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Wood Stories Newsletter
Winter 2023

An Issue of Gratitude

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A gallery of this year's projects

In 2014, I returned to the U.S. and moved in with my brother, Joel in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in large part, to help him look after our aging parents.  I built a workshop in his garage and opened a small custom furniture making business.  Today, business is good: I’m now in a new home with a bigger workshop; sales have tripled; 60% of my work is from repeat customers, and I’m still making individual, custom-designed pieces in collaboration with you, my great clients (my great friends!), who, like me wish to set aside product-lines and fashion, and be a part of a creation that is more unique, personal, artistic. 

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A new home and workshop

This was never more than a pipe dream; I dared not hope, beyond fantasy, that this could be a reality.

 

Yet here I am.

Of course, I didn’t achieve this in a vacuum.  There are three people who were and are critical to me getting to this level of modest success:

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Joel: Philanthropy (www.swansonvitalarts.com)

Joel is the Teo to my Vincent.  He has supported me emotionally and financially since my earliest years as a struggling artist (an actor back then); he gave me my first furniture commission back in 1988: a microscope table for his lab at Harvard University.  When I moved to Ann Arbor, he not only offered me a place to live and work, but he also gave me free reign to develop my style by building furniture for his home.  More critically, being an artist himself, we would hold annual open house parties, displaying our latest works for his vast network of friends and colleagues – many of whom have become loyal customers.

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A sample of Joel's portraits

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Marta Xochilt Perez: Photographer  (www.martaxperez.com)

My former neighbor, Michelle Adams is the editor of an interior design magazine (www.lonny.com).  In 2016, she decided to ‘audition’ a new young photographer by having her make a photo essay of my workshop.  Marta showed up with just a camera and a tripod. (What!? No lights? I thought this was going to be a professional shoot!)  The results were stunning (which demonstrates how much I don’t know about photography).  Marta and Michelle now work as a team travelling the country (and beyond), producing features of gorgeous homes and interiors. Marta’s photos have been in all the major design magazines from Artfully Walls to Vogue, including covers of Southern Living and Better Homes & Gardens.  But she still finds the time to visit my little studio to take portraits of my work.  They are the backbone of all my marketing.

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All of the photographs that look great on my site were taken and edited by Marta.

Here are a few shots from that first session in my studio.

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John Haling: Sawyer (www.johnsurbantimber.com)

I never thought much about ‘live edge’ furniture.  Too many amateur makers would polish up a piece of wood with some bark on its edge, screw some metal legs to the bottom, and call it a coffee table (not much of a woodworking challenge, and certainly not to my taste).  At the other end of the spectrum was George Nakashima: one of the founders of the American Craft Furniture movement and the man who brought grace to furniture design.  How could anyone compete with him?

Then I met John Haling.  For the last 30 years, John has been sawing and drying wood – often from the gnarly cast-off logs that the timber industry would reject.  John liked my work and started recommending me to his customers, many of whom wanted…

 

   …live-edge furniture. 

Arlyn coffee table by George Nakashima

Hmmm…  What to do?

I began a deep analysis of Nakashima’s work – not to copy it, but to try and discover what made it so quietly stunning.  What I learned was that it was not the ‘live-edge’ so much as it was Nakashima’s proportions, his choice of angles, his reduction of form, and most importantly, the figure in his wood – the patterns formed in the natural grain revealed by the way it was cut by the sawyer. 

When John looks at a log, he instinctively knows how best to cut it in order to uncover its most beautiful figure hidden inside.  Soon, I was relying more and more on his expertise.  Today, I use live-edge in my furniture only occasionally, or as a small feature, but if you commission me to build a piece of furniture for your home, it is likely that we will begin our journey looking through the stacks of slabs at John’s sawmill.

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A Testimonial: Hilton coffee & end tables

First let’s get out of the way that I have known Walt since Nixon was President. Way back when. He is a great friend and I have always been amazed by his many talents and craftsmanship. For a long time, Susan and I wanted Walt to make something for us.

We retired to Pinehurst NC and were “redoing” our new house. The interior decorator had a vision for our living room that we did not share. It was the perfect chance to get our “Swanson” original furniture.

Our case my not be typical because Walt came and stayed for us for several days. As part of the process, Walt wanted to see our home, the environment and how we live in our space. It also happens my mother has a fairly large “collection” of George Nakashima’s furniture. This definitely influenced what Sue and I were looking for in our furniture. A large dark rectangle was not going work for us.

 During the time Walt was here, we spent several hours talking about the tables we were looking to have in our living room. We worked through several revisions of size, shape, legs, live edge, etc. It was almost a textbook example of a collaborative process. Walt mainly asked us questions and shared how those ideas might or might not work together. Many ideas were discussed and discarded. We even did some cardboard “mock-ups”. (Ok they were on pizza boxes!)

Throughout the entire process, Walt was very encouraging for us to share our thoughts. He had some ideas on different pieces of wood he had available or could get. In the end we have a living room table made of two “brother and sister” slabs of wood that is quite amazing. It is a very functional piece but never fails to provoke reactions about its beauty and craftsmanship.

If you are looking for high quality, unique, artistic, functional, furniture you would be remiss if you did not work with Walt.

 

Jeff Hilton Pinehurst NC

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