Catch John Yarema in a chatty mood and his conversation quickly becomes peppered with casual mentions of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bill Clinton, Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Dan Aykroyd, Richard Gere, and Kenneth Cole. Such celebrity-studded gab might lead one to assume Yarema is an A-List fashion designer or film producer, or a Beltway insider, perhaps.
Not even close. Yarema is a woodworker from Metamora, Mich., whose skills in creating ornamental custom floors have garnered praise from the likes of Mary Richardson Kennedy (as in the Kennedys), who was quoted in a special issue of Gant Home, saying: “John is a genius and now forever part of the family.”
Three years ago, a Chicago-based designer recommended Yarema to the Kennedys to redo the floors in their Mount Kisco, N.Y., home after record rainfalls flooded the 1920s-era Colonial farmhouse, causing widespread mold damage. “She brought us in because she heard that we do a lot of reclamation work,” Yarema says. “We do a lot of jobs where we pull the material out of old homes and we make it into something else.”
For Mary Kennedy, an architect and environmentalist, re-using the home’s existing materials was paramount. The distinct focus on sustainability even earned the home its own title: The Kennedy Green House. When other flooring experts said the floors of the home couldn’t be salvaged, there was only one option: Call Yarema.
Scheduled to go out to the Kennedy home on a Tuesday in the summer of 2008, Yarema says Mary Kennedy informed him he could breakfast with Bill Clinton if he stayed an extra day. Excited at the prospect, Yarema brought his oldest son, Jack, along for the ride. The week that followed included time spent poolside sharing wine with Chevy Chase, dinner with Larry David, and swimming at Glenn Close’s. “It was just the craziest six days,” Yarema says.
In addition to fostering a close relationship between Yarema and the Kennedys (the two families now vacation together at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.), the project was also an unlikely turning point in an already unlikely career that began two decades ago.
Yarema first discovered his wood-paved path in life in 1991. With a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Oakland University, the then 25-year-old was working as a systems engineer at Electronic Data Systems (EDS). “I was probably in the top-two worst system engineers EDS has ever seen in the history of the company,” Yarema quips. “It just wasn’t for me. I just was not built for sitting still.”
That year, Yarema and his wife, Lisa, bought their first home, a 150-year-old one-room schoolhouse in Attica, about 30 miles north of their Rochester apartment. “It was falling down,” he says of that first dwelling. “It needed to be completely gutted, so we completely gutted it.” When the time came to redo the floors, the couple decided to chop down a tree from Yarema’s father’s farm in Romeo. “We cut the tree down, and we had a guy come in with a Wood-Mizer. He’s cutting it into boards and we’re pulling the boards off. He asks us where we’re going to get it dried. I said, ‘What do you mean, dried? I was just going to put them on the floor.’ I didn’t know you had to dry it!”
Despite that lack of experience (and anything resembling professional tools), the floors turned out quite well. Compliments from friends and relatives generated a demand for weekend side jobs, which spun off into a full-time business.
“What I found in the dust of that old schoolhouse was a love for architecture and design, an appreciation for fine craftsmanship, and an understanding that there are no shortcuts,” Yarema’s website, johnyarema.com, reads. “From that moment on, I chose my path purposefully.”
That purpose was distilled even further after the housing bubble burst and the economy took a dive in 2008. “We had 18 guys, so we were still trying to be competitive in that market,” Yarema says. “When things slowed down, that type of flooring got really competitive. It wasn’t fun to be in that market during that time. I just shrunk it down to four guys. I said, ‘I’m going to do what I love to do. We’re going to only do fun, unique projects. We’re going to only do ornamental projects.’ And since I did that, we’ve been just buried.”
The Kennedy connection certainly hasn’t hurt. “I always wanted to do some kind of ornamental flooring,” Yarema says. “I’ve just focused on the work. And then this job out of New York with the Kennedys really was a big breaking point. It was a super game-changer.”
It also was an important step in Yarema’s complete transition toward sustainability and environmental friendliness. Yarema says the focus first came from the demands of the industry. The Kennedys were “almost militant” in their desire to use only reclaimed materials and “green” finishes, he says. “We did tons of research [for that project]. Nobody knows as much as we do about how to keep something non-toxic.”
The other half of the green focus was born from necessity. A year ago, a routine physical for Yarema turned into an unexpected trip to a cardiologist. “I had all these tests and they asked how long I’d been smoking,” he says. “I never smoked. They asked if I’d been around chemicals, and I said, ‘Yup.’ ” The cardiologist told him the pulmonary side of his heart was at 50 percent of its normal size.
As a result, Yarema now mixes all of his own finishes from tung oils and citrus solvents. “There needs to be an education about toxicity,” he says, “because toxicity is what we should be worried about in our homes.”
These days, Yarema is frequently on the road, traveling from project to project. Recent jobs include one in Fisher Island, Fla. — a 15,000-piece chevron herringbone-mosaic floor designed to look like fabric, a “hush-hush” job at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel for a Russian billionaire, and custom tables for Fisk Johnson (of S.C. Johnson fame). Yarema’s business is now international, with foreign projects including custom flooring in portions of a 100,000-square-foot private residence in Tokyo.
Despite the national and international success, and a schedule now resembling something closer to a rock star’s than a woodworker’s, Yarema has fallen victim to the old “Big in Japan” trope. “It’s funny,” he says. “In the Detroit area, I get the local-boy blues.
“[But] around the country, I’m the guy. In New York, when [architect Robert A.M] Stern was looking up someone who does ornamental floors, everybody said: ‘Call John Yarema.’ ”