His midcentury-modern houses are for the birds

People The Arts

February 26, 2024

Koolbird House birdhouse

Koolbird’s Mark Ellis builds retro-inspired birdhouses for feathered friends.

by Allison Futterman | photographs by Peter Taylor

Growing up in Michigan, Dilworth resident Mark Ellis developed an early appreciation for the beauty and utility of wood. His neighbor, a talented woodworker, served as an unofficial mentor — and helped Ellis learn and refine his craft. 

He worked on wooden sailboats, did repairs and renovations, and eventually owned his own repair shop. Later, he took a job traveling around the country installing offices for financial companies. “I put it all together,” he says. “Furniture, carpet, graphics.” That’s how he first found himself in Charlotte in 1976. He moved here permanently in 1987 and worked for a distributor of Herman Miller, a modern furniture company, for 20 years.

The work was detail-oriented, including project management and installation, and Ellis learned a lot about midcentury-modern furniture during his time at Herman Miller. The hands-on installation of modular furniture also involved materials such as laminate and steel. After more than two decades, his time at the company came to an end, and Ellis found himself contemplating what to do next.

He knew he wanted to make something with wood. “I knew I was going to build something small, to sell,” Ellis says. “I liked birdhouses, so I started designing them.” He found someone who was selling their wood-shop equipment, and he bought it all, setting it up piece by piece in his basement. There, in his newly assembled shop, Koolbird was born.

Since 2010, he’s created several birdhouse designs with a decidedly midcentury-modern aesthetic. He doesn’t paint the birdhouses, but he uses an assortment of tropical hardwoods in various colors. No screws or fasteners are used in making the birdhouses — only waterproof glue. The houses are then sanded before being finished with a coat of clear polyurethane. Each birdhouse takes about 12 hours to complete.

Ellis currently has six designs. “I love the designs and they work, so I don’t feel the need to change it.” His customers clearly agree — he’s shipped birdhouses across the United States, even to Europe and Australia.

Starting out at local arts-and-crafts shows, Ellis now travels around the Southeast. He’s been to Asheville, Raleigh and Atlanta, and as far west as Nashville and Memphis. His birdhouses, priced about $210 each, are also sold on Etsy and his website, koolbirdhouse.com

Ellis has donated his creations for several good causes, including the Humane Society of Charlotte. The Charlotte Museum of History requested one of his birdhouses for a midcentury-modern exhibit. 

His eco-friendly pieces are made using both domestic wood (cherry, cypress and black walnut) and seven varieties of hardwood. Each piece reflects his expert craftsmanship. And as visually appealing as they are, they are also made to withstand the elements — a perfect combination of form and function. SP

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