The Virtual Main Event

New Hampshire Furniture Masters adapt, reinvent the annual gala
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Handcrafted detail on “Blossom and the Bee,” a mahogany sideboard by Furniture Master Jeff Roberts of Unity. The sideboard, also pictured at right, features maple knobs and a small inner drawer behind the large central drawer. Photo by Jonah Roberts

As chairman of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters — a collection of artisans committed to preserving the centuries-long tradition of crafting fine furniture — Roger Myers, of StrathamWood Studios, spends a great deal of time selecting, shaving, fitting, finishing and coercing wood into remarkable heirloom-quality pieces. But even his keen eye could not have seen the disruption COVID-19 would cause — including a forced change to the group’s signature annual event.

This year, The Main Event, the group’s annual gala, held simultaneously in late October at the group’s Concord gallery — in the Smile Building — and virtually.

“While some components will be missing, like the reception and the meet-and-greet, there will be an exhibition that people can see in person, and we’ll also have a virtual exhibition,” Myers says.

The theme of the group’s event this year is “Together, Alone.” Much of the work expected to be on display will reflect the impact the year’s events have had on the life and work of the Furniture Masters — from political upheaval to the pandemic.

“Our intent is to keep it more modest than it otherwise would’ve been,” he says. “Where we would have a $10,000 to $15,000 piece, now we’re looking at the $2,500 to $5,000 range because this is our first virtual exhibit. But enough members were committed to this so we decided to move forward.”

Between eight and 12 pieces will likely be on display, and visitors can contact the Concord Chamber of Commerce to arrange a viewing. Myers expects to be submitting a piece centered around the fallout of the pandemic.

“It will be a small bistro table or a wine tasting bar, and it will have to do with entertaining in our own homes and having to revitalize our own spaces,” he says.

The typically solitary nature of the work and a lead time involved with creating such pieces means Myers has managed to stay busy during the pandemic, as have many Furniture Masters throughout the state.

William Thomas, a Furniture Master from Rindge, has countless hours into one remarkably ambitious, incredibly detailed project: a painstaking reinterpretation of the renowned Apollo Desk.

“It’s a custom piece for a client,” Thomas says from his workshop. “The original desk was built in Germany in 1785 for Catherine the Great, who was the czarina of Russia at the time.”

Understandably, it’s kept Thomas busy, pandemic or not, for four and a half years.

“I have had to put aside any other work to concentrate on this piece,” Thomas says. “It has been occupying all my time, and I’m nowhere near to being done.”

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William Thomas, a Furniture Master from Rindge, has put countless hours into his reinterpretation of the renowned “Apollo Desk” — a piece originally built by David Roentgen and once owned by Catherine the Great. Photo by Jonah Roberts

Beyond the minute neoclassical details — the base of the desk itself is a miniature Doric temple and scores of repeated motifs are included throughout — there’s more to this remarkable piece than meets the eye.

“What’s crazy about this desk is aside from being an incredibly ornate piece of furniture, what intrigues my client the most is that it’s full of secret mechanical mechanisms where you push buttons and drawers open, you turn a key and drawers open. There are so many moving compartments that it ends up taking more time than building the furniture. I’ve had to learn to make leaf springs and lock mechanisms and things like that.”

In Unity, Furniture Master Jeffrey Roberts has nearly eight months work into a Philadelphia-style chest. The mahogany chest, standing more than 8 feet tall, is in four pieces — a frame with feet, a chest that sits within the base frame with moulding wrapped around, a top section with gooseneck-shaped mouldings and a final piece with a carved phoenix, pediment and pierced work.

“It’s a fun project,” Roberts says. “I’m about a third of the way into it.”

The Furniture Masters was first formed in 1995 to build awareness around the state’s fine furniture makers, and to cultivate an audience for the makers’ wares a little closer to home.

“There’s also the camaraderie and the friends we’ve made,” Roberts says. “We come together as a group of individual makers to co-market ourselves, which helps us as a group, but it also helps us individually thanks to the nonprofit side.”

New Hampshire Furniture Makers, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, promotes an educational element, helping to preserve and extend the craft’s tradition, and has also established a prison outreach program, where members mentor participants in the New Hampshire State Prison, the Maine State Prison and the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women.

“It’s pretty great, actually,” Roberts says. “They love it. It’s a big thing for them. It’s a chance to learn something that, if they had been trained in something like this, then maybe they wouldn’t be in the predicament they’re in.”

Several participants in the prison outreach program have gone on to establish careers in the craft.

“It gives them a chance to learn something they can put to work for themselves,” Roberts says. “It’s very rewarding.” 

Categories: Arts & Shopping, Local Artisans