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