The no-interest-till-2010 dining-room set, the grotesquely overstuffed sectional sofa, the $49 coffee table held together with glue and staples—call them not furniture. They are "home furnishings," perhaps, purely practical constructions designed to be used until they wear out.
True furniture does not wear out. It's for keeps. It's sketched, rethought, redrawn, measured, sawn, joined, considered. It's admired, used, polished, loved. Just like art. That's what comes from the hands of the following Richmond craftsmen.
Tom Brickman's handiwork is visible throughout Richmond — at restaurants like Kuba Kuba, Comfort and Lulu's and the World of Mirth store. A 1987 graduate of VCU's sculpture program, Brickman went on to design sets for TheatreVirginia and fabricate exhibits for the Science Museum of Virginia, and while also playing music, he began creating furnishings and décor on spec and for clients.
One client allowed him to build a table of 10,000 blue marbles cast in resin. For a spec piece, he designed a poolside chair made from aluminum-reinforced pool "noodles."
"So, you can toss it in the pool and keep on lounging," he explains. "And if the noodles wear out, or you want a different color, you just slide them off."
Brickman often uses recycled or unusual materials. "Everything is an empowered object," he says. "It's just a matter of figuring out the best way to transform it into something else." He can also create sleek, austere pieces with a Frank Lloyd Wright spirit.
He's currently working on the bar and booths of the new Balliceaux restaurant, in the former Bogart's location on Lombardy Street. "I like the art-furniture niche, and designing for the community,"
One of the enjoyable aspects of having adventurous clients is the freedom to create, but working within limits causes him to be more creative. "You're serving several responsibilities at once," he says. "The piece has to be practical, and also satisfy the client's aesthetic."
Tom Brickman can be reached at 690-3577 or email@example.com.
Harrison Higgins Sr.
"Sit down," invites Harrison Higgins Sr.
The question is where. On the elaborately carved Chippendale dining chairs? Surely not. On the "flag sofa," its heavy maple sides fluttering like Superman's cape? That would feel like sitting on a MoMA exhibit. Maybe the rolling office chair with legs of thick steel bolts?
Higgins is the rare furniture maker known equally well for his exquisite reproductions of period pieces and his distinctive modern designs. Even after three decades in the business, it's still a learning process – a challenge artistic, historic and physical, he says.
He works with a staff of seven, including his son Harrison Higgins Jr. Higgins Sr., a quiet, pensive man, tends to get lost in his work. In the big cabinet that holds all his tools is a plastic spoon — provided to keep him from eating his lunch with a scrap piece of wood. It's up to Higgins Jr. to keep everything going. "He's a good boss," Higgins Sr. says.
Like many furniture makers, Higgins Sr., 58, fell into the field by accident. He had finished college, was pondering the ministry, and took up woodworking as a hobby. He learned from a friend of his father's, Frank Marquart, who taught him the old ways he had learned in Germany — hand-planing, traditional joinery. "I just slowly fell in love with it," Higgins says. He learned first to build; later, to design.
He has made 17th-century-style pieces for the Frontier Culture Museum and a bed for Monticello, fashioned using only the techniques of the time. That means carving ball-and-claw feet with a chisel and sawing dovetail joints. He created a near-exact reproduction of a Federal chair by Thomas and John Seymour by holding up a ruler (as a watchful guard looked on) to the original, a museum piece. Clients come to him when they need a chair or two to complete an antique dining set. Higgins will make one that's "built like that. Looks like that. Feels like that. Aged like that," he explains.
At the same time, Higgins loves creating contemporary pieces, like tables that resemble lilypads and the sofa that looks like it could fly. "You're making wood do something you've never seen done before," he says.
Harrison Higgins Inc. can be reached at 355-5501, 1700 Altamont Ave. or harrisonhigginsinc.com.
Lee DiJoseph's tools are experienced; his cast-iron table saw and joiner are from the 1960s. "I prefer the older heavier tools," he says. "Just in terms of collecting them over the years, getting them for cheap and restoring those, I prefer to get used things that are already broken in."
The materials DiJoseph tends to use in his sleek, elegant designs are naturally felled air-dried wood. He considers himself fortunate in, for example, finding the farmer who laid up a pile of walnut in a barn. That kind of wood, he says, is green — without being green.
Air-dried wood is more stable and less likely to warp, and the colors are more vibrant than new wood that is cut and kiln-dried
"Kiln-dried walnut gets a grayish hue," DiJoseph says. "If it's air-dried, you get purples and brown tones."
The Falls Church native graduated with a fine arts degree from Georgetown University in 1996 and in 2008 completed his master's of interior design at VCU. But along the way, he self-apprenticed with Manhattan master artisan Jonah Zuckerman and then Tucker Robbins, a monk-turned-designer of rare woods. While at Winchester Woodworking, he began making large installations, including cabinets for the Library of Congress.
"I've always liked the sculptor Noguchi and the furniture maker Nakashima," DiJoseph says of his influences. "It's more about the wood doing what it's going to do and letting the material be what it's going to be, rather than putting myself into it."
Eight years ago, he founded Mori Furniture and four years ago moved to Richmond, and he's currently building his workshop studio in Montrose Heights.
Lee DiJoseph's work can also be seen at morifurniture.com and he can be reached at (434) 825-2948.
Start with some wood. Carve it, shape it, polish it. Is it furniture? Or is it art?
The distinction has always fascinated Kevin Lipnicki. He approached furniture making from both the artistic and the practical sides of the table; he first studied painting and drawing at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Then he spent three years apprenticing with Charles Snead, a wild-haired, "curious fellow" learning architectural millwork in a Richmond workshop.
His experiences showed him that "there's a symbiotic relationship between design and structure," which revealed itself further as he studied the works of Wendell Castle, George Nakashima and other designer-craftsmen who created wooden pieces that blurred the line between sculpture and furniture.
Previously, "my whole notion of furniture was Grandma's colonial coffee table." But the more Lipnicki worked in wood, the more he developed a love for the material and began to imagine the possibilities. He's been known to bring wood samples to clients asking them to see — and smell — the difference before choosing.
After 11 years, Lipnicki has made a name for himself making architectural, "warm contemporary" pieces. His style could be described as a modern distillation of traditional designs, characterized by strong, simple lines and a minimum of ornamentation.
Lipnicki exhibits some pieces in galleries but works primarily on commission, building "one piece of furniture at a time for one client at a time." As he works, he thinks about how someone will love and use it daily. Invariably, when it leaves his hands he feels a twinge of remorse. "That's how it should be," he says. "You know you've done well if you miss it."
Kevin Lipnicki is represented by Meredith Gallery in Baltimore and Bay School of Cultural Arts in Mathews, Va. Lipnicki Design Studios can be reached at 928-1885 or Kevin@lipnickidesignstudios.com.