- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Functional art furniture, whether conceived as a singular creation or in a limited edition, reflects the spirit and personality of its creator.
"Typically, someone comes to me for a piece because they want something unique that they can't find anywhere else," says artisan Timothy Mowry of Annapolis, who works in wood and creates pieces that can sell for as much as $8,000 for a sideboard.
"My pieces are original designs inspired by the arts and crafts movement and a lot of architecture and art in Japan," Mr. Mowry says. "I think the Japanese have a strong sense of design in their forms very serene, calm and sensual. I've tried to take some of those aspects and incorporate them into my designs."
Furniture maker Bob Ortiz of Chestertown, Md., also took his inspiration from the Japanese when, 17 years ago, he stumbled onto a seminal book by sculptor and woodworker George Nakashima called "Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflection."
A former teacher, mental health worker and folk singer, Mr. Ortiz apprenticed himself to some cabinetmakers and learned on the job. He also credits the Shaker furniture tradition as an influence. His limited-edition pieces in walnut and cherry are completely hand-done, each a slightly different design, and sell for $950 to $5,500.
"I think of [my work] as music in 3-D," he says. "Furniture is like music; you never really arrive."
Though generally more expensive, such pieces are less predictable than items routinely found in home-furnishing stores and have the advantage of speaking directly to a buyer's individual taste. They are for people tired of conventional designs that, though convenient to purchase, lack a sense of specialness.
Original designs by artisans are associated with the so-called studio furniture movement, which is described by Renwick Gallery curator Kenneth Trapp as "furniture pieces that are not mass-produced, but made by one person and created for a select clientele."
The movement has its own nonprofit trade association, the Furniture Society, based in Free Union, Va., and open to anyone interested in furniture as a creative art. To date, the group has published two books, "Furniture Studio: The Heart of the Functional Arts" and "Tradition in Contemporary Furniture."
"Studio furniture speaks in many ways," the latter book explains. "Through colors, textures, forms, functions, images, and ideas, great furniture enriches daily life. It contributes ease and order as well as energy and depth to contemporary interiors. Evolving from traditions cultivated through centuries of craftsmanship, and advancing today's important art movements, studio furniture makers build subtle and complex meaning into their designs."
Movement members are extremely skilled craftsmen producing high-quality work appealing to clients who appreciate unique design.
Mr. Ortiz, 52, considers himself an outsider by nature and has not formally joined the movement, although he is sympathetic with its principles, especially those of its older members, such as Mr. Nakashima and Maine-based Thomas Moser, both highly respected furniture craftsmen whom he admires for their functional aesthetic.
"My sense is that the studio movement is now in a second generation whose members see themselves as artists, a term I'm not comfortable with," he says.
"If my clients want to think of me that way, that is just fine," he adds, noting that the important factor for buyers of his work and that of others is the question, "Would I want this in my house 10 years from now?"
Mr. Mowry, 45, another self-described "career adventurer," came late to the profession of craftsman after an earlier start in computers. He sells widely, often on a commission basis, and also has done mirrors in a limited edition.
A sideboard costing $8,000 can take Mr. Mowry three or four weeks to produce. Sometimes he will purchase slabs of wood without any commission in mind, "like a kid in a candy store," and wait for the right client to come along.
Once while visiting a Virginia mill, Mr. Mowry bought some beautiful pieces of elm board that he imagined would make a great desk. A prospective client came along, but that person wanted walnut, so the desk has yet to be built.
"My work is reasonably distinctive," Mr. Mowry says. "People who say it is a piece of artwork, I say fine, if you want to categorize it that way. I don't get hung up about those distinctions. I studied art in college as a potter before I studied economics. I've always been drawn to the functional side of the art world."
He is not bothered by the uses to which his work might be put.
"I put my feet up on my coffee table. It's not like there is a fence around it. Some pieces I've put commercial finishes on so you can put a drink on them," he says.
Clients such as Stewart Spettel of Arlington, a program manager for a government contractor, are not necessarily familiar with the movement's name or its aims, although they most likely would agree with them.
"I like to have some nice things around and it's better yet if I know the person who made them," says Mr. Spettel, who used to own a sailboat with Mr. Mowry and started buying his friend's work when he needed furniture for a newly bought, modest Cape Cod home.
The pieces he owns are made of cherry, ebony, maple and cocobolo wood, the latter being an expensive wood from Mexico that is botanically similar to rosewood. His latest buy, a sideboard for his living room, has cocobolo inlays in a crosshatched pattern across the doors.
The inspiration for inlay on the panels of a storage cabinet Mr. Mowry made two years ago came from a Chinese burial shroud he saw at a museum exhibit, as Mr. Mowry explains above a photograph of the work in "Tradition in Contemporary Furniture."
"In the long run, wouldn't I rather have custom rather than Crate and Barrel? You would never get that kind of inlay," Mr. Spettel says.
At Sansar, a gallery-shop in Bethesda that handles a large variety of work by contemporary artisans, items for sale can cost from $400 for a lamp to $16,000 for an elaborate one-of-a-kind, surrealistically styled mirror. Many pieces, including clocks, lampshades, chairs and tables, are done in mixed mediums sculpture, painting and carving and a combination of materials, such as metal, ceramic, wood and fiber.
"The best premise is to say there is a wide range of prices," says owner Veena Singh. "If you want to fulfill your soul and buy something artistic, you can have a beautiful lamp for $400 or a wonderful bench for $2,000. I don't like people to think the only ones who can afford craft furniture are those with a disposable income."
Her shop is one of the largest of its kind in the East, she says. Another place specializing in contemporary art furniture and decorative pieces is the Meredith Gallery in Baltimore.
With winter approaching in a period of economic downturn, Ms. Singh finds herself selling a lot of lamps.
"Sale of lighting has been good," she says. "People are enjoying staying home and being surrounded by beauty." At the same time, she says she recently delivered a large dining room set with a matching buffet.
The difference between art and craft will be debated until doomsday; in the best of all worlds, the difference doesn't matter. Functional art furniture is to be admired and enjoyed while it is being used in some fashion. Exactly what distinguishes a work of art from a piece of craftsmanship is up to the artist-craftsman and his or her patron or client.
"A number of artists use [furniture] to challenge the notion of what is art and what is functional," says Kimberly Gladfelter, director of Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown, citing the work of artist Tom Ashcraft of University Park.
One of Mr. Ashcraft's most dramatic designs is a large bench piece made of two parallel rare Dutch elm beams sitting on modest limestone risers. While technically functional, the piece is more sculptural in nature. It certainly goes beyond most people's idea of furniture for everyday use.
Mr. Ashcraft, 47, head of the sculpture department at George Mason University, senses that what he does is more "esoteric" than most craft pieces that fall under the studio movement label. He considers himself more sculptor than furniture maker but is willing to have his designs interpreted and used in any manner.
Apparently, the popularity of usable artisan work is growing. Several commercial companies in the Washington Design Center have branched out of late and begun offering interior designers and their clientele a few individually crafted wood and metal pieces in styles described as "transitional" a combination of a traditional and a modern aesthetic.
Margaret Kyle, showroom manager at fabric specialists Duncan, Huggins & Perez Inc. in the Washington Design Center, cites a signed, hand-painted buffet "with an Oriental look" by furniture maker Martin Pierce that sells for $12,000.
"People love them, but price is the problem," she says.

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