The Business of Designing Furniture

Berthold Schwaiger’s not-for-profit Bauhaus Apprenticeship Institute brings custom work, clients and community together.

By Darcel Rockett

     
Bauhaus Apprenticeship Institute

Forest Park, IL

www.lf.org/bhai2000

Year Founded: 1997

Apprentices: 7

Shop Size: 5,200 square feet

FYI: Schwaiger runs four separate groups from the BHAI — a year-long apprenticeship program, a community education program with evening classes for non-professional woodworkers, The Chicago Furniture Society for advanced woodworking hobbyists and professionals, and the Artisans’ Gallery in Oak Park, where hobbyists and students sell their work to the community.

 
   
     

The Bauhaus Apprenticeship Institute in Forest Park, IL, is a haven for woodworking enthusiasts, much like Internet cafes are for those who love technology. Clients, students and hobbyists visit the shop to see and share founder Berthold Schwaiger’s space, where he creates and builds custom-made hardwood furniture.

From a basement workshop in this Chicago suburb nearly 10 years ago, Schwaiger came up with the idea for a non-profit institution that would simultaneously spawn the next generation of woodworkers and bring the community in as clients. For the past six years, the BHAI has succeeded in doing just that. The result, says Schwaiger, “is a studio where clients come because they can’t get what they want from anyone else.” Whether it is a bed headboard in the shape of the Rocky Mountains, a 12-foot by 12-foot wall unit for a loft space or an armoire that appears as if human ascension is possible, Schwaiger builds all ideas.

“I am not interested in having one line of furniture,” he says. With custom work, “there is always something new to explore.”

     
 
This client asked Schwaiger for a bed with a headboard that simulated a mountain. The final product is an eight-panel, 108-inch-wide headboard with each panel standing separately on a 10-inch-deep pedestal. The headboard combines cherry hardwood and sapwood to simulate the stripes of the landscape and snow on mountaintops. All wood grain flows in a continuous horizontal direction. The nightstands were designed to mount directly on the pedestal, with no legs supporting them. An opening visible only from the bed holds an alarm clock, radio, CD player and telephone; below that are two drawers. There also is a pullout tray with a special cup holder. The overall height of the headboard is 6-1/2 feet.  
     

From Journeyman to Teacher

Schwaiger’s 40-year woodworking career began in Germany at the age of 14 when he began his own apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. In the years that followed he became a journeyman — a global citizen who studied architecture, engineering and design in various European cities. His journeys led him to work in Europe, India and, in 1985, to Houston, TX, where he received his first U.S. commission — a dining room set.

Schwaiger says he eventually moved to his current home-base in Chicago after seeing the potential there to fulfill his dream of creating a school/studio. The BHAI sprouted roots soon after he located an old print-shop space which he thought was suitable. Today, the lines of Schwaiger’s own woodworking creations and the Bauhaus Apprenticeship Institute’s works are completely intertwined.

What helped the BHAI grow during the years, Schwaiger says, is his commitment toward education, having a good relationship with his clients and the popularity of his “mathematical” furniture designs. One example is the $10,570 “Fibonacci Framework Chest,” which was inspired by the work of 13th century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, whose work dealt with the mathematics involved in symmetry like a snail’s shell.

“I do not go for esoteric designs that are out of this world. I work with people who have normal ideas,” Schwaiger says. “I am not trying to make the most unusual piece; I want to make a piece to the highest degree of craftsmanship.”

     
 
One of Schwaiger’s signature pieces is his Fibonacci Framework Chest, inspired by the work of a 13th century Italian mathematician. The chest was originally done on spec, but many clients have ordered custom-made versions. The chest shown is 65 inches by 65 inches and 18-1/2 inches deep. It is made from cherry, supported by a purpleheart framework that takes its strength from mortise-and-tenon joinery. It features six drawers and three cabinets.  
     

To get this high degree of quality, the apprentices who build Schwaiger’s designs use the 5,200-square-foot shop to capacity. The studio houses an Ulmi table saw with a sliding table, two Delta Unisaws, five drafting boards, 24-inch and 8-inch Oliver planers, a 14-inch bandsaw and a mortiser from Delta, a dust collector and many hand routers.

All income from commissions goes to the Institute. In addition, former apprentices, students, hobbyists and members of The Chicago Furniture Society (a group which Schwaiger helped found) donate extra monies to purchase new equipment when they can. In this way, Schwaiger says, his studio is a family of wood enthusiasts.

“I am in the business of designing and teaching,” he says. “I run an educational service for the custom woodworking business. Apprentices don’t get a salary; instead they learn by building commissions that I make sure are perfect. I also have 100 lay people in here learning the basics of woodwork in the evenings.”

Personal Touches Make All the Difference

Taking a family approach, coupled with the attention to detail that Schwaiger gives to all of the Bauhaus projects, has helped business increase to the point where most of his commissions come by word of mouth. He also receives some from the Institute’s Web site, www.lf.org/bhai2000.

This past year, Schwaiger had several significant commissions for his apprentices to build. One was for a $20,000 ash wall unit; others were furnishings for a therapist’s office, also a $20,000 job, and a 7-foot by 7-foot Fibonacci Chest for $13,500.

     
 
A local patent attorney wanted a multi-functional unit to fill his narrow hallway. He asked for it to include: a library, an entrance mirror, a wardrobe, a place to take shoes on and off, wine storage, a trophy display and a small office area for paying bills. The sectional unit is 12 feet square, and the front curves out to an ellipse which, at its center, is 24 inches deep. The piece is made from quarter-sawn sap white ash. There is a matching ladder for access to the upper shelves.  
     

“What we do is out of the ordinary. People who come to us want something unique,” Schwaiger says. “For everything that is hard to do, we are the right people.”

Most clients are in the local area, so that individual custom designs can be planned, manufactured, shipped and installed personally. Schwaiger says that he enjoys working direct with his customers, and that the joinery he uses is a big selling point with potential clients.

“I like to make the joinery a visible decorative ornament in tables and chairs,” he says, “and I do well with the end customer. I like the immediate contact and feeling that I can serve them with all my skills.”

He describes his furniture designs as contemporary minimalist. The bench-built furniture starts with drawings and sketches which he develops by talking to customers. To him, it is all part of an “Old World,” personal touch, which he believes makes his work different. He also tries to educate clients who buy one of his pieces. He says he works in “a collaborative partnership” with each client, telling them about the nature of wood and its color. His projects range from freestanding furniture to furnishing entire rooms and homes. One apprentice works on one piece at a time from start to finish.

Most of his work is in North American hardwoods, mostly woods found in Illinois and Wisconsin. Schwaiger uses a little purpleheart and lots of cherry, maple and walnut — all air-dried to maintain flexibility. He says he likes to work with the crotch wood of the tree and prefers not to use varnish or finishes on natural woods. Instead he has developed a hand-rubbed finish and does a lot of hand-sanding at 400-grit.

“I like to make the woodgrain go through the circumference of a piece and pretty much let the wood determine its style,” Schwaiger says.

As far as the design goes, Schwaiger says that every piece is “a breakthrough,” that is, every time he takes up a new project, he challenges himself to fulfill what he sees as three separate sets of needs: the reality, the market and the customer.

“I live my profession like a monk,” Schwaiger explains. “There is chastity in focusing on one thing and being about just one piece of furniture at a time when I am working; there is poverty in creating only that which you really need; and there is obedience — being obedient to the reality of the clients and the world around them. I am about this vow, and all my work is about this vow.”

However, despite Schwaiger’s dedication to certain principals, he wants to keep evolving. He wants to take some of his future furniture designs in a different direction, using some unusual woods like locust and katalpa. He also has had a recent new challenge — developing the “Artisans’ Home,” a 1,000-square-foot display that is part of the Chicago Design Show, held in November. The home will feature one-of-a-kind, hand-made furniture built entirely from local Northern Illinois hardwoods. All the furniture will be designed by Schwaiger and built by his apprentices.

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