A visit with Boiceville’s Steve Heller, who uses fallen trees, cars parts, wrenches, and other recycled matter to craft imaginative — and eye-catching — furniture and sculptures.
Crafted from old car parts, discarded wrenches, fallen trees and other recycled stuff, Steve Heller’s furniture and sculpture is as distinctive as the artist himself
By A. J. Loftin
Photographs by Jennifer May
On a bitter gray day in the Catskills, when the old snow has turned crusty brown and even the trees look demoralized, space travel can begin to seem pretty appealing. So it’s a particular pleasure to stumble across one likely mode of transportation on Route 28 in Boiceville: Steve Heller’s 20-foot-tall rocket ship, now awaiting passengers.
Turns out, this flagship rocket is but one of many ways to be transported at Fabulous Furniture, the one-of-a-kind business Heller founded in 1973. Inside his showroom, a visitor may encounter many extraterrestrial creatures, along with furniture the word “fabulous” doesn’t begin to describe. There are chandeliers fashioned from fire extinguishers, lamps composed of Cadillac parts, and bookshelves made from Buicks. So amazed by what they see, people often simply flop down onto one of Heller’s wooden tables, which is why nearly all of them bear “Please Do Not Sit” signs. This is art, people!
Heller peeks out from the second floor of his showroom, then ambles over. Full of youthful vigor, he is wiry and nimble, with a soft voice and an easy, affectionate manner that doesn’t for a minute disguise his sharp intellect. He says he’s been working in wood since not long after sixth grade, which he spent in Queens. “After I finished my paper route I would ride over to the park to look for fallen trees. I would carry them home in my press basket and carve them into forms.” His parents also had a weekend place in the Catskills, where fallen trees are the norm, and where sawmills discarded the slab wood they couldn’t use. These unloved trees quickly found a home with Steve Heller.
He now does his own logging, looking for trees “that are too big and misshapen to be used by commercial loggers.” Dead or diseased trees, especially, “produce incredible grain patterns,” he says. (Speaking of death, Heller got some of his best cherry wood from a casket company’s discards.) Heller hauls the trees back to his studio, a large building behind the showroom. He then decides whether to cut them on a conventional sawmill — producing a maximum width of 19 inches — or a chainsaw mill, which requires more manpower but can cut a board up to 50 inches wide. Some of Heller’s tables are made from one piece of 50-inch wood. “This is unheard of anywhere else,” he says. A few of his tables end up being symmetrical, but you might say that most of them follow the tree to its natural expression. “They tell me what they want to be,” is how Heller explains it. After getting the shape he wants, Heller puts in many hours of hand work, using a variety of sanders to bring out the grain. Often he’ll add inlays of butterflies, lizards, or other creatures, using a technique that took him years to perfect. Then he applies several coats of a special finish that can withstand nearly any spill or reckless child.
Wood is only part of the story at Fabulous Furniture. Other pieces grow out of Heller’s first love: cars. “In my heart, I’m a car freak,” he says. He remembers as a child being taken by his father to see Picasso’s bronze sculpture, Baboon and Young, at the Museum of Modern Art, “and when I saw that Picasso had put two toy cars together to form the [baboon’s] head — that blew me away.” By the age of 14 Heller had already bought his first car, a 1931 Model A Ford. “I fixed it all up, but I still wasn’t old enough to drive it,” he remembers. “So my father drove it back and forth to school every day. My father encouraged all of my insanities. He was a teacher, but he was also a junk collector. He was always making stuff. He used to make psychedelic light boxes and sell them on the street in Woodstock on weekends.”
Heller took the usual route to becoming an artist — the long way. After graduating from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he took a series of jobs, the oddest of which involved “going on missions for a mafia guy.” He had a corporate job at Hertz, where he quickly rose up the ladder, “not because I was so smart, but because everybody else was so stupid.” Hertz unwittingly sent the young executive on a business trip to San Francisco in 1969, at the height of flower power, “and oh-my-God,” says Heller, unable to describe the experience in any other way. “I gave two weeks’ notice, packed my stuff in a U-Haul, and drove back out to California.” Heller stayed for a few years, until he began to suspect that the world might not radically change. So he came back to Woodstock, where he could live with his family rent-free. He started making things, and then, of course, things started making him.
Some of the junk heaped up in piles behind the showroom (tractor parts, bicycle spokes, etc.) came from his father’s collection. “My father had a good eye,” Heller says with obvious affection. Any day now, one of these artifacts will tell Steve Heller “what it wants to be,” and then it will turn into a lamp, or a shelf, a dinosaur or a chandelier. Many of the pieces in the showroom merge wood with cars (ebonized oak table with 1961 Dodge headlights; 1957 Cadillac bar with maple shelves). Other works use cars in unexpected, delightful ways: How about a 1957 Mercury shelf unit or a turquoise 1960 Cadillac-fin attaché case?
Space-age monsters and prehistoric creatures are Heller’s other great loves. He makes dinosaurs out of old machinery and wrenches — his 20-by-20-foot Tyrannosaurus Wrench was literally the high point of Kingston’s Biennial in 2007 (and will remains so until someone figures out how to move it). One year his entry in Kingston’s annual Soapbox Derby was a “wrenchosaurus” which spit flames as it roared along, powered (as Heller likes to say) “by harnessing the force of gravity.”
Most of Heller’s work is done on commission, and most clients come through word of mouth. Like any born scavenger, he’s an extrovert, unable to resist engaging the world around him. He met his invaluable studio assistant, Mike Karpf, at a hot-rod show. Karpf does all the drawings for Heller’s pieces; he’s also responsible for the funny labels on boxes of parts in the studio, like “Those Damn Packard Things,” “Sweet Juicy Wheel Spinners,” and “1960 Pontiac Tail-lights (in Hardy Beef Gravy).” As Heller puts it, “Mike allows me to be me.”
Heller is fortunate also to have a guardian angel, his longtime companion and business manager, writer Martha Frankel. Frankel understands her partner’s good fortune in finding work that he loves; she supports the acquisition of lawn-mower parts and crankshafts; she works in the showroom on weekends; and she knows how to keep the accounts.
Over the years Heller’s work has deservedly caught the attention of national magazines (including Architectural Digest), which always results in “a flurry of interest and sales,” but has not made him a wealthy man. For a few years, when he was making furniture for actors Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, he began to imagine a life as “furniture maker to the stars” — but movie stars are famously nutty clients. His experience of selling work through galleries and furniture dealers has been almost uniformly negative, but he’s open to the idea that somewhere a reliable dealer may exist. (If you know one, give Heller a call.)
At the moment Heller has enough commissions to keep him busy: 30 tables for Bread Alone in Rhinebeck, six chairs for a doctor, two countertops for a city brownstone, and a rocket-ship lamp for another client. This month, he’s been invited to show his latest car art at the annual Cleveland Auto-Rama, where he’ll have free lodging “and all the hamburgers I can eat.”
Heller wouldn’t mind some serious recognition, but he knows his work isn’t what MoMA curators are slavering for. Still, it’s remarkable stuff, witty and superbly crafted, and Heller keeps at it, eight days a week, mostly indifferent to what’s hot and what’s not. As Frankel puts it, “Talk about marching to your own drummer — Steve’s got his own orchestra.”
The way Heller sees it, he’s just doing what comes naturally. “In six decades, nothing has changed,” he says. “I’m still into dinosaurs, still into cars, still into spaceships. And I’m still into the idea that anything’s possible.”
Fabulous Furniture: 845-657-6317 or www.fabulousfurnitureon28.com