Built By Hand

BY Marimar McNaughton

The framers of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America the Roycrofters of East Aurora New York chiseled Old World details into modern designs made from the heart by the human hand. More than 100 years later furniture is still made one piece at a time by a small knot of local designers and fabricators who live and work by the Roycroft creed that is: “A belief in working with the head hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.”

The Traditionalist: Curtis Martin

A powder of sawdust covers Curtis Martin head-to-toe and blankets the floor inside the 6 000-square-foot factory at Merchant Square where he designs custom builds reproduces repairs and restores furniture. The bay doors are thrown open filling the space with crisp north light offering views from a nearby natural area where sunbathing turtles and fishing cranes resort amid the rustling grasses.

Martin is a master craftsman who remembers his first high school shop project a plant stand for his mother the spirited creation of something-out-of-nothing that later led him to pursue an engineering degree in furniture manufacturing at North Carolina State University.

“It all starts on the drawing board ” he says brandishing a dog-eared yellow legal pad on which meticulously detailed pencil sketches form the starting point for a back-and-forth dialogue with interior designers and their clients who commission custom pieces. From a lidded box he proffers glossy snapshots of his finished products after installation. The results are nothing short of stunning.

Martins photos tell the story of a trio of curly pine French-country dining tables a black lacquer cabinet fabricated to match an Asian dcor the demise and rebirth of a delicate 1820 side chair an ornately carved art nouveau plant stand repair a facelift for worn chair backs and the resurrection of a scratched and dented dining room table.

Chop saws table saws routers planes chisels an old-school lathe and a pricey sprinkler and elaborate dust removal system in the main workshop adjoin an un-finishing room where furniture is hand-stripped hand-sanded and re-glued and a re-finishing room where restored pieces receive a final coat. In between an armoire is wired for entertainment a bureau awaits new hardware and chair bottoms are rushed and caned.

Exotic paper-thin veneers and hearty American hardwoods chestnut walnut old-growth cypress Pennsylvania cherry and reclaimed Cape Fear River wood are neatly stacked up to ceiling height. A cache of legs harvested from relic furniture and an eclectic mix of chairs suspended from the eaves wait for restoration. If its not destined for a custom commission the raw ingredients are given new life at the Ships Wheel Martins Merchant Square showroom adjacent to his workshop or in his new Selectable storefront on Castle Street. “I like traditional antique styles ” he says. “I like how things were built hundreds of years ago.”

The Fabulist: Greg Taylor

A trace of paint fumes lingers in the dense humid airspace pierced by the eyes of a red-bearded South American mask. A dusty toy monkey an iconic silver trophy and a worldly globe snap into focus amid the stacked cans of paint trays caked with dried pigments and piles of fabric swatches. Vacant picture frames glazed windows unhinged doors full-length mirrors school maps dye-cut figures any or all of these might find their way into a Greg Taylor design.

Meantime they wait dormant and leaning against the east wall near a ladder that leads to the upper loft where visionary furniture designer Taylor stows some of the inventory from Gypsy Jewell Wagon a Boho line of eclectic home furnishings fabulized with paint and upholstery by Taylor and his wife interior designer Gay Adair.

Greg Taylor forages for inspiration in Asheville Savannah and West Palm Beach wherever the well-heeled are shucking off their outworn decor. “It took me a while to figure it out ” he says. Closer to home Harry Flynns Chicken Shack out back of Pauls Place up U.S. Highway 117 south of Burgaw is a fertile field for the intrepid designer who is inspired by the arcane found object.

“I like things grittier a little more upstream ” Taylor says. On the opposite side of Wilmington Street where he leases a trio of storage units-cum-workshops a rooster cock-a-doodles.

Taylor has painted houses glazed porcelain tubs and tended bar but the jumping-off point says the lanky long-locked talker was promoting concerts out west. “Youre so close to the creative product if you have to present its not a very big step from there to presenting things you created yourself.”

The real leap came when he met Adair. For their love nest he surrendered a flea market side table on which she fabled in lipstick: “One night stand.”

Taylor a self-confessed INFP (introverted intuitive feeling perceiver) on the Myers-Briggs scale is a one-of-a-kind original just like the thousands of pieces he has created in the last 18 years. “I dont go anywhere to get inspiration but I get inspiration everywhere I go.”

The Metalsmith: Shane Smith

A clear coat of orange on an organic aluminum sculpture sparkles in the late summer sun in the yard behind Shane Smiths house. Metal limbs spiral toward the Carolina blue sky and twisted shadows stretch across the grassy lawn of his backyard oasis behind a stockade fence on a quiet Wilmington cul-de-sac. Smiths one-of-a-kind design the “Hot Spot ” exhibited at Mayfaire Town Center during a pedestrian art exposition has become a perch for the neighborhoods birds.

Sparks fly inside the detached garage as Smith experiments using hand-held electric sanders to grind designs into aluminum and stainless steel swirling and etching the metals matte finish into lustrous silver scrollwork before welding and riveting his decorative accent pieces into contemporary furniture.

“I built this shop to fix cars ” Smith says grinning broadly. That was before the professional auto body mechanic began to piddle around with the tools of his trade elevating a technical craft into a higher art form. On the back of a dismantled street sign laid across a pair of sawhorses he says is where he messed with the grinding pattern. “A lot is trial and error.”

His first creation became a conversation piece a living room table. On the hinges of that success he fashioned a bed frame before branching out ambitiously into the whimsical art realm turning out a herd of metallic cats for his wife Alex a feline fancier.

At the suggestion of a metal supplier Smith earned his first commission at Golds Gym in Porters Neck where he created the swanky aluminum interior. The new look minted such a strong statement that the fitness chain hired him to fabricate wall panels for all of its North Carolina locations. Within six months Smith had ground and buffed his way to a new career.

Shearing bending rolling riveting sanding blasting and coaxing metal into 3-D forms for showroom installations graphic design studios hair salons photography studios conference rooms residential kitchens high-end furniture galleries and luxury home and condominium interiors Smith has shifted into high gear polishing a fine grind in furniture design.

The Craftsman: Robert Hause

The clean-cut fragrance of the forest rising sap and evergreen foliage is like a veil of perfume inside the showroom at Art of the Craft an Arts and Crafts furniture emporium hidden behind the faade of a mossy 1900s weatherboard-over-frame two-story structure on the outskirts of Delgado on the Wilmington end of Wrightsville Avenue.

Robert Hause self-taught master craftsman reproduction furniture maker and proprietor was an avid antique collector lured to the Arts and Crafts aesthetic like a dragonfly to a Tiffany stained-glass lamp shade. True to the defining movement in architectural and interior design that was developed as an antidote to the Machine Age and the mass production of casegoods an uprising in which craftsmen returned to their roots Hause who had been making furniture since high school quit his day job as senior analyst at Progress Energys Brunswick nuclear plant in Southport after 9/11.

“All I wanted to do was woodwork ” he says. “It was my passion my love.”

Today he walks to work with his dog Max a handsome German shepherd and together they stroll home for lunch. In between shifts in a garage out back Hause reproduces the designs of Gustav Stickley Charles Limbert and the Roycrofters from quartersawn white oak imported from Ohio cut to reveal the shimmering rays of the wood that brings the tree its nutrients. In his hands the wood becomes a living breathing organism once more opening doors folding screens rocking armchairs cradling bookshelves and nesting chests of drawers.

With glue clamps and shellac Hause built his business on a word-of-mouth reputation and the buzz he generates at the prestigious Arts and Crafts Conference held annually at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Ninety percent of the work he fabricates is shipped out of town to repeat customers.

Hause the man leathery tan and muscle taut is reflected in the inherent beauty of the wood the primitive integrity of the Mission style of design and the immaculate mortise and tenon joinery that inspires him to create his reproductions using the same methods employed by the original craftsmen (down to his hand-chiseled cartouche R.J.H.).

“It was the Arts and Crafts movement that I fell in love with ” Hause says “the simplicity and how well it was made. The adornment is looking at the wood itself.”