A Pair of Furniture Makers Keep Tradition Alive
Handcrafted furniture is still an art in New Hampshire
Douglas P. Dimes of D.R. Dimes & Company
Photo by John Hession
Many furniture companies seem to be outsourcing to Asia these days, but two multigenerational New Hampshire companies are still carrying on the art of fine furniture-making right here in the Granite State. And though the styles of D.R. Dimes & Company and Tappan Chairs are entirely different, both are family-run and focused on making gorgeous pieces of furniture of the highest caliber.
For more than 40 years, D.R. Dimes & Company has been crafting museum-quality, historically inspired furniture. Founded by Douglas Richard Dimes in New Hampshire in 1964, the company is now helmed by his son Douglas P. Dimes, the owner, CEO and chief designer.
As he tells it, the story of D.R. Dimes & Company is a quintessential American tale of grit, perseverance and good old-fashioned Yankee work ethic. In the early 1960s, the elder Dimes walked into the Windsor chair shop belonging to his brother-in-law Leroy Partridge and expressed an interest in learning the trade. Do you think brother Leroy acquiesced with fraternal affection and a desire to collaborate?
“From that day, my uncle Leroy wouldn’t let my father in the shop,” says Dimes.
His uncle came from a long line of furniture makers, and he refused to divulge the family secrets to an in-law. So, armed only with the Wallace Nutting handbook for a guide, the elder Dimes set up shop in Epping. He made his first chair in 1964; his son, Douglas Partridge, was born in 1966.
“My mother knew I would follow in my predecessors’ steps, so she gave me the middle name Partridge. I was literally born to become a furniture maker,” says Dimes.
That first shop was “a little dump,” Dimes recalls, but his father worked all hours of the day and night there, honing his craft. The younger Dimes began sweeping the shop at age 10 and sanding chairs at age 15. Every summer off from college, he had a different job at the shop. “I don’t have a hobby. Most guys fish or hunt, or play golf or something. This is my hobby. I’m always here,” he says.
photo courtesy tappan chairs
At 30 years old, the four-slat Tappan side chair is a relatively new style. Shown here in walnut with a gray cross weave.
Dimes describes his father as “driven” and “a hard man” and points to his favorite quotation by Calvin Coolidge, framed on the wall: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence ... Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
“He’s a stick of dynamite, you mean,” quips General Manager Tom Lavigne.
They both chuckle at that.
“My father is a legend,” Dimes explains. “His theory was, ‘We have to make it better than anybody.’ It’s always been the culture of our company. You’ll never get in trouble for doing an excellent job.”
In his 30s, Dimes the younger started designing furniture himself. His very first design was the company’s stunning bonnet-top highboy.
“The guys in the shop — they’re amazing craftsmen — and here I was, the boss’ kid. Fortunately, I learned quickly,” says Dimes.
Today, D.R. Dimes furniture is in dozens of museums, including Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian, Independence Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum. And while all the craftsmen in the shop continue to use hand tools, Dimes has revolutionized much of production without stinting one bit on craftsmanship. Production times have decreased from 12-14 weeks down to 3-4 on any given piece.
One thing he won’t divulge is the company’s secret behind their “Olde Amber” Tiger Maple finish, which feels three-dimensional and softly glows like satin. Dimes softly strokes a bed headboard, “I love being a furniture maker.”
About 15 years ago, Dimes started making custom pieces. He talks through a few that are, as yet, unrealized — mid-century-inspired designs with gorgeous dovetailing and of-the-moment transitional pieces that would change people’s thinking that D.R. Dimes is only in the reproduction business. More recently, he has added custom kitchen cabinetry to his company’s portfolio.
photo courtesy tappan chairs
The one-slat Tappan side chair was a popular custom request and is now regularly available. A favorite with spinners and musicians. Shown with cherry posts and ash rungs and slat, and a rust and raffia herringbone weave.
“You can get whatever you want,” he says, “with two limitations. One, that it’s in good taste ... and it’s mine that counts.” I ask him if I can quote him on that, and he smiles and says, “Of course.” He has to feel that the design is up to standard, or he won’t put the Dimes label on it.
“And two?” I ask.
Yes, doesn’t that limit us all?
As for what’s next for the company, he seems less sure. D. R. Dimes has had trouble recapturing the heady sales it had prior to the recession. Younger generations seem less inclined to spend the money on heirloom furniture and generally prefer less-formal styles. Dimes counts some prominent interior designers as admirers — collaborating on a signature line could be an as yet untapped opportunity.
Seventh-generation Tappan chairmaker Adam Nudd-Homeyer sees a little more hope with younger consumers, even though his product is just as venerable as Dimes’. For 200 years, Tappan Chairs has produced a nearly uninterrupted stream of fine, historically based American ladderback chairs. Just don’t call them Shaker chairs.
“The Shakers made so many beautiful ladderback chairs in their time that their name has become somewhat synonymous with the style,” he explains. “However, the Tappan family contemporaneously began making their own line in 1819 right here in Sandwich.”
The company has been in almost continual operation since then yet remains a heritage cottage industry. “We have always been located in Sandwich and are totally interconnected with the local community, sourcing all of our lumber from locally milled New Hampshire hardwoods. The shop is in the barn attached to my house. Our main two lathes are from the 1850s and 1870s. They are a little finicky, kind of like an old farm work animal.”
Though Tappan is not a Shaker chair company per se, the last remaining Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, has made Tappan its official chairmaker. The commission is quite the honor. Lately, Nudd-Homeyer expanded Tappan’s line to include finer locally sourced woods, such as cherry, walnut and figured maple. The innovation has increased its products’ appeal from Manhattan to California.
Nudd-Homeyer has seen a big uptick in buyers in their 20s and 30s. Many are interested in how the chairs’ simplicity shows off the species of wood. “A friend of mine called it the ‘foodie wood culture,’” he says.
Tappan has teamed up with retail partner Chilton Furniture in Maine. Beyond that, Nudd-Homeyer isn’t really interested in growing the company any more than it already has, though he’d like to pass on his knowledge through an endowed artist-in-residence program someday.
“I really try to take my ego out of it and not change too much of a great thing. I want to focus on our artisanal history, passed down first within the Tappan family and now from private individual to private individual,” he says. “I’ll put my heart into this as long as I possibly can and then find the next heir. This company is a lot bigger than any one person. I’m just the steward.”