Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A bed isn’t merely a bed when a custom craftsman builds it. It’s an heirloom invested with history and tradition.

“Art. Function. Heirloom” is the motto of artisan Stewart Crick, whose professional moniker is Stu’s Woodworks. Working out of a converted garage in a sublimely forested area of Manassas, he gives full credit to the Arts and Crafts movement for being his technical and spiritual guide. He explains on his Web site (www.stuswoodworks.com) how these words (“three philosophies”) embody a value system he assumes his clients share.

The Arts and Crafts movement is associated with early-20th-century American craftsmen who sought a fresh approach beyond the outmoded Victorian styles inherited from Europe, where the movement had its roots.

Its heyday was between 1910 and 1925, roughly between art nouveau and art deco periods, when its denizens sought to integrate machine-made production with individual interpretation in all aspects of domestic design.

In this country, the term often is used loosely to embrace trends still current in some circles in architecture, furniture and decoration.

Mr. Crick and Arnold d’Epagnier of Colesville, both self-taught devotees of the aesthetic — although in different ways — are among about 75 artisans participating in this year’s Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show, which takes place this weekend.

The show, an annual event targeted at serious buyers and collectors of custom furniture, is both a display venue and retail store. It differs from other craft shows by focusing largely on a single design field rather than embracing craftsacross the board. Custom-made lamps and pillows are included, for instance, but not jewelry.

One of the largest shows of its kind in the East, the event gives the public a chance to see the latest work of favorite craftsmen and meet new ones as well. Styles on view range from traditional Shaker to more novel contemporary modes.

Mr. Crick has spent the past month preparing for the event by fashioning an original take on a bed design that he calls “Arts and Crafts inspired.” It will travel in the van with him to Philadelphia along with some other pieces and be offered for sale at $4,000 or slightly more, a price he considers reasonable by standards of handcrafted work.

The bed is a sturdy queen-size piece made of quartersawed white oak, polished with tung oil and then varnished. Its prototype is a slightly different one Mr. Crick made for his own home and is a design he is happy to reproduce in different sizes on request.

Other of his pieces start at $750 for an end table and $1,700 to $2,300 for a coffee table.

He says he is keeping his prices low until he is better known, having taken up the profession full time just 18 months ago after a career as an electronics technician in the Navy, followed by a stint as a management consultant and part-time college teacher. A native of Clifton, he had no special background in woodworking, although he knew he enjoyed working with his hands and spent time in his youth watching his father in his woodworking shop.

He learned the essentials by “going to Hechinger’s,” a former local do-it-yourself chain, “and asking questions” when he rebuilt an 80-year-old house in Hampton, Va., to make it livable by “first stripping it down to the studs.”

During his final tour of duty with the Navy in the early 1990s, he went to school at night and worked in his shop on weekends. Later, he attended a three-month furniture-making course at North Bennet Street School in Boston, founded in the late 1800s to teach immigrants the skills needed for bookbinding, cabinetmaking and violin making.

Modest and articulate, Mr. Crick says he considers his chief influences to be some well-known American members of the Arts and Crafts movement, such as the brothers Charles and Henry Greene and Gustav Stickley. Like them, he focuses on what he calls “honest lines, simple curves, guided by nature and natural forces, and patient attention to details.”

The ultimate influence, he says, is the wood itself. Movement devotees believe in combining modern power tools with traditional hand tools such as chisels, planes and scrapers to engage in traditional joinery. The result is a deceptively simple-looking piece, vaguely geometric in look and containing more grain patterns than Shaker styles, which he also sometimes copies.

The bed’s finished headboard is 43 inches high, the footboard 30 inches high; both are distinguished by a natural wood-grain pattern created by cutting the wood down the middle and opening it up “like a book” to reveal a grain pattern mirrored on both sides.

The piece began life in November, when Mr. Crick selected the raw lumber — several boards of wide oak 2 inches thick — from a sawyer in Mohnton, Pa.

“In custom furniture, I’m looking at grain patterns as well as the quality of the wood. If I find I don’t like the grain pattern, I don’t use it,” he says. “It may go back on the pile for a future project.”

Mr. Crick’s idea of decoration for the bed design is the inclusion of small ebony wood pieces that have both functional and decorative purposes. Mr. d’Epagnier, by contrast, goes much further in his interpretation of Arts and Craft styles.

In Mr. Crick’s opinion, his colleague, whose company name is Mission Evolution: 21st Century Arts & Crafts Custom Furniture Design, is “a lot more creative.” He also is more experienced, having been in business for 28 years. Consequently, his prices are higher. He says a wine cabinet he will show in Philadelphia is worth $11,000.

On his Web site (www.missionevolution.com), Mr. d’Epagnier writes that he does “personalized creative designs of craft rather than craftily reproducing designs from the past.” On the phone, he explains the use of his “21st century” label as “interpreting the Arts and Crafts movement as if it were modern and doing it in my own way.”

He credits a large number of movement artisans going back to the Secession movement in Austria. Like Mr. Crick, he cites the “straight and simple, almost severe” look of Gustav Stickley and credits the Greene brothers with refinements so the furniture would seem less heavy. “They would add subtle curves and inlay,” he says.

The woods he favors are what he calls “highly figured grain such as curly quilted quartersawed sycamore. I used to go to the woods and cut it, but it is very back-breaking work.”

When you go:

WHAT: Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show

WHERE: Philadelphia Cruise Ship Terminal at the Naval Yard, at the base of Broad Street

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: $12 or $15 for a three-day pass.

INFORMATION:Send e-mail to info@pffshow.com or call 215/832-0060. For other information, click on the Web site (www.pffshow.com).


• Special events include a wine seminar and tasting and book talks.

• A benefit preview party at 6 p.m. Friday costs $40.

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