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Naturally perfect
Custom pieces are functional, both as art and as furniture

By JOANN PETASCHNICK

 

Paul 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.

Design process

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.

Will 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.

Limited editions

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," he says.

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 photographs.

Charles 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 antique.

"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.

Maintaining quality

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.