The Handmades’ Tale
Want a whimsical forged-iron gate? an imposing limestone fireplace? a sleek pecan table? these twelve texas artisans are making tomorrow’s heirlooms today.
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MY FATHER HAS TWO WALNUT END TABLES THAT WERE made in the thirties by his uncle Clint, who harvested the lumber from the Kentucky woods where he lived. He was a handy fellow who repaired stills and could play two harmonicas at once, using his mouth and nose. Of all my parents’ possessions, it’s these two tables, beautifully crafted and full of the spirit of their maker, that I most look forward to inheriting someday. They’re not the oldest or the most valuable things in the house, but I’ve always thought of them as heirlooms.
These little tables set me to wondering: What furnishings made today would rise to the top of the overwhelming sea of plastic molding, mass-produced ironwork, and screwed-and-glued Santa Fe dining suites to become tomorrow’s heirlooms? Where is the hand-forged, laboriously chiseled, dovetailed construction that was once the standard? Could it be that they just don’t make ’em like that anymore?
Happily, the answer is no. There are still people out there who are driven by the desire to make things more tangible than a stock-market killing—and make them to last. I used up my lifetime allotment of “wow’s” researching this article, reduced to monosyllabic outbursts not only by the artisans’ flawless workmanship and the elegance of their designs but, most of all, by their tenacity and perseverance in mastering their crafts. Most of the artisans I met came of age during the crafts renaissance of the sixties and seventies. Then, some back-to-earthers made sand candles or tie-dyed T-shirts or macramé plant hangers, inconsequential crafts with a limited future; these folks probably went on to become accountants and administrators. Others, however, took to more substantial arts—blacksmithing, stone carving, woodworking—and found themselves on a decades-long path up a steep learning curve with few instructors in sight.
If you want an everlasting rocker or a museum-quality garden gate, these craftspeople are worth searching out. Visit several artisans and frankly discuss prices, materials, and completion schedules. (The best of them are very busy; this summer is not too early to enlist one of Santa’s most talented elves to make that ultimate Christmas gift. And if you’re building a new house and want fine craftsmen involved in the construction—a fireplace, a stair rail, a fountain—bring them in during the design stage, not at the tail end.)
When you meet with an artisan, have a definite idea of what you want in terms of general style and dimensions. Feel free to clip pictures from magazines or sketch what you’re after to ensure that both of you are speaking the same visual language, but don’t discount his or her creativity or hard-won design expertise. “People should treat the craftsman as a designer and artist,” says metalsmith Joe Pehoski. “If someone hands me a picture and asks, ‘How much will it take to make this?’—at that point I have ceased to be a craftsman, in the true sense of the word, and I have become a fabricator.”
Don’t try to cut costs by asking an artisan not to make it quite so good, unless you’d like a heavy tool flung your way. And while most woodworkers are happy to create a sentimental piece of furniture from, say, that old pecan tree that blew over at your family ranch, don’t plan on saving any money by going this route; milling and transportation can more than equal the cost of wood from a lumberyard.
The profiles that follow are a mere sampling of the hundreds of artisans working across the state, a taste to whet your appetite for fine craftsmanship. In the interest of my own sanity, I have confined the list to folks who specialize in functional home or garden furnishings made of metal, stone, or wood. Though there is no shortage of fine designers who have their creations made for them, I focused on those artisans who are out in the shop or studio nearly every day, going mano a mano with red-hot steel, eight-ton chunks of limestone, and whirling saw blades. And they all had to meet one overriding criterion: Their craftsmanship had to leave me open-mouthed and drooling.
Because these craftspeople create mostly one-of-a-kind furnishings, they were understandably reticent about quoting dollar amounts, but the prices listed should give you an idea of what to expect. Of course, a custom-made cherry dining table your kids’ kids’ kids will gather around should be considered an investment, one that will appreciate—and be appreciated—for generations. Surprisingly, these unique creations, made by characters as multitalented as my father’s uncle Clint, often cost little more than the flimsy imitations cranked out in foreign sweatshops by people whose singular musical abilities we may never know.
Men of Steel
IF YOU WANT TO GET A GOOD IDEA of the range of James Cinquemani’s metallic talents, stand in front of the north entrance to Goldsmith Hall at the University of Texas at Austin and try to determine which of the two large lanterns flanking the door is the reproduction Cinquemani made to replace its 65-year-old partner that was lost when the building was enlarged during the eighties. But his skills aren’t limited to making copies; on the south side of the building are stately new light fixtures he designed and crafted to echo architectural details on the new construction.
A visit to the fifty-year-old Cinquemani’s studio-home in a light-industrial area of Dallas provides further evidence of his mastery of metals. The entrance is guarded by one of his “active” gates, its steel rods layered and staggered in such a way that the pattern shifts as you walk past. Inside his office, a mushroomlike table lamp with a celestial pattern of holes drilled into the domed copper shade is perched on its pointed steel tiptoes. (Its cousins live in the greenroom at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.) An armchair Cinquemani created from four large disks of galvanized steel—discarded by-products from a metal-fabricating company down the road—seems to float on its thin legs and has just enough spring for its occupant (me) to comfort herself with gentle rocking. Turn on the light inside the base of a game table and the shape of a star is projected onto its frosted-glass top.
Cinquemani’s father was a tool and die maker in Dallas. “As I grew up, I would work in his machine shop, run parts for him,” he says, “but I was always interested in making things—unusual things—so at the end of the day, I’d gather up all the scrap and start making sculptures out of them.” He perfected his techniques over the years, first working with University of Dallas art professor Heri Bartscht—whose varied projects exposed him to wood carving, bronze casting, plasterwork, copper hammering, and more—and then by working in a fabricating shop where he made architectural metal fixtures from other people’s designs.
He now boasts fourteen or fifteen design patents for objects like star-shaped bronze flagstaff holders and a sleek silver letter opener that Neiman Marcus featured in its 1985 Christmas catalog. He has designed and made cast-bronze “bamboo” rose arbors for the Dallas Arboretum, door pulls bearing the handprints of husband and wife, and a bed with a wisteria vine creeping up one post, as well as the copper finials on the turrets of the Old Red Courthouse in Dallas and twisted-steel stair rails that, he says, look exactly like “a tree branch that you just kind of picked up and pruned off.”
Metals Craftsman, 2412 Hardwick, Dallas 75208 (214-742-2569). Lamps start at around $1,200, a small table is about $3,500, and entrance gates range from $10,000 (simple) to $50,000 (spectacular).
METALSMITH JOE PEHOSKI SAYS HE HAS “one foot in the fourteenth century and one foot in the twenty-first century,” a description that seems apt as he leads me past the toasty forge and blazing torches in his shop outside Salado and up the stairs to his office, where we plop down in front of a big-screen computer. Pehoski bought the computer several years ago—primarily for its spell-checking abilities—but soon realized that it could save him from having to redraft entire drawings to make the slightest change. “My stomach was always in my throat because the thickness of a hand-drawn line determined whether something would fit or not,” he says. Although Pehoski, who is fifty, still designs the “old way,” with pen and paper, he now scans his drawings into the computer, so that minor adjustments are a snap. He credits the machine with helping him grow as a metalsmith. “It freed up my thinking,” he says. “Without it, I would probably be doing less—and more of the same thing.”
After almost thirty years of bending steel to his will, Pehoski’s projects range from historically accurate hardware for the Elissa, the restored 1877 bark at Galveston’s Texas Seaport Museum, to sweeping staircases in the houses of Hollywood moguls and all the metalwork for a humongous mansion whose whereabouts he won’t disclose—everything from drawer pulls to fifteen-foot-tall chandeliers. He collaborates with metalsmith Wendel Broussard (from, no kidding, Smithville) when a project calls for exquisite repoussé work, the process of creating relief patterns on, say, a metal leaf or flower by hammering on the reverse side. (This perfunctory definition doesn’t do Broussard’s dreamy renderings justice: “He’s the best repoussé artist in the country,” says Pehoski.)
We tour the shop: Pehoski’s wife, Lynda, is “aging” pieces of drapery hardware using a formula of paints, stains, and waxes that gives the metal what he calls a “pedigree feel.” His fabricator, Jason Stout, works on a stair railing that curls to the ceiling of the warehouse. Nanette Whitten is welding little horns to the tops of a set of lanterns. As Pehoski points out other works in progress—an enormous kitchen-range hood, curlicued garden gates—it is obvious that despite his newfound respect for computing, his heart (and his permanently blackened palms) is down here with the fire and the coal.
Pehoski Metalsmiths, P.O. Box 84, Stinnette Mill Road, Salado 76571 (254-947-5740). Prices range from $80 for a candlestick and $3,800 for a simple gate to $175,000 for a custom curved stair railing.
AFTER GETTING OUT OF COLLEGE WITH A DEGREE IN ARCHITECTURE, I decided I needed to know what happens behind the wall,” says 46-year-old Austinite Lars Stanley. So for his internship, instead of chaining himself to a drafting table, he signed on to help build the home of one of his architecture professors at Texas A&M. The rigors of real-life, on-site design gave him a deep appreciation for the straightforward Arts and Crafts style and for the Japanese tradition in which a structure’s designer is its builder. Refusing to follow the path of most architects, who, he says, are “isolated from the contractor legally and conceptually,” he worked as a carpenter’s helper and a cabinetmaker. His interior designer mother and architect father would ask him, “What are you doing?” Stanley remembers. For a while, he wasn’t sure himself.
He tried his hand at wood carving, and in the seventies, the high cost of chisels and gouges ultimately led him to California and the late Alex Weygers, a blacksmithing guru who would teach him, among other things, to forge his own tools from old car parts and scrap metal. He began to collect yesterday’s “medium-tech” tools of smithing—giant trip-hammers, ancient drill presses and buffers—which he considers “beautiful sculptural things in their own right.” And he never stopped making things.
Two decades later, Stanley’s multiple disciplines have firmly coalesced. He and his parents recently worked together on the design of El Paso’s award-winning Franklin High School, and he is currently expanding the campus of a Waldorf school outside Austin. His signature “lotus” andirons, so hefty it takes two people to lift them, grace the hearths of celebrities including Richard Gere and Steven Spielberg and the pages of shelter magazines like Metropolitan Home. He teaches blacksmithing at Austin Community College and to a few lucky apprentices at his appealing studio in South Austin.
One of Stanley’s proudest achievements is the fantastical iron gate that greets visitors to Austin’s Zilker Botanical Gardens. Made in collaboration with metalsmith Louis Herrera, Jr., the gate reflects the notions of the various gardening groups who volunteer at the park. They wanted their gardens protected from marauding after-hours vandals but cringed at the plain-Jane gate the city’s parks department had designed. Now they’ve got a gate so full of permanent plant life—a live oak, a mountain laurel, a prickly pear cactus, and more—it threatens to outshine the gardens themselves.
Lars Stanley Architects, P.O. Box 3095, Austin 78764 (512-445-0444). Stanley’s repertoire includes light fixtures ($50 to $5,000), enormous andirons ($1,000 to $4,000), and tables and benches ($1,000 to $10,000).
IT’S RAINING, AND THE ROOF IS LEAKING at Carlos CortEs’ open-air shop in the middle of San Antonio’s King William district. The concrete is slow to cure in this weather, but Cortés is at work on a bench. Its details are just barely beginning to take shape on its steel-and-wire frame, and at this stage it looks more like a mistake than an artful creation. “Concrete work takes a leap of faith,” says Cortés, who is forty. I may be short on faith but my vision is excellent, and I’ve already seen completed examples of Cortés’ wizardry with concrete. Once he’s sculpted knots, scratched grain, and bored wormholes into the concrete using a variety of bizarre-looking homemade tools, then colored it with mineral stains, I don’t just believe, I know it will look exactly as if it were made of logs and split planks.
This concrete trickery is in Cortés’ blood. Beginning in the twenties, his father, Maximo Cortés, and his great-uncle Dionisio Rodríguez decorated the southern landscape with bridges, park benches, gazebos, fences, and arches made from concrete “logs.” Examples of their monumental work still stand in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park and at Stonewerks restaurant across from the Alamo Quarry Market (formerly the Alamo Cement plant, where Rodríguez was once employed). Initially Cortés didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I remember helping Dad on weekends when I would rather have been out playing,” he says. “I always wanted to be a doctor. But I sort of absorbed everything, even though I didn’t even know I was paying attention.” His father passed away last year, just before Cortés began his most ambitious project to date—the larger-than-life concrete oak trees at the Witte Museum’s H.E.B. Science Treehouse.
Although he still takes great pleasure in making his bread-and-butter creations—benches, birdhouses in the shape of San Antonio’s five missions, birdbaths that look just like a slice of tree trunk resting on gnarly branches, and big planters filled with concrete cacti (the ultimate xeriscape?)—Cortés dreams of even grander public projects: a bridge over the San Antonio River downtown, perhaps. After thirteen years in the business, he regrets only that he didn’t start sooner so he could have worked on a project with his father. But “as long as I’m working with concrete,” Cortés says, “I still feel his presence all the time.”
Taller/Studio, 1101 S. St. Mary’s, P.O. Box 831674, San Antonio 78283-1674 (210-472-3966). A birdbath costs about $500, a six-foot bench around $2,500.
IS THAT VIVALDI PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND AT HOLLY AND JOSEPH KINCANNON’S Archaic shop, accompanied by the percussive chiseling of four masons at work? The scene at this East Austin studio is from another era—or perhaps David Lynch’s imagination. Sunlight from the open doorways shoots beams through the limestone dust in the air. Mid-nineteenth-century plaster panels depicting the stations of the cross line the walls, awaiting restoration. Jesus, struggling with his burden and hounded by Romans, looks on as artisans work in limestone—Joe Eblen details a section of architectural molding, Matthew Young sculpts a fearsome visage, and D’Ellis Kincannon (Joseph’s brother) and Sue Ann Gormley repair gravestones. Deep in concentration, the four hardly look up when I enter.
I find Holly and Joseph, who are husband and wife, in the office drawing up plans for upcoming projects. The couple met (and married) at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, where they worked on its Gothic Revival stone facade. They moved to Austin almost six years ago. Holly, a fifth-generation Texan, yearned for the Hill Country, and once Joseph got a gander at the region’s wealth of carvable limestone, he was hooked. But it wasn’t an easy transition. “We went from carving gargoyles on the cathedral to cutting holes for sinks,” says the 37-year-old Joseph. “It was rough,” says Holly, who is 35. “I’m talking on a starving level.” Adds Joseph: “You know when a plain corn tortilla just tastes so good? We’d show up at the Broken Spoke with a carved stone, saying, ‘We’ll trade you for a chicken-fried steak.’”
Then the owners of Austin’s Dog and Duck Pub commissioned a fountain from the Kincannons, an eight-hundred-pound, water-spouting limestone sculpture of a bulbous-nosed dog stoically enduring a love nip on the ear from an amorous duck. After that, the carvers began to get the attention they deserved.
Commissions for the hand-chiseled creations of the Kincannons and the other carvers at Archaic now run the gamut from myth-inspired fireplaces, such as one portraying Daphne being transformed into a laurel, and a proposed ten-by-thirty-foot limestone spiral for the new Austin airport depicting the heroes and icons as well as the flora and fauna of Texas to a “beastie” fountain that gurgles outside a client’s kitchen window. The beast, surrounded by a bounty of grapes, bananas, peaches, pumpkins, and corn, looks suspiciously like its creator, Joseph Kincannon, devilishly happy to be close to so much food.
Archaic, P.O. Box 49096, Austin 78765 (512-473-8957). Prices range from around $1,000 for a limestone-and-blown-glass birdbath they’re making in collaboration with glass artist Kathleen Ash to $25,000 for the Daphne fireplace.
DON’T WEAR YOUR BLACK VELVET SUIT to the Texas Carved Stone workshop, where a snowy coating of limestone dust covers everything and everybody. Bob Ragan, who is 47, began the business outside Florence eleven years ago with his partner, Mary Condon, now 46 (see Design: “Rock Star,” TM, July 1996). He turns down the roaring stereo and leads me on a quick tour of the shop. Shelby Haggerton, a carver for five years, hammers out a set of fireplace jambs with a pneumatic chisel. George Kuhn sets tiles in a groove in a mantel while his wife, Mary, a stonecutter-in-training, shapes a piece of architectural molding. All around us are the grand works created in this relatively small shop, ready to be shipped across the country—a seven-foot kitchen hood laden with high-relief fruits and veggies; an intricate, fifteen-piece arched fireplace awaiting a wash of “antiquing”; a tabletop of delicately fossilized shellstone that is 160 million years old.
In the adjacent showroom stands more solid evidence of the exuberant craftsmanship of Ragan and his apprentices. Two little monkey-dog gargoyles grin at each other from opposing pedestals, safe from the clutches of a lion-head downspout. Fireplace mantels and jambs line the wall, some covered with delicate floral patterns, others sporting huge griffin paws at their base. There are fountains and tables and, as if I’m not already dizzy with awe, out comes a bulging photo album of the carvers’ restoration work and public projects, like the capitals they reproduced for two columns on the Hill County courthouse, in Hillsboro, and the tops they carved for columns in the Zilker Botanical Gardens, around which dance a bat, an armadillo, a horned toad, a rattlesnake, a catfish, and more. “I like doing local critters,” says Ragan.
Texas Carved Stone, 6621 Texas Highway 195, Florence 76527 (254-793-2384). A deliciously carved kitchen hood is around $3,500. A simple fireplace surround might set you back only $1,000—or you can spend about fifty times that for a 52-piece fireplace fit for Citizen Kane.
FED UP WITH THE MEDIOCRE QUALITY that was the standard at the cabinet shop where he worked, Michael Colca quit his job in the late seventies and decided to strike out on his own. “I figured in five years I’d be so good, an expert . . .” Now, 23 years later, the idea of mastering his craft so rapidly seems so ludicrous that the 45-year-old Colca can’t finish the sentence without laughing. One problem back then was the lack of instructors or mentors. “Of course, I really admired the work of Sam Maloof,” he says of the California woodworker and designer who was in the vanguard of the crafts revival in the fifties. “I could read about him, but I wasn’t able to work with him.”
Colca soon discovered the Arts and Crafts style and fell in love. “Everything you do, you do for a reason,” he tells me as we crawl around under one of his dining tables at his workshop in Driftwood. He points out a mortise-and-tenon joint on the side of one leg whose securing wedge has been overdriven to create an attractive bulge. “When you do something like this, you’re not doing it just because it’s pretty,” he says. “You’re doing it because it’s strong and provides a visual focus for the strength of the piece.”
In an attempt to find some balance between perfection and affordability without compromising his standards, Colca has designed a furniture series that he calls Medina. The dining-room and bedroom suites, highboys, and hutches made of cherry, pecan, and maple—with unobtrusive hinges and book-matched grain—give a reverential nod to Arts and Crafts but transcend pure imitation. “I’m a fanatic for book-matching,” says Colca of the process of splitting open a piece of wood to reveal mirror-image grain patterns. And if there’s one thing he learned from Maloof, it’s that there are no rules. “Maloof doesn’t get stuck in tradition,” he says. “He knows you’re going to come up with better stuff if you don’t get locked into the way things should be done.” Although he’s basically happy with his Medina designs, perfectionist Colca says he can’t stop “fiddling with proportions, playing with it, deciding how big to make the feet, driving myself absolutely crazy.”
SummerTree, 711 Turtle Hill, Driftwood 78619 (512-847-5238, 800-972-5940). Pieces from the Medina line are about $1,200 for a chair, $1,950 for an end table, and $3,250 for a dining table or a queen-size bed.
TUCKED AMONG THE CEDARS AND scruffy oaks outside Henly, Louis Fry’s unassuming woodworking shop is like an oyster, rough and functional on the outside but capable of producing luminous jewels. Drop in a few pieces of cocobolo or curly maple, and four weeks to four months later, out comes a pearl in the shape of, say, a massive desk with piston-fit drawers and hand-carved dovetail joinery or a dining table whose finely carved curved legs, called cabrioles, reflect the client’s love of seashells and wildflowers.
Of course, it’s the man inside the shop, 49-year-old Louis Fry, who is responsible for such amazing transformations. Fry says he knew he “wanted to create things” after attending his first crafts fair, in San Francisco in the early seventies. So he bought a little house in South Austin with a detached garage, the cheapest Sears table saw, a drill, and a router. “I’d stay up until two o’clock in the morning, making noise and learning from books like the Sunset manual on making bookcases and hobbyhorses,” he says. Providentially, his initial commissions never seemed to exceed his abilities—and now, after 21 years of concentrated self-instruction, nothing seems beyond them. Fry, though, is self-effacing. “For me, this is a very humbling occupation,” he says. “Every time I think I have something mastered, it comes around and kicks me in the butt.”
Photo after photo in his fat portfolio attests to his mastery of styles, including contemporary, deco, modernist, and classical, rendered in an alphabet soup of woods—bubinga, cocobolo, curly maple, mesquite, pecan. And if the devil is in the details, his work is possessed. Consider the legs on a curved-front walnut china cabinet Fry calls “one of my most ambitious pieces.” Each shapely turned leg is inlaid with eight strips of wenge, a chocolate-colored wood with a black grain, that protrude slightly. He had to rout the grooves, cut the strips to the exact length of the grooves, then round the ends of each strip to tolerances that would make a NASA engineer swoon. Ponder the elliptical cutouts in the cabinet’s cornice, fitted with slices of moss agate, and its wavy wenge inlay, and you begin to wonder if his brain looks entirely different from everybody else’s. “Very tedious,” Fry says proudly of the four-month project.
Louis Fry, Craftsman in Wood, 1825 Pursley Road, Dripping Springs 78620 (512-894-4112). One of Fry’s signature dining chairs with cabrioles is around $1,500. A simple dining table is $3,500 or so, a cocobolo desk fit for a king about $15,000.
WHEN STUNNING TECHNICAL EXPERTISE and creative talent collide—as they do in the realm of handcrafted furniture—the question inevitably arises, Is it art or is it craft? On this issue, Daniel Kagay and Robert Peeples, Jr., don’t necessarily agree, although they share shop and office space and are both exceptional craftsmen who probably use an electron microscope to inspect their miter joints. “I can’t stand it when people call us woodworkers,” insists the 37-year-old Peeples, who considers his “fine-art” furniture “one more intellectual level up in artistic intent and statement” from plain old furniture. The 45-year-old Kagay, on the other hand, calls himself a “laborer” and seems content with whatever label a client pins on him—artist, craftsman, even woodworker—as long as he can earn a living making what he wants to make.
Peeples explains his point of view with an anecdote: When his exotic maple-and-padauk desk, which reminds me of an Oriental temple, was exhibited at his now-defunct R. Peeples, Jr., Gallery, he says he often heard the comment, “Yeah, it’s really neat, but my computer won’t fit on it.” His reaction? “I wanted to just bash my head against the wall because that was the farthest thing from my mind. I meant for it to be something visually attractive; it wasn’t meant to be heaped with monitors. A lot of these pieces serve no other purpose than to be a design element.”
The same art-for-art’s-sake argument could be made for Kagay’s creations—beautifully detailed jewelry cases, benches that evoke Japanese architecture, and collector’s cabinets of mesquite, longleaf pine, cherry, and pecan. But what’s the point of the precision-fitted drawers and invisibly hinged doors if they’re not used? Kagay’s work occasionally “makes a statement,” he says—as when he uses fiberboard and wood in a cabinet to contrast natural and man-made materials or ties split pieces of wood together with rawhide to “confront the material’s tendency to always be moving.”
I look at pictures of Peeples’ “Frio County Seat,” a bench with a trompe l’oeil cushion carved from mesquite, deceptively complete with piping and inviting sags. And then I look at pictures of Kagay’s “Sushi Anyone?,” a table with a book-matched chopsticklike pattern in the grain of the poplar. And the notion of trying to determine whether these pieces are art or craft seems beside the point. Clearly, to me, at least, they are both. “Our ideal client is someone who appreciates the work for what it is,” says Peeples. “They’ll rearrange the room to fit the piece instead of the other way around. Most good art is like that. You look at it and say, ‘I gotta have this. I don’t know what I can do with it, but I gotta have it.’”
Daniel Kagay, 777 Shady Lane No. 1, Austin 78702 (512-389-0099). Kagay’s exceptional jewelry cases run from $1,000 for a tabletop model to $3,000 and up for a collector’s cabinet.
Robert Peeples, Jr., P.O. Box 1669, Austin, 78767 (512-385-3528). Peeples will design and make a simple, elegant writing desk for around $3,000, while a multi-drawered executive number can cost twice that. A mahogany stereo cabinet would be about $5,000.
BLACK-WALNUT SAWDUST FILLS the air at Mark Landers’ Central Austin studio as his assistant planes and shapes raw planks for a seven-and-a-half-foot round tabletop. The dust is choking me, but I don’t care because I can’t stop stroking the base that will support this mammoth 210-pound top. My fingers crawl like curious spiders over the burled veneer, the hand-carving and rabbeted, or stairstep, detailing. The geometry of this French Provincial—style table is so complex my mind boggles when Landers tries to explain his formula for determining the length and angle of the leverage arms needed to support the massive top: the 20 7/8-degree miter cuts on the 4-inch-thick walnut boards, which had to be held at a 45-degree angle “so we could present them to the miter gauge adjustment as well as a saw-blade tilt adjustment,” all working within a tolerance of 1/64 inch . . . Before I fall into a complete mathematic coma, I manage to blurt out a question: Why have you done this for 23 years? Landers, who is 48, pauses, then says, “I have to. I’m still drawn to it. Every time I open up that shop door, I’m looking forward to what I’m doing that day.”
We retreat to the office, where his wife, Christina, who helps put the finishing touches on his woodwork, is fielding phone calls. One wall is covered with photos of his varied projects: a stunning four-by-ten-foot walnut table with East Indian rosewood banding for a client in Elgin, a sleek mesquite desk for writer David Lindsey, and an upright collector’s cabinet in oak built for a great-great-great-grandson of Herman Melville.
Landers has as much respect for his clients as for his craft. “Most people don’t know that this is available, that there’s something else out there besides what you can buy in the store,” he says. “It takes a lot of courage to come in here, look at a thumbnail sketch I just did, and say, ‘That’s it!’ And trust that we’re going to produce what they really want.”
Landers’ Studio, 404-B Baylor Street, Austin 78703 (512-472-9663). A straightforward dining table might cost around $3,000, and an engineering feat like the black-walnut table can cost upward of $19,000.
THE WORST THING ABOUT DOING an article like this is knowing how many deserving craftspeople and artists have been left out. To ease my conscience, here are some sources to help you find other gifted artisans:
American Society of Furniture Artists (ASOFA), Adam St. John, President; P.O. Box 35339, Houston 77235-5339 (713-721-7600). St. John founded this organization in 1989 to advance the field of art furniture by staging competitions and exhibitions. (The catalogs from these shows are works of art in themselves and document a wide—and wild—sampling of American art furniture.)
Architectural Artisans Collaborative (AArC), P.O. Box 3008, Austin 78764-3008. This organization’s membership includes stone carvers, metalsmiths, and woodworkers and represents a range of architectural arts and crafts, from faux finishes and murals to ceramics and blown glass.
R. Peeples, Jr., Art Services, P.O. Box 1669, Austin 78767 (512-385-3528). Peeples represents the work of more than a dozen furniture artists around the country.