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Going With the Grain 

For furniture maker Craig Vandall Stevens, his wood is his canvas.

A hall table by Craig Vandall Stevens.
  • A hall table by Craig Vandall Stevens.
While mass-market furniture manufacturers churn out end tables and curio cabinets by the dozens every hour, fine furniture maker Craig Vandall Stevens can spend months on one piece. He has nothing against machines, but he's concerned with the quality of his work.

"I have machines that do specific things very well," says Stevens, whose work will be shown through July at the River Gallery in Rocky River, along with that of three other artisans. "In general, they're milling down lumber to a particular size. But the bulk of the work is with my hand tools, many of which I make myself -- I make them to fit my hands, so that they really feel like an extension of my hands."

The craft of making fine furniture isn't something Stevens just picked up from watching PBS. Originally an art student interested in drawing, he decided 12 years ago he wanted to create things that would truly last. He attended the highly regarded College of the Redwoods in California and studied one-on-one with master cabinetmaker James Krenov.

"Right from the beginning, I had a strong sense that, if I could master the technical aspects, then design could be explored a little easier," Stevens explains. "I'm not going to bash art students, but there are some furniture programs around the country that focus on design -- but because they focus there, they don't always know how to put their designs together. I wanted to make sure I was building pieces that were meant to be around for generations."

Stevens says his own focus is as much on function as design. He sees his furniture as a way to express himself, but he also intends his tables to be used as tables. To him, "design" means the size, shape, and proportions of the object, the wood he uses, and the details he adds through marquetry, an 18th-century form of inlay that uses different types of wood to create jigsaw-like pictures.

"There's a lot of what I think of as 'art furniture,' where it's making a statement -- a chair you can't sit in or something. I'm not interested in that," he says. "I want the pieces to be pieces of beauty in their own right, but there's always some functionality. I design them with functionality in mind."

Stevens has displayed his pieces in galleries and museums throughout the country -- though the majority of his designs are commissioned -- and has authored four books on woodworking techniques. And while some may think taking months just to produce one chair is a sign of insanity, it's actually what turns Stevens's craft into an art.

"It's extremely satisfying," he says of his work. "I'm looking at it that somebody is going to live with this, and there are details that maybe they won't ever discover. This is an object that becomes a significant part of someone's home, and I feel it's worth whatever effort I can put into it."

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