Stefanski of Woodspace Furniture Studio designs furniture that
fits his client.
A piece of handmade furniture purchased today can become a family
heirloom in years to come. A table, chest or chair built by a
craftsman truly is a beautiful yet functional piece of art.
"My business tag line is Ďform, function, fit,í" says
Paul Stefanski, owner of Woodspace Furniture Studio in Menomonee
Falls. "I build things that have a beautiful form, but they are
also functional. The last part is Ďfití; doing what the customer
wants," he says.
Creating designs that arenít available anywhere else is the
custom furniture makerís calling. Will Schueler of WS Woodmasters of
Merton has been working with wood since high school and likes the idea
that he alone is responsible for the finished product. Many of his
pieces have multiple inlays with elaborate and intricate designs,
which he has created. "I donít use templates; I make all my own
veneers and inlays," he says.
Stefanski and Schueler do their work on a commission basis,
spending time in discussion with clients, developing ideas and
exploring materials. The process includes spending hours of refining
and focusing ideas and getting to know the clientís particular
requirements and tastes.
For example, Stefanski received a commission to create an
expandable dining table. "Iím designing a table for some people
who have an eat-in kitchen. Most dining tables have a leaf that
extends them lengthwise. This customer wanted a table that expands in
both directions ó length and width," he says. Customers might
request similar items, but no two pieces are ever alike.
Schueler of WS Woodmasters incorporates unique features into
each of his custom furniture pieces.
Cedarburgís Charles Radtke starts working and lets the creative
process take form. Radtkeís customers do not have input into his
designs. "I do not have a set plan when I start a piece; I simply
start building," he says. Customers donít know what the end
result will be, so Radtke does not require any down payment on his
work. "There is a level of trust in the work that I do. The
customer lets go of the control and allows the process to unfold. If
they like the finished piece, they will buy it. If not, the piece will
likely sell to another buyer," he says.
Radtke avoids the label of carpenter or designer. "I suppose
the label Ďartistí could be applied, but I really do not care how
someone labels what I do. I would prefer the work to speak for
itself," he says.
The amount of work and time involved in making custom furniture
could be compared to that involved in creating a painting or a piece
of sculpture. In fact, one of Radtkeís pieces is housed in the
permanent collection of the Smithsonianís Renwick Gallery in
Washington, D.C. "I only make six pieces a year on average. If
you wanted to label the style, I would like to say that the style is
timeless, but it is more a continuum of what has come before me,"
Schueler also builds a limited number of pieces each year. "I
might make eight or nine pieces, depending on what it is," he
says. While he creates pieces on commission for clients, the pieces
incorporate many unique features, including twisted and curving lines,
accomplished by using a vacuum press. "Many of the pieces take a
month or more to build," he says. During the building process, he
invites clients to see the different stages of progress via digital
Radtke does not pre-plan his pieces, but rather designs them
during the building process.
Stefanski classifies his design style as modern. "What I offer
that someone else might not is contemporary design. Mine are very
modern pieces, made one at a time, by hand," says Stefanski, an
architect by training. "Some furniture makers do period work or
reproductions, but if you want something contemporary, itís mostly
mass produced by companies like IKEA. While my designs are
contemporary, I offer the idea of the single craftsman building custom
designs," he says.
Classic, not dated
Why own a piece of custom-designed furniture? Often, people love
beautiful furniture but donít care for antiques. With custom-built
furniture, they can have the best of both worlds and possibly a future
"My pieces are valued for their unique design and are
purchased more as art objects than functional pieces, even though they
all function. I am known worldwide mostly for my free-standing
cabinets. What makes them unique, I suppose, is both the design and
the execution of each piece," Radtke says.
Wooden, yet modern
The designs and the materials used by these craftsmen make these
pieces more interesting and valuable than mass-produced furniture. The
pieces can be as diverse as the kind of wood the artist uses.
Oftentimes, the builder will use more than one kind of wood in each
piece, depending on the design and the purpose.
"I focus on domestic hardwoods ó cherry, ash, walnut. In
many of my pieces, I use two different woods that contrast in color
ó like ash and walnut ó light yellow and dark brown. For example,
in one side chair I built, the seat is ash and the legs and back are
walnut," Stefanski says.
Radtke uses a variety of woods in his pieces. "The choices are
limitless. If it is a stable wood when dry, it is a candidate. Iím
currently making a piece out of catalpa, tiger maple and cherry, but
the last piece I made was from holly and aspen. I will use any wood
that is sound and has a nice graphic effect when finished ó either
wild and vivid or calm and relaxing," he says.
It might be hard to imagine a piece of furniture evoking emotions,
but when you think of it as art, it helps. "There are many
different ways to set an emotion for a piece by what grain pattern and
color palette one chooses to use," Radtke says. The inspiration
for his designs comes from the music and art he loves.
Todayís mass-produced approach to furniture has some people
looking back toward the time when the individual approach and
commitment to quality was customary. No small detail was overlooked
and every feature was considered.
Schueler, like our other craftsmen, believes the only way to
maintain integrity is to build his furniture on his own, in his own
way. "I am a firm believer that if you make something yourself,
you can be sure of the quality. If I canít control the process, I
canít control the quality," he says.