Form Meets Function

The handmade, custom work of these six accomplished Hudson Valley furniture makers blurs the distinction between fine art and craftsmanship


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checkmate tableMoving parts: The Checkmate table is constructed of quilted maple and glass. The four components simply slide together and gravity locks everything in place

Jeff Johnson

Poughkeepsie, 845-505-4581

Looking at Jeff Johnson’s playful, kinetic pieces may make you wonder: is it sculpture, or is it furniture? In most cases, it’s both. “Materials, motion, structure, and function — you can distill it down to those four,” Johnson says, describing what influences his work. Materials run from wood and steel to cement, found objects, paint, and paper. More unusual is the motion aspect. When you sit on his Steel Chair, for example, a steel ball zigzags through the back and rolls onto the floor. A screen made of paper stretched over three slender wood towers rocks in the slightest breeze. Cabinets crafted of wood and steel have pivoting doors and revolving parts. The work is unconventional, beautifully made, and often makes you smile — even the “serious” pieces, like the Hodson chair (an Adirondack chair reimagined for this century) or the curvy steel-and-fabric January chair that’s as comfortable as it is handsome.

Johnson’s interest in furniture began when he was in high school in California. “I wasn’t academically oriented and I gravitated to wood shop. Then I started working for a guy restoring antique furniture, and began collecting it.” It was an unusual hobby for a teenage boy, he concedes. “One year, I went back to school after we’d all worked all summer. A couple of my friends had bought cars, and I’d bought a dining set.”

nifty cabinetThe Nifty Cabinet was made for an accounting company

nifty cabinet can tell the time and holds a calculator, pencils, and legal pads

Johnson went on to earn an M.F.A. in furniture design (at UMass Dartmouth), and decided to live “somewhere between Philadelphia and Boston.” While visiting friends in Poughkeepsie, he dropped into Lorraine Kessler’s gallery, and Kessler told him about a living-work space nearby. “There was no shower or heat, but the previous tenant had left woodworking and metalworking tools there,” Johnson says. “I signed a lease the next day.”

jeff johnson

That was 16 years ago. For 10 of those, Johnson has taught wood design at SUNY New Paltz, and has also undertaken some interesting commercial projects. A recent one, done in collaboration with architect Alan Baer, is the concrete-and-glass bar at the Artist’s Palette, a restaurant on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street. The owners were so pleased with it that they asked Johnson to build the bar at the eatery they’re opening next door. “We’re using Himalayan architectural salt in 9-by-18-inch slabs as the top,” Johnson says, with enthusiasm. “It’s beautiful with light coming through it. It’s a bit of an experiment, but I say that in the most positive way.”

When the building he was living in was condemned, Johnson, now 52 and still one of life’s natural bohemians, moved into a barely habitable, disused firehouse nearby. He shares the building with his brother, Jeep, a glass artist. Eleven years later, the firehouse is more or less renovated. “It’s quite bourgeois at this point — fancier than I ever imagined,” Johnson says. “I’ve got horrible furniture, though. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can afford one of my own chairs.”

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