Bill and Dru Vodra have so much of our furniture in their Alexandria home that when I went to visit the other day, he laid out one rule for the tour: “The default position here is, it’s Hardwood Artisans. We’ll tell you what’s not.”
The Vodras are among our dearest customers who keep coming back for more, and it’s with their constant support, input, and ideas that our lines have evolved from just loft beds to any imaginable case good for the home.
That’s why, when they walked into one of our showrooms recently and a sales associate who didn’t know them approached, co-founder Larry Spinks waved off the associate. “Oh, don’t bother with them – they’re family.”
Keep reading to get the full house tour.
For a while, I thought Murphy beds only lived on old sitcoms. Honestly? I didn’t think they existed anymore. I laughed when Mark Gatterdam first told me that Hardwood Artisans made Murphy beds – I thought it was a joke. I had in my head this image of some cheap bed falling out of the wall, hitting some poor slob over the head with a laugh-track voiceover.
Weeellll, not so much, it turns out. The way these artisans make enclosures for the Murphy bed, so you would never know there was actually a bed in back, was a surprise to me.
“People are so amazed to see they still exist,” Mark says. On most of the Hardwood Artisans beds, all internal bed mechanisms come from the original Murphy Bed company.
One of them is featured in the current online edition of Washington Spaces magazine, where Joan and Jack Dempsey hired us to build one for their small basement so it could be used as a guest room—when it wasn’t in use as a poker room or wine cellar.
“I’ve known about Hardwood Artisans for years,” Joan Dempsey says. When she and her husband downsized to a remodeled carriage house in Alexandria, they knew they wanted a Murphy bed. “We knew they did extremely high-quality work, so it was a no-brainer to go with them.”
And because these beds come with Tempur-Pedic mattresses, she adds, it’s much more comfortable than a typical pull-out. The ultimate compliment came from her 16-year-old nephew: “He said he had never slept in a better bed. He talks about it all the time. I don’t know what kind of cat nip they have in that bed, but it was amazing.”
Another project in DC’s Chinatown (which I blogged about for Washington Spaces last year) allows Annie Kammerer to work in a sleek, contemporary office by day, but still make it welcome for guests at night.
Not only does the custom unit fold down into a bed, a panel on the outside also folds down into extra desk space.
Annie had this to say about the outcome, which she shared on the Spaces blog:
“The den really functions as both a spacious office and a cozy guest room–I swear it doubled in size with this installation. The guest drawers to the left of the double bed (coupled with the closet) make the room comfortable for two guests. The office is definitely the most Zen space I’ve ever had to work in.”
Joan Dempsey says she turned to us because no other company would agree to change their measurements for her space, and much of what Hardwood Artisans does is custom. “It wouldn’t have worked if they had not worked with me.”
I heard once that the term “chairman” originated centuries ago, when dwellings had little in the way of furniture. When there was a chair, there was usually just one, and it was reserved for the most important person in the house, or an honored guest.
When it comes to building chairs, this piece of furniture that most of us (and our fannies) take for granted still retains its perch on top of the furniture-making hierarchy.
General Manager Greg Gloor explains why chair-making is so difficult: “You can have a dresser that looks good, and it’s good dresser. You can have a good-looking chair – but it’s damned uncomfortable. A chair has to cradle and support the human body, which no other piece of furniture does. It’s the most meticulous work we do in the shop because the pieces are so small compared to what you’re asking them to do.”
Last week, a bunch of us from Hardwood Artisans visited the Pope-Leighey House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. Though it was moved from Falls Church to its existing location on the grounds of Woodlawn in Alexandria in order to make way for the new Interstate 66 in 1964, the home is still oriented the way it would have been in Falls Church and great care was taken to adjust the topography of the new location to closely match the old.
Unfortunately, taking pictures inside is not allowed, but the photographers in our group (Alanna, our marketing coordinator, Jason, a craftsman and design team member and Mark, one of the owners) got some great shots of the exterior.
Here’s a selection:
Most of us were fairly disappointed by the furniture, which was innovative, but not particularly well-designed. For example, all the tables in the home are the same size and height, which meant than the owner could use them to create one very large table, but the legs were awkwardly positioned in relation to the chairs, meaning you would nearly always be straddling either a leg or a seam between the tables. The furniture was also all plywood, which was a new, hip, expensive material when the home was built, but which looks rather unfinished to the modern eye.
That said, there was some fabulous floating shelving in the living room where they used L-brackets, but put the bottom part of the “L” behind the paneling so the shelves are more stable than the floating shelves you would typically see today.
All in all, it was a really fun trip. Despite our reservations about the furniture, the architecture is interesting and getting the story behind the home and the two families who owned it was enlightening.
Lamination is a four-letter word in the consumer’s mind today. This is largely because so many people have been screwed over by poor laminates over secondary substrates. Ply, as it applies here, is a single thickness, fold or layer. Our plywood is referred to as hardwood plywood. This is because the substrate is made up of layers of hardwood. Specifically, poplar, basswood and luan are some of the woods used to make up the core.
Other plywood cores are made up of particle board, straw board, wheat board and medium density fiberboard (MDF). These are often viewed as inferior because they don’t last very long. There is far less strength associated with these other cores because they are not laminated (except MDF). Lamination is simply the process of building up something in thin sheets or layers. Ply is therefore the thing, and lamination is the process.
Layers of ply are oriented at right angle to each other. When you look at the end of one of our adjustable shelves, you see dark and light alternating colors. What you are seeing are the alternating grains. End grain is darker than long grain. This is what makes plywood strong and stable. In this case “stable” means that it doesn’t expand and contract nearly as much as solid hardwood does, making it in some ways, a more versatile material.
The top coating on plywood is called the veneer. The wood veneer that is applied to the surface of plywood is about 1/32 inches thick. Each strip of veneer you see on the plywood is referred to as flitch. The seams are called flitch seams. The flitch pattern should be a perfect match, much like the book matching on our doors, done over and over again. Another veneer process, though less common, is called rotary cut veneer. This would be like rolling a log with a knife against it, peeling up the wood in a solid continuous sheet. This is a more sophisticated machining process, as you can imagine.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll explain more about plywood and how it functions in good quality furniture.
In the meantime, here’s a video from Bob Vila about how plywood is made.
My lovely wife, Erika, has been laying her clothes on the bathroom floor for the last few weeks. No, she hasn’t gone insane, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.
When we built our home eight years ago, we added a few “luxury” things, like a heated floor system in the master bath. We had some problems with the system initially, so we didn’t use it much until this year.
So, I got up this morning to 12 degree weather, snow and ice everywhere, and winds of 30mph. After taking a ridiculously hot shower – the kind that takes skin off, I hop out to slide into warm socks…and jeans…and shirt. There is very little in this world that is better than the feeling of being engulfed by warmth, especially on a morning like this one.
I felt bad having splurged on a heated floor and the electricity it consumes, until I remember that my lovely wife, Erika, has yet to turn on the heater this year! The wood stove is working overtime for sure. Tabby, our cat, really appreciates the heated floor too.
While it seems like an unnecessary cost, the actual cost of running the heated floor is about the same as leaving on a table lamp. This versus the cost of running a heating system in a house makes the heated floor seem like a good, not so luxurious, item to splurge on.
While many people consider our furniture a luxury, I never have. I consider it a good value. To me this means something that lasts, is appreciated often, and has more value for the purchaser than the cost of the item itself.
For years and years, our founder, Greg Gloor, worked with a lumber mill to purchase quarter-sawn sycamore. Above, that’s a picture of what quarter-sawn sycamore looks like at its best. Between us and another manufacturer in Vermont, the mill hoped to be able to sell enough of this not-very-popular wood to make drying it in quantity a profitable operation.
However, sycamore is hard to dry. It is prone to what is called “blue stain”—an infection in the wood that cause the surface of the board to turn, essentially, blue—and a couple of loads of stained wood killed the market. Stained wood of this type becomes virtually useless, as it isn’t pretty enough for anything but painting. The mill couldn’t get the prices they needed as a result and stopped the production of quarter-sawn sycamore.
We went through a period of time trying to cobble together enough stock from other suppliers to keep using it as a secondary wood in our drawers and an accent wood on other pieces, but only about five percent of the mills in the entire country quarter-saw lumber, making it very difficult to secure the quantity we need at a price we could afford.
We tried valiantly, but in the end, we had to give up. Ash is cut by many more mills and is competitively priced so finally, the Board decided to make the switch. We’d been phasing out the sycamore-sided pieces over the last year or so, but it has been taking too long so we finally decided to sell them off all at once.
We’ve also got a few pieces that have discontinued fabrics on them or that have been in the showrooms for a while. Click over to the floor model list and see what treasures you can unearth for your home!
I read a very interesting article in The Washington Post by Jason Wilson about the origins and evolution of the martini. While the subject of martinis is not top of mind for me, I found this all very insightful and so, so true.
My father is one of those who began drinking gin martinis in college, you know, back in the 1950’s, smoking a pipe, wearing a coat with the patches on the elbows. It was the rage of the time. Later, when I was becoming of legal age, I fondly remember mixing him drinks where I would splash vermouth over the top only, or just say the words over the glass.
I remember sitting around with my father on one of the many fishing trips to Chincoteague Island, VA. The day was done, and we were regaling in our daily pack of lies, otherwise known as the fish stories of the day. He and I sat around drinking “martinis” made his way…no vermouth. I thought I would die. Talk about harsh.
In the article, Derek Brown says “when people finally experience a martini with unique and artisanal ingredients, it makes a world of difference”. The whole point of the article is that we Americans have somehow managed to stray from the original composition and intention of the martini.
I think that the furniture world has managed to stray from tried and true practices. When I show people a dovetail or mortise and tenon joint, they are just amazed this sort of joint is still created. The concept of wood from the trees stops people for a moment. When I say walnut, I don’t mean a walnut color, I mean a walnut tree – as furniture makers for centuries have intended it to be. So mix a real drink, and get some real furniture.
I got into this debate with the twenty something, now officially thirty something, marketing director of ours (Hugs and kisses, Alison). Silly really, but it typifies this ongoing …well, let’s just call it a difference in the way we look at life. She was paying a bill through the company of hers with a fist full of cash. I was curious why she’d choose to use up all her cash rather than pay with a check or some other arrangements with the accounting people. Then it began. The obvious was pointed out…just go to the ATM. Duh! When I pointed out that I did not have an ATM card, and had less interest of getting an ATM card, and that I prefer to go inside the bank and hand my transactions to an actual person, with an actual pulse, I was accused of being a Luddite.
Curt, one of my partners, quickly tried to intervene, only to confess that he too shared my lack of a banking card, and preferred dealing with someone with a pulse rather than something that beeps and burps at you. He took the next barrage of scrutiny, only to slink off slightly bruised. Thanks for taking one for the team, Curt. Us Luddites got to stick together, don’t you know.
The other day we had an oops in the shop, and the solution was to shave the face of the entire cabinet back about ¼”. Not a difficult thing to do in theory, but to actually do it is very difficult. The only way to really do this was by hand…enter Kevin Parker, one of our craftsmen. Kevin has a real passion for hand planes, and all things in the craft that are old timey. So, Kevin was call upon, and he proudly marched over and whittled away on the face of this cabinet for an hour or so, successfully saving both the cabinet and hours of additional time.
Think about this for a minute. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in our shop, and the best solution to this and many other problems was a $25 hand plane. Who’s the Luddite now, Miss marketing director smarty pants? I’ll bet this internet thing is just a passing fancy, too.
It always so interesting to ask craftsmen how they decided to do what they do. The other day in our showroom, I met a man who makes guitars for a living (an honest to goodness luthier!). The story behind that choice must be just fascinating.
I’ve asked our craftsmen this question and they all have their own stories, like the craftsman who works for us who comes from a family of cabinetmakers.
I asked a similar question of Adam King, a furniture maker in Olney, Illinois, and he said the following:
It’s that compulsion that drives me to strive for a closer connection to my materials and my heritage in this craft. It’s that compulsion that has me exploring new ways to bring a very real emotional connection to you through my designs and my stories. It’s that compulsion that’s moving me in a direction that is honest and true to my passions and talents so that I can offer you the best work I could possibly create.
Go read the rest. It’s worth it.