Gina Bommarito builds furniture out of reclaimed materials, gives women the tools to do the same
By Leena Rao
Photography by Brett Mountain
Gina Bommarito’s Huntington Woods garage is more than just a parking space for cars — it’s where she’s most creative. Stocked with pieces of different-colored wood, carpentry tools and wood cutters in every corner, the space is home to Madam Maker, Bommarito’s furniture and art business. “I spend hours in here, even in the freezing temperatures of Michigan’s winters, just creating things,” she says, adding that she even installed a high-powered heater to make working in frigid weather more manageable. “It’s my happy place.”
You may not have heard of Bommarito, but you’ve likely seen her wood installations, tables or benches at businesses around Metro Detroit, including the New York Life headquarters in Southfield, Cardinal Health in Detroit — where she built walls out of wood from Michigan barns and century-old structures in Detroit — and Urbanrest Brewing Co. in Ferndale, where she created a bar and sliding door for the private room for events. Everything she makes is from reclaimed wood and steel that she sources from across Michigan, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to pick the materials up. “I love taking old things, like old barn wood, and bringing them back to life,” she says.
Bommarito, 51, grew up in Shelby Township and Utica Township, the daughter of a single mother. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so if I wanted something fixed, I had to do it myself,” she says. One of the first things Bommarito learned to fix herself was her bicycle — using a butter knife. Growing up tinkering with bicycles and cars eventually led to carpentry school at the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters in Ferndale and certification as a journeyman carpenter (i.e. she was professionally credentialed to work for the union in residential and commercial carpentry).
But Bommarito quickly discovered that being a woman in a carpentry union wasn’t as easy as fixing things around her childhood home. “[Some of the men in the union] didn’t want women in there and they didn’t protect me very much,” she says. “They would give me the hardest and worst jobs to make me quit.”
Despite the challenges, Bommarito stuck out her apprenticeship and, in 1999, started a business that specialized in installing and securing large pieces of art (some of which weighed hundreds of pounds) in commercial spaces, like Ford Field and DTE’s headquarters. It was on one of those jobs that Bommarito caught the eye of Jan Purcell, a local interior designer. Purcell was amazed by Bommarito’s ability to combine both technical and aesthetic aspects into her carpentry work. “There’s no one else like her,” says Purcell. “Gina is an artist and a carpenter, and she knows how things go together. She can figure out anything and she’s better and faster than anyone I’ve worked with.”
A few years ago, Bommarito began holing up in her shop on evenings and weekends to craft furniture and other pieces out of reclaimed wood and steel. She started selling and installing her pieces about six years ago under the name Madam Maker, a nod to her favorite TV show, the CBS political drama “Madam Secretary.” “Her ability to turn the idea into a reality is amazing,” says Sarah Kirsch, owner of Balanced Health and Wellness in Berkley, who commissioned Bommarito to build a steel-and-wood island on wheels that can be easily moved between rooms. “I tell her what I need and how it needs to function, and then she just builds something beautiful.”
Aside from being an artist, Bommarito, who lives with her wife and 7-year-old daughter, is also a teacher of sorts: She recently started a YouTube channel to teach others — particularly women and girls — how to do everything from compiling a toolkit to building a desk. Bommarito’s longtime friend Anne Zemba, also of Huntington Woods, is one of her fix-it students. When her husband died a few years ago, Zemba, who knew little more than how to change a lightbulb, was left to handle the house repairs. She frequently called Bommarito, who, instead of simply fixing the problem, explained how to do everything from painting a wall to waterproofing a window. “She taught me the skills,” says Zemba. “She has an amazing heart.”
For Bommarito, lending her expertise is an especially rewarding part of her job. “I want to empower women,” she says, “to know that they can do — and fix — anything around the home.”
To see more of Bommarito’s work, visit madammaker.com.