The longer I live on Martha’s Vineyard, the more I find these two things to be true. One, nearly every person on this Island is only about three degrees separated from one another; and two, the people who truly enjoy their careers seem to be ones that were open to possibilities and followed their instincts. So it’s no surprise that the many talented furniture makers on the Island started off doing other things, such as music, economics, boat building, and acting, before winding up creating functional works of art that may end up as a focal point in your house.
With a collective 115 years experience in the trade, Ted Box, Stephen Hart, Larry Hepler, Laura Silber, and John Thayer have impressive and diverse portfolios, philosophies, and practices that continue to attract customers near and far. It is their varied stories of how they arrived in their present careers that connects them together.
A year or so after high school, John Thayer began learning the basics from “grumpy, old men” in a traditional apprenticeship. The self-taught boatbuilder turned furniture and cabinetmaker says the key to his 33-year success is that he “listens closely,” often building 18-inch models to manifest design ideas he or another has thought up.
Mr. Thayer and his small, talented crew work mostly with interior designers and architects these days. The slow economy hasn’t bothered them, because they’ve gotten calls for long-term, whole interior projects based in New York and Toronto. His company’s final designs are built by hand, “like they were done decades ago,” with a commitment to lasting value. See work samples on their impressive website: johnthayer.com, or call 508-693-4690.
Larry Hepler of Chilmark has a degree in economics. After graduation, he visited the Vineyard and decided to make it his home. Mr. Hepler started developing ideas for furniture, and he returned to school – this time a furniture design program in Canada. Being dominantly right-brained (the creative side), he says, and influenced by “strong, simple forms and the values of durability and utility” from being raised in Pennsylvania, Mr. Hepler’s designs are built to be used every day. Ranging in price from $900 to $5,000, he has designed all the pieces himself for new or repeat customers for 30 years now. With gentle, curved lines and visual interest in the woods he chooses, his furniture does the job “with grace.” When visiting his website, be sure to check out his most popular item, the Vineyard Rock-all, which is a sleek looking, rocking chair built for two or three. For more information, visit http://lhepler.vineyard.net/index.html or call 508.645.2578.
Having apprenticed with Mr. Thayer and Mr. Hepler, Stephen Hart of West Tisbury also builds custom cabinetry and furniture. A seventh generation woodworker armed with 200-year-old tools once the property of an ancestor, the creator of the Stanley Tool company, Mr. Hart’s varied influences and “lifelong passion for creating beautiful works of wood” have also made him a notable on the Island. Most custom furniture pieces are priced between $900 to $4,000 and use a blend of many woods, both domestic and tropical. His masterly crafted pieces may be found on consignment at Julie Robinson Interiors or by appointment at his showroom on Old County Road. For more information: 508.696.8490 or http://hartwoodworking.com/index.htm. Maybe while you’re there, Mr. Hart will show you around his music studio, too.
Though he had been offered a spot at Julliard, Ted Box studied science, and his passion was the sea. Growing up on Long Island, Mr. Box comes from an artistic and musical family. He was influenced by location, “Making his world in clay of fish, ducks, and elaborate dioramas,” in tribute to nature.
A master boatbuilder and carpenter, Mr. Box turns driftwood he finds along Island beaches into unique works of art that have a magical, dreamlike feel and movement to them. He loves taking what was molded by “sea, sand and wind and composing the wood in authentic ways,” to bring life to a piece.
Of his furniture, Mr. Box is proudest of a rolltop desk project. Usually designed with cylinders, he made this one with a cone and two parallel curved planes to replicate an ocean current. Calling it The World’s Most Unique Rolltop, he kept this treasure for himself.
Embarking on a new project with his son, Jake, Mr. Box is building a 90-foot scow on the Boch Lot on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. Besides personal use, he hopes the boat will provide the rich experience of, “a floating classroom,” via hands-on mentoring to youth groups and educators. In his spare time, he’s enjoying creating sculptural bronze pieces…maybe he’s only three degrees separated from da Vinci? Contact information: 508-680-6470 or homeportfolio.com/productexplorer/manufacturerprofilepage.jhtml?manid=915.
How are these folks tied together? Laura Silber, who started Demolition Revival Furniture from her 1,200 square foot workshop on her West Tisbury property, was selling her pieces at a recent Artisans Festival, and she referred me to many of these gentlemen. This talented, environmentally conscious mom used locally salvaged materials to build her own house with the help of a friend, retired master builder Ralph Braun. Noting the experience as “baptism by fire,” she’s never shied away from hard work and has always enjoyed working with her hands. Past Island jobs have included Chilmark Pottery, pastry chef at l’étoile, private home chef, and I remember her years ago acting in the comedy improv group WIMP. She started designing and building her own interior furniture with the leftovers, and pretty soon friends saw it, and she was selling pieces through word-of-mouth.
Ms. Silber only uses unpainted, reclaimed lumber from the Island, crediting great working relationships with several Island contractors, with Tom Turner, and with Cottle’s Lumber in helping her recycle, and to Bill at Island Color Center, who can “match any color sample a client brings her, often in the form of a flower or seaglass.”
Ms. Silber works with designers, architects, and the public, and after just seven years in business, has many repeat customers on-Island and throughout New England. Well organized, she always follows her instincts and saves the custom designs she’s mapped out knowing that if she makes a few more, they’ll sell quickly.
Finishing touches. Piles and piles of salvaged hardware, old heating elements, and glass sit waiting to be chosen when she gets to the “improvised, visual details” that make the pieces most interesting and unique. She uses non-toxic finishes in water based paints and lavender beeswax sealers. Her most unusual commission to date was a TV armoire for clients who wanted a themed folk art piece. She built a “bird house city” with each part designed to house a specific component of their entertainment system. Stressing that function takes priority in all her work, the form is where her artistic intuition takes over. Ranging from smaller pieces like mirrored medicine chests ($225), hutches and entertainment consoles ($2,000 to 4,000) to large scale built-ins (up to $10,000), Ms. Silber’s work can accentuate any style home. To see her work, visit http://demolitionrevival.com
The reclaimed materials many of these artisans use are, as Ms. Silber says, “Already aged, beautiful, rich with history.” If only we could know who they might connect, and the stories they will tell…especially on our close-knit Island.
Anne Caldwell lives in Vineyard Haven with her husband Glen and young daughters, Sammy and Julia. Her professional backgrounds include art, technology and education. She believes in being open to possibilities and trusting her instincts.