4 Hudson Valley Furniture Makers Who Go Against the Grain

A quartet of local furniture makers discuss their craft


Published:

Have you ever wondered why the craftsman who built your Victorian-era armoire decided to hand-paint yellow roses on its doors? Or how many hours it took a furniture maker to craft that intricate Sheraton-style coffee table you adore? Few people are able to ask craftsmen these types of questions — but those who attend the Rhinebeck Arts Festival (September 26-28) have the opportunity to meet and mingle with the 10 members of the Hudson Valley Furniture Makers. With the motto, “Yes, we can make that,” this group is on a mission to supply the Valley and beyond with an array of one-of-a-kind furniture and decorative pieces. Below, we catch up with four of these cool craftsmen.

noah reiten

noah reiten coffee table
Reiten’s coffee table made from bubinga wood

Noah Reiten

High Falls

“I’ve been building things since forever,” recalls Reiten. In 2002, with his love of building at an apex, Reiten set off for Ontario, Canada to participate in a three-month woodworking course at Rosewood Studio. He then ventured south to Virginia, where he became an instructor at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Design. Fast-forward to today: Reiten is focused on building furniture using simple geometric shapes, clean lines, and contrasting materials. His favorite item to construct? A desk. “Desks are very personal, private spaces; they can be complicated and technical,” says Reiten. “You must take into account how a desk sits in a room, and what the desk means to someone. I enjoy the interactions I have with clients and being able to provide that space; it’s a very personal connection.” 

Favorite piece you’ve created?
My favorite desk was based on negative space, a play on light because it was going into a room with huge windows, yet the desk still had all the necessary functionality. 

Best part of living in the Valley?
Lifestyle is as important as anything to me. I think the best part of living and working here is being surrounded by such a creative community — the diversity of talent, and mindset of those people — while maintaining a rural feel.

Design philosophy?
I would say I have one foot in the past. I don’t do reproductions, but I appreciate the form of early furniture. Furniture is architecture, so my pieces become space-conscious given the impact on the room and the function.

Favorite piece of furniture you own that you didn’t make?
My favorite piece was a going-away gift from my graduate assistant at Virginia Tech. It is a spectacular piece — a bent, laminated side table with a glass top. It is a demonstration of the power of fresh minds and abilities; he made it during the first six months of his career.

josh finn

josh finn cradle
The cradle, Finn’s favorite piece, is made with ash wood, iron, copper, linen, and sheepskin

Josh Finn

High Falls

Finn’s father, a wood and stone sculptor, taught his son to appreciate aesthetics from an early age. “He introduced me to the sculptural and artistic world,” recalls Finn. As a young man, Finn and his dad would tour Shaker furniture museums throughout New England; Finn even ended up working for one in New Hampshire. “The Shaker approach to design is very direct,” he explains. “They zero right into solving a particular problem. I like that, as well as their simplicity of joinery.” After working in carpentry for several years, Finn started gravitating towards more refined work. Soon, he was making furniture in his off hours while working full-time in a Brooklyn cabinet shop. “Building after work was easy because I had an amazing network of people encouraging me to be creative — that always helps,” he recalls. With his work often included at shows and exhibitions throughout the region, this artisan continues to find fulfillment in “creating things that will last and be enjoyed for generations, especially in this era where everything is disposable.” As for current projects, “I’m working on a walnut dining table,” says Finn. “I’ve picked out a beautiful piece of wood to create a book-matched top that I’m excited about.”

Favorite piece you’ve created?
The cradle, because of its meaning. The idea that this piece would be used at the beginning of a person’s journey in life is very special. It is boat-like and reminiscent of a seedpod, and has sort of an egg quality — and a mythological quality, too. It was the first time I’d incorporated blacksmithing into my work, which was interesting. 

Best part of living in the Valley?
The natural beauty of the area is a constant source of inspiration and pleasure. We have a lot of family here, and the proximity to the city is nice.

Greatest inspiration?
I love Art Nouveau, and its sculptural excesses — the celebration of nature and natural beauty. I have been incorporating bas-relief designs into my pieces; these carvings are usually inspired by aerial images of geological or glacial formations. Patterns in nature are often repeated in ice, water, stone, sand, and wind.

Favorite piece of furniture you own that you didn’t make?
A simple, rush-seat stool that we have at our counter.

jeff johnson

Jeff Johnson

Poughkeepsie

Jeff Johnson was anything but your average California teen — while his classmates were buying cars, Johnson was buying antique furniture. When Johnson was in high school, he took a summer job refinishing antique furniture, and has been working in the industry ever since (40 years to be exact). After graduating from high school, he worked in an industrial space he shared with artists. “As time passed, the refinishing work was not holding my interest or challenging me enough, so I went back to community college to explore,” he says. After earning his B.F.A. in furniture from San Diego State and his M.F.A. at UMass Dartmouth, Johnson settled down in Poughkeepsie, where he and his brother transformed an old firehouse into a unique home complete with artist studios. There, he designs and builds one-of-a-kind furniture pieces that are as sculptural as they are functional. “I’m currently working on two pieces — a coffee table and a walnut bed.”

jeff johnson shelf
Johnson’s unique wall shelf is crafted from walnut. Photograph by Al Nowak

Aspiration for the future?
Before I die, I want to make 12 great things so they can make a calendar of my work. I’d say I’m up to about April. My favorite piece is called the “Ball Cabinet,” a kinetic wall cabinet.

Best part of living in the Valley?
It is a beautiful, economic place with lots of resources and easy access to cities.

What inspires your work?
I love making things, and I love making things that are beautiful and interesting. I’m drawn to functional objects, but I have sculptural sensibilities. I like sculptural things to have function — that’s probably due to my Midwest upbringing.

Favorite piece of furniture you own that you didn’t make?
My Jenny Lind bed, which belonged to my great-grandparents.

david morton

David Morton

Kingston

When he’s not fly-fishing for trout somewhere along the Delaware River, Morton can be found hard at work in his Kingston shop, Big Tree Woodworks. After attending Syracuse University, Morton decided to research furniture design. “The way I taught myself to design and build furniture was to try to emulate the style of other makers — not to copy them, but to understand and use their language,” he says. In 1973, he started his own business making high-end furniture, doors, and windows. His design “ah-ha” moment came a couple of years ago after attending an event at the Museum of Modern Art. “After I saw [fellow Valley furniture maker] Martin Puryear’s show, I sent him a love letter of sorts,” recalls Morton. “I told him that he had inspired me to believe in my own vision, to strike out, and to create my own original designs.” Currently, Morton produces furniture that combines fine woodworking with rustic elements. “Right now, I’m building a nightstand; the legs are made of saplings, and other saplings are piercing the two sides of the cabinet. It reads as furniture with the door closed, but it is sculptural and not functional,” says Morton.

david morton coffee table
The stick coffee table, one of Morton’s creations

Favorite piece you’ve created?
It’s always the next one: My pleasure is in designing and figuring out the next piece. 

Best part of living in the Valley?
The surprisingly endless beauty of the region, and the diverse culture.

What inspires your work?
The history of design, the woods, and the natural world all inspire me.

Favorite piece of furniture you own that you didn’t make?
My favorite piece is a little stand with a door. It is completely covered in different colors of woven leather. It’s like folk art: It isn’t sophisticated, but you can tell the person who made it probably didn’t make another one like it. My favorites tend to be one-of-a-kind pieces where the makers were compelled to do idiosyncratic work.

Edit Module
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
 
Edit Module
Edit Module