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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Natural beauty: Wickham’s simple tables and benches (below, right) are crafted to play up each plank’s growth rings or other special details. She uses only “down and dead” trees, which are stripped of their bark by hand and carefully handled to preserve the true, natural edge
“Most woodworkers make a design and find the wood to execute it. I start the other way around,” says Jessica Wickham. “I listen to the language of the tree, and let the wood dictate the design.” The result is tables and benches with a sinuous, natural edge, and simple legs — trestle, or steel or wooden loops — to play up “the wood in all its glory,” as Wickham puts it.
Raised in Manhattan, Wickham trained as a cultural anthropologist but wound up working in an investment bank on Wall Street. (“It’s a pretty interesting culture down there,” she notes dryly.) The job allowed her to travel, and she spent five years in Hong Kong and Tokyo. “It was a transformative experience, a close encounter with traditional crafts and the everyday use of handmade objects that I’d never seen before,” she says. “In Japan, wood almost has a spiritual connotation, because in Shinto there are spirits in trees.”
Back in the U.S., Wickham worked “a zillion hours in the office” during the week and learned about traditional Japanese joinery on weekends. “It’s all about sharpening and edge tools. The same process is used in Samurai swords, sushi knives, and woodworking tools, which are all hand-forged and sharpened on water stones. I think it was six months before they even let me touch a piece of wood. It was wonderful!”
Six years ago, Wickham, now 45, set up her own studio in a crumbling factory building in Middletown; she moved to more solid surroundings in Beacon last year. “I learned at the start that I’d have to mill my own logs, because I wanted to work with a natural edge,” she says. Luckily, she discovered John Woodward in Pine Bush, Orange County, who became a sawyer after “a humongous tree came down on his property,” Wickham says. “So he’s been along for the ride.” Woodward air-dries the milled logs in his barn for two years before they’re kiln dried and sent to Wickham’s studio. There, she and her two helpers, Pete Collins and Herman Gratz, fashion the planks into tables and benches.
Wickham’s reverence for trees means none are felled for her furniture. She uses only “down and dead” local hardwoods: black walnut, black cherry, white and red oak, slippery elm, ash. “It’s the ordinary palette of trees in any back yard. The trick is finding what’s amazing in an ordinary thing. The logs we’re working with are easily 100 years old — each one’s a story. It’s really about celebrating the materials. That’s what gets me going.”