John Thayer’s practical art

A custom-made mahogany desk trimmed in ebony waits for a marble top and finishing touches from furniture artist, John Thayer.
Photo by CK Wolfson

A custom-made mahogany desk trimmed in ebony waits for a marble top and finishing touches from furniture artist, John Thayer.

Function, order, and no wasted space. For the past 15 years, what was once the old 1940s boat shed behind Maciel Marine on Lagoon Pond Road, has been the creative and production center of John Thayer’s limited edition, custom-designed furniture.

Everything is kept in place on pegboards and workbenches. Visitors can slide past his large uncluttered plywood work table and and walk single file past the table saws and shapers, an old planer, a radial arm saw and sander that dominate the far end of the room. Sheets of mahogany, tiger maple, beer-soaked cyprus, American cherry and chestnut are stacked overhead across ceiling beams.

On Sunday, the shop is throwing its rustic doors open to the public, for the first Thayer Studio open house. Thayer, a furniture artisan for close to 40 years, and his crew are displaying custom-designed pieces in progress as well as some finished pieces: a cherry library, mahogany cabinets, and dining room chairs. There is a massive mahogany desk over six-feet long, trimmed in ebony with self-closing drawers, beveled edges, fluted columns, and a curved inlay with a scarab design created from its natural grain. And everything is designed and made on site.

While refreshments are being enjoyed, Thayer will explain his process, answer questions about different materials and woods, and share his perspective.

His mission is simply stated: “The daily struggles involve blending the degree of difficulty in any given piece, towards final function and form. Along the way we add strong design elements, good craftsmanship, and hopefully some simple elegance to every effort undertaken.”

After working in construction for about a dozen years, he moved to the Vineyard in 1976, and joined Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard doing new boat construction and repairs. Soon he opened a home shop, which he outgrew, making furniture that demonstrated his creative detailing and reverence for the wood.

Thayer’s custom and limited production furnishings — bureaus, consoles, bookshelves, desks, tables, cupboards and other freestanding pieces that help create whole house environments — include everything from sleek, minimalist designs to sturdy, brass-fitted British campaign furniture.

“The new antiques,” Mr. Thayer calls them. “The incorporating of the natural grain into the design, the detailing in solid ebony — it goes back to the Bauhaus designs in 1815.”

While each house has a different set of variables, and every client, a different aesthetic, it is Mr. Thayer’s task to combine art with function. The design is based on how the piece functions, its practical use, and the fact that it’s being designed and built to remain dependable for generations.

Through experience, he has mastered some furniture design elements: There should always be an odd number of drawers in a bureau; round shapes should not top rectangular shapes.

Each member of his small crew takes his turn with the wood and the planer, jointer, table saws, glue and assembly. “Each person here has their skill, and brings a lot of knowledge to the creative process,” Thayer says.

“We make everything. We get the raw material and process it until it becomes elegant,” he says, adding, “We’re making heirlooms.”

John Thayer Studio, Open House, Sunday August 29, 11 am to 5 pm, 100 Lagoon Pond Road (behind Maciel Marine), Vineyard Haven. www.johnthayer.com