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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torii tansu chestClassic charm: The Torii Tansu chest, made of beautifully burled tamo and wenge wood, exemplifies “shibui,” the Japanese term for simple elegance that Puryear strives for

Michael Puryear

Shokan, 845-943-5975

Imagine furniture that could be described as Scandinavia meets Japan via the Shakers and you have an idea of Michael Puryear’s work — clean lines, simple forms, contrasting woods, and a recurring curved motif that calls to mind a Japanese sword. He’d add that there are some African influences as well, often in the simple shapes of the legs. “There’s a sense of animation in a lot of my pieces,” he says. “I’ve been playing with the idea of the arch, and floating objects above an arch, giving them a sense of suspension. One table was inspired by high-tension electric poles — I find them beautiful objects.”

Puryear, 66, took a roundabout path to creating his own beautiful objects. “I grew up in Washington, D.C. in a middle-class community of people who were handy and not intimidated by ‘doing.’ Both my brother and I assumed that’s how things were done.” (His brother is the sculptor Martin Puryear.) “I always had an interest in craft and design — the impulse was there. But I floundered for years.”

barrow chairPuryear conceived the Barrow chair long before he had the skills to build it. “It’s a form that resonated with me — a very sensual piece,” he says

The floundering included a couple of years studying anthropology at Howard University; two as a lab technician in the army (back in the days when young men were drafted); and 11 at the Public Library, where he rose from page to supervisor of circulation, teaching himself about photography along the way. In 1974, Puryear moved to New York City to become a commercial photographer. “I built a darkroom for myself. Made a stool. Made my first bed.” He was living in Brooklyn among young homesteaders who were renovating then-inexpensive brownstones. “Another community of people who were handy,” he notes. When his landlord needed a carpenter to work on a kitchen renovation, Puryear agreed to tackle the work between photography assignments. Before long, he had a contracting business. “It was an evolution rather than a career choice,” he says. But when success made him more of a manager, he decided to backtrack. “Woodworking was the most satisfying thing I’d done. Its physicality and sensuality appealed to me. There’s an intellectual aspect as well. An ideal existence is to have all that included in one’s experience — it’s what we as human beings aspire to.”

michael puryear

Puryear soon gained a reputation as a fine furniture maker. Six years ago, he moved to Shokan, where he continues to create simple, elegant pieces. “Shapes resonate with me,” he says. “Even as a photographer, content mattered, but what I framed was forms. The intent is for the furniture, though, to be completely functional — that’s as important to me as the aesthetics.”

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