- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Ikea has become a haven for young homeowners who want chic furniture at a low cost. But for Ben Friedberg, a 30-year-old special education teacher from Germantown, the store’s arrival brought an epiphany.

“When Ikea first opened up, it made me realize how simple the design of these things could be,” he said. “I realized that it was pretty straightforward to build.”

Mr. Friedberg decided to renew a hobby that he had started in the eighth grade with a homemade coat rack. He began to build his own furniture.

A young professional with good hands and a flair for design, Mr. Friedberg is just one of many “do-it-yourself,” or DIY, furniture enthusiasts. They rely on furniture catalogs for ideas rather than for shopping options. Their home decor lacks serial numbers or bar codes — and of course there are bragging rights.

“Instead of saying, ‘I got this chair from Italy,’ you can say, ‘This chair, I made it myself,’” says Jean Railla, editor of www.getcrafty.com, a crafts Web site.

As consumer culture becomes more mass-produced, some homeowners are getting creative and ensuring they get the exact product they want by building their own furniture. They usually use wood, metal or glass, but pretty much anything goes with DIYprojects, Ms. Railla says.

Mr. Friedberg has built beds, coffee tables, desks, toolboxes and a workbench. He also likes to customize the furniture he buys.

“I can design in my own features,” he says. “For example, a couch can be built with an end table with it. It’s nice to have stuff that’s exactly what you want.”

But he says building furniture is hardly cost-efficient and definitely not for the impatient.

“You should consider the frustration,” he says. “Tools cost more than you expect, and everything takes four or five times longer than you would expect, because there’s always some measurement or specification that you weren’t aware of.”

Nick Suttora, owner of The Woodworkers Club, a woodshop in Bethesda, says the difficulties that come with making furniture by hand are not a concern for most of his customers. On the contrary, he says, they are there for the process.

He says most area professionals work in government and seldom see tangible proof of their accomplishments. Furniture gives them something solid to hold and be proud of.

Mike Chapman, a 44-year-old computer consultant from Silver Spring, makes furniture because he likes to work with his hands. The furniture also gives him more lasting and meaningful results than his computer work.

“At the end of the day when you are consulting, you move data from one place to another, and nobody cares that much,” he says. “I’ve sold lamps almost 20 years ago, and people still have them.”

Mr. Chapman sells some of his work and takes on custom orders here and there, but he says a full-time business would never make enough money because crafting furniture by hand is too costly and time-consuming. For example, he and a friend once spent 800 hours crafting a fancy wall unit for a customer.

But Ms. Railla, whose Web site and subsequent book, “Get Crafty,” approaches crafts from a feminist angle, says many relish the challenges of DIY.

“There’s something kind of fun about designing it and figuring out how to make it,” she says. “It makes this mundane, bourgeois activity of decorating your home … more extreme.”

Ms. Railla says typical furniture makers are young, educated professionals who have just bought their first home.

One way to make unique creations is to use objects that aren’t traditionally thought of as furniture. Many find quirky tidbits to incorporate into their home through “Dumpster diving,” a practice of looking through junkyards, back lots or dumps for discarded treasures.

Readymade Magazine, a hip DIY magazine for young homeowners, teaches readers to find unconventional uses for ordinary things. “Readymade” is a term coined by Marcel Duchamp to describe everyday objects reinvented as art, says Grace Hawthorne, the magazine’s CEO and publisher.

“It’s about, ‘Oh, that’s not just a spoon, that can be a wind chime,’” she says. “It’s putting things on their heads and giving them a secondary life and secondary purpose.”

Although these Dada-esque postulations might make DIY sound intimidating, Mr. Suttora says furniture-making doesn’t have to be fancy. Anyone who is truly interested and has enough time to invest in a project can make something worthwhile, he says.

The Woodworkers Club offers several workshops ranging from introductory courses to advanced topical classes. All new members have to take a one-time certification class to familiarize themselves with the tools.

But even for veteran furniture makers like Mr. Friedberg, every project poses new challenges.

“It’s a learning process,” he says. “It’s sort of like doing a research project, but it’s very gratifying at the end.”

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