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Tooling around Vermont

Out in the woods, furniture makers are a cut above

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / January 26, 2005

DORSET, Vt. -- Driving south on Route 7 toward Danby, there is a point where the mountains soar up on both sides of the road and you peer out over miles of forest. Trees, trees, and more trees, as far as the eye can see.

By coincidence, this is where Vermont's largest concentration of master furniture makers have set down roots. Not small manufacturers of the Pompanoosuc Mills or Charles Shackleton class, but studio artists, working alone or with a few assistants at most, turning out not hundreds, but 20, maybe 30 pieces per year.

''It's more of a human being's vision," Martha Fitch said. As head of the Vermont Craft Council in Montpelier, she has weighed the craft from every angle. ''The playing field is not level. One can turn out 50 in the same time that a studio can do three, yet you're charged the same price."

Every year on Memorial Day weekend the public is invited into their workshops, making it a logical time to go. Fitch's office distributes free studio tour maps, and you can breeze in without making appointments, ogle the goods, and move on. But there are advantages to going before then, so although I was faced with midwinter snows, I headed out. Of the 10 woodworking professionals in southern Vermont, I visited six.

Like most of the studios, Bob Gasperetti's is tucked deep in the woods. His workload stays constant year-round, he told me, but he's likely to spend more time with people who show up between January and March. I had found my way to a sofa by a rumbling woodstove, and as he spoke, I glanced at the coffee table. It was a beautifully finished wooden slab in the George Nakashima style, its edges as crude and uneven as the tree it had come from. What particularly struck me was the grain: Its lines were random and mysterious, like reading someone's palm.

''Burl," Gasperetti said. ''A monster one."

There he was in a photo, sitting astride the fungus-like thing, a dog on his lap and his feet dangling over the sides. Peering around, I could see he made a little of everything, from Shaker tables to grain-matched pencil boxes. Yet I sensed he was happiest sculpting these one-of-a-kind, freeform pieces from anomalies like this yellow birch growth.

Later he led me up the road to a warehouse. It was where he hoarded prized scraps, and as I shivered in the cold, he pulled out one after another, rhapsodizing over its knots, maple sugaring tap holes, and markings. I only half listened, the coffee table still large in my mind. It was one of five he had harvested so far from the burl; maybe it would yield another 12 or 15. I asked him the price. It was $2,500, he said, silencing me. But then I thought about it: How often do burls this size come along? On second thought, a couple grand didn't seem so high.

I continued south to Dorset, then went north on Route 30 to find Bill Laberge. He led me upstairs to a Frank Lloyd Wright-style couch, a ''prairie settle" with velvety, polenta-hued upholstery. All three of its shelf-like sides were hewn from the same board, a silky-smooth cherry with gently meandering patterns. A former gaffer with a New York film company, Laberge has artistic instincts that are as strong as his perfectionism. Everything in the place was immaculate.

There was a round cherry table with pitch pockets in its surface, tiny blackened eyes and defects so fastidiously lacquered and polished that they actually improved the piece. But Arts & Crafts style, exemplified by Green & Green, is his inspiration.

''There's more shaping to it, more texture, more levels to it," he explained. ''Frank Lloyd Wright is pretty linear."

Behind the sofa was a wood-framed screen, sylvan landscapes hand-painted onto its fold-out panels. It was a collaboration Laberge had done with artist John Sherman, and I found more of them: an elaborately carved headboard, a coffee table with a green marble center, a mahogany cabinet with hand-blown glass roundels as windows.

I moved on to Steve Holman's studio, which was just up the road. More straight lines, but instead of an early 20th-century aesthetic, this was contemporary. Holman is the ''wildest, the most experimental" of the lot, according to Walter Stanley, president of the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers. ''He has a very interesting way of looking at the world."

I could see what he meant. In a showroom lined with the pastoral oil paintings of his wife, Georgine MacGarvey, I spied iconoclastic chairs and benches. Holman was building his collection for an upcoming Philadelphia exhibit and laying it all out in his showroom, so it was the perfect time to visit. At the rear was a tall, whimsical piece, a hodgepodge of curving wood and steel called ''Self Portrait."

''The outside is fairly conventional," Holman said. ''Open it up and you see brightly colored sculpture inside. The idea was that it was plain on the outside, funky on the inside."

Surprisingly, the whole thing was functional, an armoire with a bar to hang clothes from, drawers for small things and large, and spaces for sweaters.

''It was certainly self-expressive," he observed, ''and furniture is not the most self-expressive, plastic kind of medium."

Between Holman's contemporary and Laberge's Arts & Crafts, I thought I'd seen it all. But Dan Mosheim's range was phenomenal: Federal, Biedermeier, Italian Modern, Chinese, Mexican. His signature is abalone and mother-of-pearl inlays.

In Londonderry, Joe Breznick was showing me a Shaker armoire when I saw a magnificent 9-foot dining table made of barn board. Somehow he had weaned the grayness out of the wood and polished down the roughness so that the gnarly ridges and blackened knotholes were smooth and mellow-colored.

My last visit was to Dave Spero, who makes Windsor chairs. Looking at their curled knuckles and turned legs, only one word came to mind: thoroughbreds. Where it takes most craftsmen three to four months to deliver a piece, Spero is booked for a year. He makes them one at a time, and unlike any of the others, he works alone. With a doctorate in biochemistry, his career track had seemed set until he developed a passion for Colonial furniture. He moved to Vermont in 1995 and set up shop, raising the frame of his post-and-beam house the old-fashioned way, without a single nail.

It awed me, but then, they all had. Each of them was masterfully skilled. Yet they were affable, easygoing. They joked about how they borrowed things from one another, carpooled their children, and paid one another in wood.

''We all work together," Mosheim had commented, smiling. ''It's really kind of interesting. It's a less competitive environment than you might think."

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt.

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