By Puloma Ghosh
Boston, MA – Through the large windows of 127 Newbury Street, several impressive pieces of furniture gaze down at the street below. This is not a shop front; it is a unique artistic experience provided by the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, open only for a couple of weeks in this Pop-Up Gallery.
Every piece stands out with the singular vision of each craftsman. The variety of furniture displays the range of skill that can be found in the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association. The quality of work is impeccable with an apparent attention to detail each artist bestows on his or her work.
The artists are both full members of the association and emerging artists who have been working for only three to four years (as opposed to a furniture master’s 10), showcasing both seasoned professionals and fresh talent in the industry.
Emerging artist Greg Brown brings out the beauty inherent in the material in “Devil’s Embrace,” his black walnut table with a tabletop of a claro walnut burl slab found in the Berkshires. Each curling line in the burl is still visible under its glossy finish, and the tabletop can be turned vertical to display the details. The rough edges embrace the natural imperfections of wood, cradled in three legs snaked with hand-carved ivy.
Many of the pieces in the show are neither bought nor commissioned. “We’ve got a lot of people who make really good furniture and we decided to do a series of exhibitions and educational programs to teach people just what this is,” Richard Oedel, Furniture Masters chair, explained. “Most of us make furniture specific to clients, and then make one or two pieces that we really want to make in our spare time, and that’s most of what you see here. This is what you might call the ‘other half’ of what we do.”
Oedel’s own piece, “Federal Secretary,” is an impressive eight-foot tall secretary made with a variety of wood: mahogany, birds-eye maple, holly and ebony. The piece stands looming, yet balanced with the symmetry of its elements. A writing table folds out to show an attention to detail and history with a fabric and leather top, much like an original piece of this kind would have, and hand-tooled gold trim around its edges. The glass on the large cabinet doors is thick, old found glass, giving the piece both solidity and a breath of past lives between each curved pane. There is both beauty and utility in its drawers and small nooks and sliding doors.
Brian Sargent’s “X and Why,” a small, oval table that looks very simple at first glance, also has utility in mind in its design. With a gentle push, the one side of the table slides out into two hidden drawers. The mottled anigre, Swiss pear and hard maple body of the table is sleek and neat, but the surface comes alive with patterns of grain.
The furniture also varies greatly in size. Tucked in a corner a few pieces from Oedel’s secretary is a neat little cabinet by Garrett Hack. “Coopered Cabinet,” although small, is also made with a variety of materials: Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, ebony, cherry, Port Orford cedar and sycamore with jade accents. The cabinet opens to several shelves and tiny drawers. Each side is sectioned off into three vertical planes, each facing a different angle to create a very subtle curve. The details and patterns show clearly that a piece doesn’t need impressive size to display impressive craftsmanship.
In one corner of the gallery, several pieces stand unassigned to any artist. A rectangular chest with square panels carved with a crosshatched pattern stands among them. Its creator is listed only as “Maine State Prison” and the title of the piece is “11522 Blanket Chest.” Though the identities of these craftsmen remain anonymous, their skill is plain to see.
These artists are members of the New Hampshire Furniture Association’s prison outreach program. “Part of this show is designed to fund our prison outreach program,” Oedel said. “The program started in New Hampshire because one of the furniture masters had been volunteering in prisons doing different things before, and he thought this would be perfect if only he could convince someone to let them use the tools.”
The association was finally successful in starting the program in New Hampshire, and then a second one in Maine. “Not everyone realizes that there’s a bunch of people in prison learning a craft and learning a skill that they can really use outside,” Oedel continued, gesturing to the work in the corner. The pieces created by the inmates stand as evidence of the program’s success.
Whether it’s to view the work of these established furniture masters, see which craftsmen are up-and-coming in the industry, or to support the association’s cause, this gallery is a beautiful showroom of well-crafted furniture. Be sure to discover it before it’s gone as quickly as it appeared.
(The New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association’s Pop-Up Gallery exhibit at 127 Newbury Street, Boston, is on view daily from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. through Friday, August 15. For more information on the NHFMA, visit furnituremasters.org.)