The Hippo


May 25, 2020








David Lamb. Kelly Sennott photo.

New Hampshire Furniture Masters 20th Anniversary Gala

Where: Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, 250 Market St., Portsmouth
When: Sunday, Oct. 4; event hours are noon to 5 p.m. with free public viewing and a silent auction, plus a dinner and live auction at 5:30 p.m. ($50 per person)
Preview: “Auction Preview: NH Furniture Masters 20th Year!” is an advance viewing of select works featured at the gala, with pieces by Ted Blachly, Jon Brooks, Timothy Coleman, Jeffrey Cooper, Garrett Hack, David Masury, Bill Thomas and Brad Wolcott. The exhibition includes an installation of catalogues produced by the Masters every year since the group’s 1996 founding and is at the Furniture Masters gallery, 49 S. Main St., Concord, on view through Oct. 2, with a reception that day from 5 to 7 p.m.
Meet Jere Osgood
The 79-year-old from Wilton was just awarded the Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. Osgood has taught some of the state’s most well-known makers, like David Lamb and Garrett Hack, at Boston University, and while he doesn’t work as much as he used to, he doubts he’ll ever stop entirely. He turned off his surround sound classical music at his studio a couple of weeks ago to talk with the Hippo about the furniture making in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire Furniture Masters’ start: I was one of six or seven of us. We were just after a collection of people to do good work. One of the requirements was you had to be producing or running a shop or business. There wasn’t anything terribly complicated about it. It more or less worked. It’s not easy, selling expensive furniture. Most people will tell you it’s word-of-mouth advertising.
His style: In the good old days, I used to have two or three things going on. It’s an over-used phrase, but mine is just contemporary furniture.
Retirement: Well, I have [thought about it] but can you imagine trying to sell all this stuff off here? It’s just not practical. And I’ll have to spend more time sitting in this chair as the years go by. … It’s part of my being. I can’t do anything else. … I expect to be working here in some manner until I can’t move.
Trends: I don’t know. You’re probably more likely to know than I am.
Using technology: I like the handwork that goes into a chair. … I’d rather keep myself 100 percent involved with it. … If you turn things over to the machine, it would sort of go against what we’ve been doing in [Furniture Masters].
To be successful: You have to be a good business person. If you can’t organize your shop, your business won’t last very long. 

Furniture as Art
Find art in every piece, from hand-carved to high-tech

By Kelly Sennott

Twenty years ago, the New Hampshire furniture making scene changed drastically when a group of artists came together to form the New Hampshire Furniture Masters.

They held the organization’s first-ever auction on June 29, 1996, with the help of many community members: Tony Hartigan, Van McLeod, Mary McLaughlin, John Frisbee, Allison Banks and Jen Lucic. Thirteen furniture makers participated and sold 26 pieces. Sales totaled around $188,000.
The organization brought attention to the high-quality craftsmanship in the state, and since then, the scene has evolved a great deal. Museums like the Currier Museum of Art now have large collections of handmade furniture. NHFM member David Lamb became the state’s fourth artist laureate in 2010. Members received more commissions and continued to create, and outside the group, artists have begun pushing boundaries with 21st-century tools and innovative designs.
In celebration of the masters’ 20th anniversary gala and auction being held Sunday, Oct. 4, in Portsmouth, the Hippo decided to take a look at the evolution of New Hampshire furniture making, from dovetails and hand carvings to 3D printers and laser cutters. In the opinion of Manchester maker Vivian Beer, the field has never been so diverse — or exciting.
Getting into the limelight
Furniture makers hate promoting themselves.
This is what Hartigan noticed when he began working with that initial group of artists in the mid-1990s. He and Frisbee, executive director of the New Hampshire Historical Society at the time, wanted to call attention to the existence of master craftsmanship. They saw the furniture being made in New Hampshire was superior even to furniture in the Historical Society’s collection that was hundreds of years old. These pieces were made with the same traditional techniques but were created to survive 21st-century houses with heating and air conditioning. (Many antiques, Lamb said, split come winter due to expansion and contraction.)
At the time, there wasn’t an organized group that could help these furniture makers market themselves. Sure, there was the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, but handmade furniture is sold at an entirely different price point. There was the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers, but that was more a club focused on sharing techniques, not selling work, which is what this group of artists needed to do to stay afloat.
Frisbee and Hartigan and numerous others met with a core group of makers once a month for three years before coming up with the idea of an auction. Hartigan was the main push behind it, inspired by the thoroughbred horse auctions he saw when he was growing up in Saratoga, New York.
“I was the one who pushed for the auction because it has a natural supply-demand tension. There are very few people in the world who can produce this art at this extraordinarly discriminated level. And if there is a shortage, there should be a demand,” Hartigan said in a phone interview. 
For makers, the auction was a nerve-racking experience — as Hartigan pointed out, most art auctions sell dead artists’ work. No hurt feelings to worry about. Here, the artists were there in the room.
“The excitement right from the beginning hinged on whether the artist who was in the room was going to see their work validated,” Hartigan said.
Luckily, Hartigan turned out to be right; it was a success and drew national attention, with articles in publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Traditional Homes. It put those 13 featured makers — now the New Hampshire Furniture Masters — in the limelight, and it got people talking. Never before had there been such a display of finished, exquisite furniture in New Hampshire. Best of all, forming the New Hampshire Furniture Masters meant these makers who hated promoting themselves didn’t have to worry about it as much. They became a collective with a name that imposed a “standard of excellence,” Hartigan said.
Effects of NHFM creation
In addition to the auction, the NHFM put on house parties and created a yearly catalogue. The whole of New England has a rich furniture making culture, and makers joined from Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and New York too. There were some measly efforts to create similar institutions in other neighboring states, but none stuck so well.
“I think craft has always been a strong point with New Hampshire,” Lamb said. “We’re a small state. I know several past governors and representatives and commissioners, and you know, the business people. Everybody knows everybody else. We can make things happen quickly without too much difficulty. If you were in Massachusetts, there are so many people there, and there are a lot of doors you have to get through before you reach the governor’s office. … [Out-of-staters] would come all the way over here to market their work because they realized the auction and the form we have is very unique.”
NHFM members interviewed said they noticed an immediate change in sales after the group’s formation. Lamb’s backlog grew even larger, and Ted Blachly, who heads the organization’s Concord gallery, said he gathered more patrons who would not only commission work from him but also financially back him while he pursued his own personal designs. Bill Thomas, whose piece was the first sold in that 1996 auction, became busier in the workshop as well. Plus, now he had more time to work.
“When you’re an independent furniture maker and working in your shop, you don’t have a lot of time to spend promoting yourself. If you do, you’re taking time away from the shop,” Thomas said.
But in Hartigan’s opinion, the national success of the NHFM doesn’t just benefit its members. It made people realize that you can have someone make furniture by hand at a very high quality and at a price almost as good, if not better than that of the highest-end manufactured furniture. If you wanted something high-end, why wouldn’t you have it made by hand, and by a local hand especially? The best part: You could have someone make something tailored to your tastes and your home.
More flexible standards
The furniture making trend happens in waves. When the economy is good, sales are good. When it’s bad, not so much. While you could say there was a resurgence of, if not furniture makers, then at least the awareness of furniture makers in the mid- to late-1990s in New Hampshire, Jere Osgood of Wilton thinks the movement started before that, which in return, caused these makers to come together for that first meeting. In his opinion, the trade has slowed down a bit since then.
Today there are around 30 NHFM members who pay a yearly fee and meet once a month in Concord. Women have joined in the past, but currently all are men. At the group’s start, the prerequisite was that you have been in business 10 years. It’s since become a more flexible standard.
“Because we see some abilities, and it would be a shame for someone to have to wait five years if they’re already doing exceptional work,” Lamb said. “Primarily, this organization is a group of professionals. This is what we do full-time. This is our primary occupation. We don’t do anything else for our income. Some of us may have spouses that have their own job, which is fine, but we don’t have part-timers. We don’t have hobbyists.”
To try to encourage younger people to join, years back the group employed an “emerging artists” category, which is how 32-year-old Greg Brown became a member. Getting juried in, he said, was kind of intimidating. He remembers sitting in a room with a piece of his furniture, getting grilled by members. In a follow-up meeting, they would vote whether to let him in or not.
“It was really odd, being in the room,” Brown said. “I remember sitting next to Garrett Hack, really randomly, and the first woodworking book I ever read was written by him.”
Fewer traditionalists
Leah Woods, a former NHFM member who teaches at UNH, said she’s noticed a change in her students. Very few have shown the same enthusiasm about wood that she did; one of her first assignments at the Rochester Institute of Technology was to make a 3-foot board, two inches thick and 10 wide, completely flat and perpendicular, with her own two hands.
“That’s the type of thing you could quite literally do with a planer, jointer and table saw. You could do that in 10 minutes. But the whole purpose of doing it by hand was to learn how to sharpen the tool, to learn the process of doing it by hand,” Woods said. “My program was very steeped in the tradition of, this is how you sharpen tools. This is how you use hand tools. I don’t know that our program was reluctant to incorporate contemporary technology so much as there was just a strong interest in maintaining that understanding of what makes handmade furniture so special.”
It took her about five years to realize her students at Illinois State University, and then UNH, were different than those in her class at RIT.
“By my fifth, sixth year I’d been teaching, I realized I hadn’t ever had a full group of students who really wanted to learn about woodworking on such a base level. They wanted to learn things, but they wanted to learn lots of different things,” Woods said. 
Perhaps it had to do with the fact she was teaching undergraduates, not graduates. Maybe they were turned off by the solitude of it. But there were other things she noticed, too — the way they sketched. Many strayed from scribbly drawings with pencil and paper and moved to creating on computers and tablets. Woods said the concern with that method was that sketching on a tablet can be too perfect, too concrete. Drawing with a pencil “opens you up to change,” not knowing where a drawing is going.
“When I was in grad school, no one would even entertain the possibility of sketching on [a computer]. Of course you did it by hand. And you would draw because that was a fundamental part of the process. … I think, from Massachusetts to Virginia to Indiana to Arkansas, everybody’s kind of in this place where they’re feeling a little of it — slow student enrollment — and I think we’re all collectively trying to figure out how to market what it is that we do. How do we convey to young people that you can enter an art school, you can learn how to work with wood and build furniture, build sculpture — you can make things really well, but it takes a [lot] of time? It’s hard. That is so hard.”
More designer makers
Vivian Beer, a Manchester furniture artist, said there aren’t necessarily fewer people in the field — rather, the entire field is evolving. She calls these 21st-century artists “designer makers,” people in their 20s and 30s who merge craft and technology.
“I think we’re going through a huge change in our field,” Beer said. “A lot of that has to do with communication and digital technologies. … It’s different from the studio furniture movement, and the craftsman kind of thing. For that generation, the trend was to get a barn and move out in the woods and work by yourself. The designer maker crowd tends to be below 40, and they want people around. They want communal space, to be part of a group.”
In New Hampshire, the emergence of makerspaces in places like Portsmouth (Port City Makerspace) and Nashua (MakeIt Labs) illustrates that idea. Brown works in a collective in Deerfield, and there are also furniture-making collectives and collaboratives in old mill buildings in Rollinsford and Portsmouth.
These trends in furniture making are what Beer is seeing on a national scale. In her eyes, New Hampshire is still fairly traditional, but her “dream of dreams” is to start a cooperative in Manchester. It’s not impossible; the city’s inexpensive, far more so than Brooklyn or Boston, which Beer said is one of the most important aspects of creating a thriving arts community.
“There aren’t that many ... folks like myself more into contemporary furniture making, and I would love to see that change,” Beer said. “I want to attract younger groups to the state. It’s very entrepreneurial, very friendly to small businesses.”
21st-century technologies
Neither Woods nor Beer is an NHFM member, having found more interest in styles, techniques and tools that stray from the traditional craft. 
Across the board — in classrooms, in furniture-making conferences, in furniture magazines and makerspaces — Woods is seeing more and more artists utilize things like 3D printers, laser printers and CNC scanners. The things you can do with technology have grown exponentially the past five years, and some of these tools could be regular elements in a woodworker’s vocabulary, in her opinion. But it’s a fine line — at what point does something go from handmade to machine-made? 
“It’s this slightly unclear, gray area I feel like we’re in, in terms of what constitutes craftsmanship,” Woods said. “I think the problem we’re in right now is that we’re in this period where things are a little unclear. It’s unclear what’s OK to use and what’s not OK to use. Almost all woodworkers I know would say it’s OK to use a bandsaw, planer, etc. I think the same group of woodworkers would be on the fence about whether that other stuff is OK or not.” 
This idea of technology taking over is certainly not new. It traces back to the Industrial Revolution, when bandsaws began wiping out small shops using handsaws. Lamb said he has no issue with using these technologies as “mules.”
“You have to think about the process they’re doing. They’re helping remove waste material. So I can see how someone would argue that that’s just what a laser does. It’s cutting to the line you are prescribing to get removed anyway,” Lamb said. “If I ever had something like a laser or CNC or something like that, I would use it for a certain application. … I have a lot of machines in my shop, but they’re like mules to me. They do the grunt work, and then I come in.”
High-tech fears
The fear that more traditional artists have is that some of these modern tools can do a lot more than just the grunt work.
“If the laser was programmed to — and there are lasers that can do this — excavate and carve, not just cut out the profile, I’d have a harder time with that,” Lamb said.
Not being upfront about how the work is created is another concern. 
“I’m disturbed that someone looks at [a piece] and gets the impression that it’s handmade,” Blachly said. “I’m sure [technology] has possibilities and could result in some wonderful work, but it’s when people start using these things as shortcuts that I don’t like.”
Woods said the fear is people will stop learning the basics of the craft, but she can’t deny the exciting possibilities these tools offer.
“I think maybe forever we’ll have that discrepancy of people who think that’s really authentic and who make everything by hand. You can go outside and cut something by hand, take it to a saw mill, let it air dry — you can go through all the steps yourself, and I think there are people who feel like, if you really want to capture the human spirit in something, that you have to make everything by hand,” Woods said. “But when I look at magazines, sometimes I see work being made and exhibiting in galleries and find there are some pretty creative things being done as a result of being able to use a CNC machine, a laser cutter, a 3D printer,” Woods said. 
Most interviewed said using technology in furniture making should be approached on a case-by-case basis. Beer, who utilizes 3D printing and the digital realm to design her work, thinks these options will only help the art.
“I’m more using it like an incredibly amazing tape measure. Just because you can design it [digitally], doesn’t mean it’s easier to produce. It doesn’t mean it’s actually easy to fabricate. … I’m able to make things that are more complex than I’ve ever made before because I’m able to work through that design digitally. There’s still a lot of hand technique there,” Beer said. “It’s just another tool. … It’s not this mysterious object which is going to destroy art as we know it.”
Her argument: If you’re not already a good furniture maker without the tools, you’re not going to be that much better with them. The best are those who understand both.
“The hand-cut dovetail is never going to go away,” Beer said. “This whole thing we’re talking about is never going to affect Jon Brooks. He’s going to keep doing what he’s doing, and he’s going to be fine. The kind of work he’s doing is special — it’s the ultimate handcraft, going into the woods, finding trees and turning it into furniture. It’s very different from what I do, but nobody’s going to become extinct because of that. The more diversity we have, the better it’s going to be as a field.”
Selling work
Being in the furniture trade today is hard. Most younger artists will say the technology is here to stay and needs to be embraced because the marketplace is so competitive.
“I think that with enough time, you can do just about anything [with your hands]. Look at a suit of armor made in the Middle Ages. But it’s not physically or financially practical to do that by hand now,” Beer said. “There has to be this cross-section where things are made, made well, and made beautifully, but they also have to be possible to be in the marketplace or else you don’t get to do it. Speed is critical, actually, as far as being a professional.”
Brown said he wouldn’t mind making simpler items — Shaker-styled tables, for instance — but it’s hard to do because people have found a way to make those pieces quickly while keeping prices low through high-tech machinery. With his business model, it makes more sense to create unique pieces. He might use things like a CNC scanner to take away the grunt work, but he’ll always let clients know exactly how something’s made.
“I’m in a very specialized market, and because I paid for school, I’m trying to keep my overhead low,” Brown said. “It’s big for me to educate the clients as well as work with them so they know exactly what they’re getting when I walk into the door with their piece. It’s happened to me on occasions that they don’t want the computer touching the thing at all.”
Thomas said he’s not fearful these tools will take away from the craft, just like photographs didn’t destroy fine art. People will pay extra, knowing something was made by hand, and knowing it’s one of a kind.
Why they do it
To create furniture, you need patience. Attention to detail. Taste.
“But it’s not just a technical thing. I mean, the technicality is a huge part of it, but it’s about the aesthetic. It’s understanding nature and form and balance,” Lamb said.
To be a furniture maker is hard. It requires long days, sometimes boring days, doing the same thing over and over again, and also business know-how. 
But New Hampshire makers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Said Beer, “People love to make things. It’s an essential need. And people love having objects in their life that have a certain story and empathy to them.”
Brown said he likes the idea of leaving something behind. 
“The fact that you’re producing something tangible at the end of the day, really, was satisfying,” he said. 
“One of the reasons I think it’s really valuable to make furniture with your hands as opposed to just designing online and sending it somewhere to have it made is, there are things you can learn about yourself that are really important, aspects just about what it means to be a human being, what it means to be self-sufficient, what it means to be competent,” Woods said. “I think there are people who feel like, if you really want to capture the human spirit in something, that you have to make everything by hand. … If there’s a person behind it, there’s humanity behind it. There’s a spirit, an energy, a love, sweat and tears, and all that kind of stuff.” 

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