which encompasses a group of local business owners, including metal fabricator Warren Heir Jr., Adam Nisiewicz of Pierce Street Seat Company, designer and custom fabricator Colleen Lake of Lake Effect Designs and mural artist Julie Osmus of Wall It.
"We’re really to the point where now we’re part of an interior designer or architect’s toolbox. They come to us and we work with them to really bring their projects to life.
"I’ve reached this perfect place. It’s a place I had to drag myself through hell to get to. I’ve been there on jobs where I was up all night finishing items for people that needed them yesterday. And now I have a staff of two wood-workers who I’ve taught to do what I do. And I’m not putting out bids for work; I’m working for people who come to me. And every single job still gets every ounce of what I have to offer."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.