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Form Meets Function

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

By: Lynn Hazlewood
Form Meets Function

Rob Hare

Ulster Park, 845-658-3584

“Maker of Things” declares Rob Hare’s promotional card, which sums up his down-to-earth approach, but doesn’t suggest how fine some of those Things are.

Hare, originally from Connecticut, earned an M.F.A. in sculpture from the University of Cincinnati, and moved to the Hudson Valley in 1973. Like many an artist, in the early days he taught and worked as a cabinetmaker to pay the bills. (Among his first commissions were the showcases for Hummingbird Jewelers in Rhinebeck.) Although he created large, geometric metal sculptures in grad school, the limited space in his Red Hook house didn’t permit such work. He needed to scale down. “My grandmother had beautifully crafted old boxes in her living room that I wasn’t allowed to touch,” Hare says, remembering in particular a lap desk that opened to reveal little drawers and compartments.

» Catch our On the Home Front blog post about Hudson Valley Furniture Makers

leather chairThe leather chair and matching sofa are constructed of forged steel and coopered wood (pieced as in building a barrel) that’s matched so that the grain follows through

rob hare

Inspired by that, Hare began making boxes as sculpture, although exhibiting them in New York City galleries didn’t pan out. “Uptown they thought the work was too weird, and downtown they said it was too conservative,” he remembers with a laugh. “But friends in the city who saw the boxes said, ‘Oh, if you can build that, you could make a table. You could do cabinet work.’ ” Before long, he was making furnishings for a roster of clients, among them Maud Frizon (he designed and crafted fixtures for her ritzy Manhattan shoe store). Hare found he enjoyed creating furniture. “It represented a big step up in income, too,” he says. “Sometime in the early ’90s, I became a furniture maker full time.”

Nowadays Hare, 61, lives with his wife, Iza Trapani, a children’s book author and illustrator, in a Tuscan-style farmhouse that they designed and Hare helped build. His workshop, a round building that he also constructed himself, has plenty of bench and machine space, as well as room for his forged metal work — an important element in Hare’s designs. “A lot of people use metal in furniture, but in my work it’s not decorative — the wood and metal are structural.

“Artists often think craftspeople are beneath them,” Hare observes. “I’m a sculptor at heart, but I love making things, and I don’t mind that my creative energies go into making furniture. Future generations can decide whether it’s art.”

 

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 open...it 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.”

 

jessica wickhamNatural 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

Jessica Wickham

Beacon, 917-797-9247

“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!”

wooden benchwooden loop leg table

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.”

 

buffetVisual surprise: People are often puzzled about what materials he has used in his furniture, says McClatchy, whose tactile, metal, and concrete pieces range in style from the Arts & Crafts-inspired buffet (above) to more delicate designs like the side table (below right)

Michael McClatchy

Accord, 845-687-2101

Concrete and steel don’t sound like inviting materials for furniture. “That’s why I like them,” declares Michael McClatchy, who creates distinctive, modern steel pieces with concrete tops that are highly tactile and surprisingly warm. “I don’t like that cold, harsh, industrial look, all bright and steely,” he adds. “People often don’t know what the material is — they think it’s wood or stone. Mystery is good!”

McClatchy, 42, began working with metal in his teens, when he lived in Chicago. “I was blessed with a fabulous art department in high school, and the last year I was there, I just focused on art. I spent hours of the day doing whatever I wanted, and what I wanted was to make things.”

side table

Studying at the Art Institute of San Francisco, McClatchy created large-scale sculptures using “all sorts of found objects and wood from the junkyard,” he says. Even though he was thoroughly enjoying himself, he decided it would be sensible to have a more traditional education, and left San Francisco to attend a liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Soon enough, he realized that being that sensible was a mistake, and in 1990, began designing and making steel furniture.

In the mid-1990s, McClatchy moved to the Hudson Valley and set up shop. After he married, he and his wife bought what he calls “a falling-down structure” that they fixed up, and which now has a cool concrete and steel kitchen that he built.

michael mcclatchy

The Arts and Crafts movement was an influence, McClatchy says, although his pieces, with their slender legs and distinctive shapes, are lighter looking and more graceful than the style usually suggests. They are, though, obviously hand-crafted. “I like it that people can see they weren’t made in a factory,” he remarks. Designs run from a delicate-looking, almost spidery semicircular console table to a buffet with a scalloped skirt and a textured finish that resembles tortoiseshell. Those, and more traditional coffee and end tables, have satiny, polished concrete tops. McClatchy first fabricates a piece in steel, welding together the cut and shaped sheets of metal, then casts the concrete tops adding pigments or stains, usually in subtle earth tones. Sometimes, he’ll carve the surface of the concrete to make it look distressed or to add pattern, and then sand it down again to a smooth finish.

“I wanted to be a sculptor, and sometimes I think maybe I got lost along the way,” McClatchy says. “But I’m happy. I’m doing what I want to be doing.”

 

stained-glass cabinetStained furniture: Granfors enjoys building Arts & Crafts cabinets because they lend themselves to stained glass panels, which he also designs and creates

Mark Granfors

Laughing Loon Custom Furniture
Wallkill, 845-489-2050

One year in textbook publishing was enough to convince Mark Granfors that he was in the wrong business. “I was spending too much time at the computer. I needed something more tactile, something with physical results at the end of the day,” he says. “I always enjoyed working with my hands, and I came across an ad in the newspaper for a job with a furniture maker in Vermont. I hesitated, but my wife encouraged me to apply.” He did, and he got the job.

“It was a 180-degree career change, and a long commute, but I was willing to make it,” says Granfors, 35, a Dutchess County native who was living in the Capital District at the time. For the next eight years, he apprenticed with master craftsman Dan Mosheim, who taught him not just fine woodworking skills but the fundamentals of good design.

In 2004, Granfors’ wife, Laura Conner, who works for the New York State Parks Department, was transferred to the Hudson Valley, and with a Wallkill-to-Vermont commute out of the question, Granfors decided to launch his company, Laughing Loon. “Nature is a source of inspiration for me, and I named it that because I wanted something that would stick in people’s minds,” he says. “It’s a reference to my favorite author, Henry David Thoreau.”

asian consoleJapanese accent: A graceful, Asian-style console table incorporates a river stone, held in place by the tension of the rail beneath the apron. “I like to incorporate elements from nature — it’s a source of inspiration for me,” Granfors says

Custom-made designs include traditional classics, like a cherry game table with a milk-painted top; graceful, Asian-influenced consoles; and Arts and Crafts-style cabinets with stained glass panels that Granfors creates himself. “A gentleman in Vermont, a man in his 80s who was a talented stained-glass artist, asked me to make some frames for his pieces, and I took lessons in lieu of payment,” he explains. “Arts and Crafts is definitely an influence. I like it because it incorporates different techniques, and the joinery is sometimes exposed so you can see the craftsmanship. Lately, though, I’m starting to explore more clean-lined Scandinavian pieces, which is my heritage.”

mark granfors

Granfors uses nontoxic glues and finishes, and locally sourced wood when possible. “I also like to work with recycled wood, although it tends to be more expensive. It’s informal, but it’s pretty hard to duplicate the character. I love when you can see the nail holes with black iron marks on something that had been a floor for 150 years.”

Because it adds value to their homes, many people today commission built-in pieces, Granfors notes. “But furniture — if you move, you take that with you.”

 

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.”