Heirlooms Made To Order
Custom Furniture for Your Children’s Children’s Children.
By Dave Donelson Photography by Leonard Yakir
A piece of leather left me speechless. I was visiting one of
There is furniture, and then there is heirloom furniture. And the difference isn’t necessarily the cost. Many people assume that a piece of custom-made furniture will be prohibitively expensive. But “expensive” is a relative concept. A good dining room side chair may cost $900 in a fine furniture store. For about the same price, you can have a chair that’s hand-made expressly for you, painstakingly crafted from the finest materials and signed by the artist. One is fine furniture, the other is destined to be an heirloom.
Furniture at Large
I now know where to find a dining table large and fine enough to seat Philharmonia Virtuosi the next time the orchestra drops in for spaghetti and meatballs. I can have the table made by Rick Carone in Bedford Hills. R.D. Carone & Company offers many types of traditional and country-styled pieces but specializes in pedestal-based dining tables—big dining tables up to 26 feet long that take about a month to make.
All are built to customer specifications for size and shape, wood, inlay, and finish. You can choose traditional Georgian, Sheraton or Regency styles to complement your existing antiques.
“We have particular expertise in finishing our work to match the customer’s dÃ©cor,” Carone says. “We often use very transparent stains or oxidizing agents to get just the result we want. Then a modern base finish is applied. The final step is a French polish. It’s all done—very carefully, I might add—by hand.”
When I first saw the intricate carvings in the works of George Demetrakopoulos, owner of European Woodcraft Co., I assumed computer-driven lasers had produced them. They included so many minutely precise features that I didn’t see how a human hand and eye could make them. But they were indeed hand-carved.
A native of
“Everything must be perfect before it leaves the shop,” Demetrakopoulos says. “That means extra time and work, but I insist on it.”
I found a lyrical elegance in the furniture Demetrakopoulos showed me. He executes work in many styles, but always with the breath-stopping excellence of the European tradition. One dining table combines elements of functional but dramatic
Few artists can identify a favorite work and Demetrakopoulos is no exception particularly because he has fashioned hundreds of pieces in myriad styles for customers all over the
“This isn’t a store, it’s my house,” Ottavio DeVivo says metaphorically. “When customers come in, they are treated like members of our family. We make sure they are getting exactly what they want and that they fully understand the quality of construction and design.”
His sons, John and Tom DeVivo, are the third generation of master craftsmen at their shop and store, Ottavio’s Furniture in
Perfectly executed original carvings distinguish much of Ottavio’s work. They are often based on traditional themes but are executed in the personal style he developed over the years. One full room in the family’s two-story shop is devoted solely to templates and models of his carvings.
“The most important features of high-quality hand-crafted furniture are often hidden from the eye,” John says, as he opens a magnificent armoire to display the framed panels inside that match those on the door fronts. “If you look closely, you’ll also see that each one of our pieces is signed and dated.” That’s a mark of the workman’s pride you won’t find on factory-made furniture.
Not all custom-funiture designers are traditional. Chris Carnabuci of Casola Design left a career on Wall Street to pursue his passion for furniture-making, which he found to be more personally fulfilling. Carnabuci’s original contemporary furniture designs soon attracted attention. His work is definitely not traditional, given the proportions and colors of the original metalwork combined with exotic woods and veneers that he uses. But even with Carnabuci’s use of innovative materials and original metalwork, his style remains classic and tasteful.
“It’s not a matter of just getting the order in and getting it out,” Carnabuci says. “My focus is on doing it right.” Some pieces, such as wall units, benches, beds, and even a clock have flowing, curved forms. Others, like nesting end tables, a desk, and a mahogany dining table are starkly linear. Both styles often include welded steel components that are all custom-fabricated. Another hallmark of Carnabuci’s furniture is his use of unexpected color surfaces—red, orange, green and purple—where you might normally expect natural wood tones. All colors are created and mixed in Carnabuci’s finishing studio.
His favorite piece so far is a contemporary clock in mahogany with a solid steel base. The European clockworks, including dial, chimes and other mechanisms that drive the clock, are enclosed in a hand-shaped case made of African mahogany and dark ebony with no straight lines, echoing the circular clock face and pendulum. The entire clock is balanced on two round steel arches that elevate the clock so it appears as if it’s floating. You might call it a grandfather clock, but only if your grandfather sports a pony tail and drives a Maserati Spyder GT. The clock, which is more than six-feet tall, sells for $3,500.
Like his styles, the prices for Carnabuci’s furniture are varied. A set of two nesting end tables with welded steel legs and tastefully tinted mahogany wooden tops sell for $650.
On the other end of the spectrum, he built a home bar for one client that cost $28,000—the 15-foot wide bar, which took Carnabuci a month to make, is made of cherry wood and decked with a lacewood bar top and panels. A collection of Carnabuci’s work is being displayed at the Casola Gallery near his shop in
Designed to Last
“I make generational furniture,” says Randy Scully. “It is designed to last—and have lasting appeal.”
Thirty-three-year-old Scully established R.P. Scully Furniture in 1999 in a shop in the old hat factory in
“Customers give us fresh perspective and vision,” Scully says. “In fact, we honor our customers by naming the designs after them.”
If one characteristic sets Scully’s work apart, it is his use of traditional joinery not to just hold the furniture together, but also to add stunning visual appeal. The chest of drawers I examined, for example, has bow-front drawers which feature a curved front made of solid cherry core with a perimeter of curly maple. Twelve layers of thin cherry wood were glued and pressed into the bow shape, then the drawer front was joined to the sides with hand-cut half-blind dovetails (joints that are shaped like a dove tails), which you see only when the drawer is opened. And Scully’s attention to detail on this piece didn’t stop there. He inlaid a narrow border of contrasting tiger maple on the inside top and edges of the drawers to repeat the inlays on the outside of the chest. The drawers themselves feature grooves on their sides that allow the drawer to slide easily, but do not have metal rails. They do have those unseen leather pads I described earlier to cushion them as they are closed.
“We as a business prefer to use little or no stain,” Scully says when asked about finishes, “because the true patina of the fine woods we use will develop more beautifully over time. Cherry, for example, will darken in five or six months with a depth that really can’t be duplicated with artificial coloring.”
This one-of-a-kind commissioned piece sold for $5,500. Randy’s most expensive piece to date is a china cabinet in walnut and tiger maple he designed and built for $10,000, which took 225 hours—or six weeks—to complete. By crafting heirlooms with and for his customers, Randy Scully is well on the way to establishing a reputation for quality and style in the tradition of George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.
I found yehuda hagar’s shop, Hagar Furniture, Inc., in just about the most incongruous location you can imagine: near the recycling center in
“The people I sell to are interested in quality,” Hagar says. “They’re looking for furniture that is built to last—not for five or six years, but for five or six generations.”
Hagar has become one of the best-recognized custom woodworkers in the
One piece I found particularly dazzling is an intricately carved $22,000 desk he recently completed for a customer in Dobbs Ferry. The desk is about eight feet long and made from African mahogany. The sides and front feature raised panels that are topped by a six-inch frieze of floral carving of solid mahogany. The front is divided by two fluted columns in three-quarter relief. A carved molding on the base echoes the floral motif of the frieze. To find the perfect piece of leather large enough for the top, Hagar had to turn to a European supplier. The desk is absolutely unique.
“In the morning, I look at a piece of wood,” he declares, “and at the end of the day it is a piece of art.”
It is not often that you can work directly with an artist to specify what you want him to make. These fine craftsmen, though, recognize that custom furniture reflects your tastes and personal values. They want you to be able to express yourself in a piece of furniture that will be passed on to your children’s children’s children. To me, that defines a family heirloom.
Dave Donelson is a freelance writer and freshly inspired woodworker in
The Customer Experience
Buying a piece of custom furniture isn’t the same as walking into a store or ordering from a catalog. You won’t find these craftspeople in the mall. Their gallery/showroom/shops may be a little dusty and the “salesperson” may be wearing a leather apron and have strong, callused hands. The smell of fresh sawdust and wood glue may fill the air. But visiting the shop and talking to the artist is part of the fun.
As a customer, you are an important part of the creative process. The designer usually begins with a discussion of your ideas and needs and maybe a visit to the space where the piece will reside. Next come a series of sketches, where your ideas and those of the designer’s are combined and refined on paper.
Then, depending on the complexity of the project, plans, perspective drawings, even full-size templates or scale models are prepared. Materials, hardware, and finishes are chosen. Only then does the craftsman take tools to wood to build your heirloom.
Some Common Misconceptions
Customers often believe that fine furniture must be made only from what they call “solid wood.” While it is true that there are many man-made materials that aren’t suitable for use in high-quality work (chipboard and MDF, for example), plywood is not one of them. Don’t think of that ugly stuff you see at construction sites. Furniture-grade plywood is often made of oak, birch, maple or other fine woods—and often costs more than its solid counterpart. It provides stability to large surface areas like tabletops, prevents warping, and supports exotic wood veneers.
Another misconception is that modern finishes aren’t suitable for truly fine furniture. Most modern finishes are far superior to older ones like shellac. Modern varnishes not only look better than the old ones, they protect your furniture longer and don’t change color over time. When applied skillfully by a master finisher, a good modern finish brings out the full beauty of the wood. The best craftsmen will use old techniques like French polishing in combination with modern materials to produce the desired result.
You might think that short cuts and cheaper materials in hidden areas can reduce the cost of a piece of furniture without affecting its quality. Cheap materials like pressed wood won’t be seen, but they’ll likely be felt at some time. They are especially susceptible to moisture, which can cause swelling. As a result, they won’t hold together well without unsightly fasteners. The same holds true for using shortcuts like screw and nail construction instead of the traditional mortise and tenon, dovetail, or other joinery techniques. The laws of physics prevent traditional joints from breaking. The same laws dictate that mechanical fasteners will fail at some point in time.