Creating a Perfect Balance of Form and Function

By applying sculptural techniques to the craft of woodworking, two northern Virginia brothers set their creations apart from the rest.

By Jean Headley

 

When Jerry and Tim DeSantis started their sign-making business in 1977, they hardly envisioned that one day they would build custom art furniture and interiors which they would sell to clients for, on average, $30,000 per project. As a matter of fact, combined sales of all of their signs barely broke the $10,000 mark that first year.

But, with backgrounds in sculpture, (each has a master's degree in Fine Arts) the brothers eventually graduated from the two-dimensional world of signs into the three-dimensional world of custom furnishings.

They haven't looked back since.

"Our background is what makes our work unique -- it opens us up to a wider range of design concepts so that we're not just limited to standards like traditional or colonial. Each of our pieces has a unique sculptural feel," says Jerry DeSantis, co-owner of DeSantis Designs along with brother, Tim.

"Some of our clients bring their own ideas to the table, but 98 percent of what we build is our own design. That's why so many people turn to us, because a lot of other woodworkers make a lot of basic, square cabinets, but that's not what our clients want," Jerry says. The majority want a functional and original design, he adds.

 

Although DeSantis Designs builds primarily freestanding furniture, this bloodwood kitchen was an interesting project for the shop. It features an inlaid marble floor, granite countertops and backsplash, etched glass doors and cast bronze handles. Bird's-eye maple, purpleheart and lacewood were used for the inlays.

Based in the Washington, DC, suburb of Herndon, VA, DeSantis Designs grossed $425,000 last year by making innovative use of hardwoods, natural and man-made granite, marble, and etched glass.

Generally, residential and commercial clients looking for one-of-a-kind designs find their way to the shop via interior designers, or through the company's Web site -- www.desantisdesigns.com.

While the majority of the shop's business is residential, corporate clients are becoming an increasing percentage as northern Virginia housing development moves further west, and commercial development is beginning to boom closer to home.

DeSantis Designs has created reception desks, conference tables, teleconferencing built-ins and signage for a number of corporate clients, including Toyota, US Sprint, the CIA, U.S. Army, Grumman, Allstate and Rockwell International.

Jerry, who also has a background in painting and printmaking, does all of the design work by hand. "It's a straighter line for my brain. I'm more comfortable with the freedom I have when I create my own drawings. I've talked to a couple of architects who feel the same way I do. They have CAD programs, but they feel (these programs) are more constraining," he says.

Jerry also handles most of the company's sales calls, while Tim DeSantis covers most of the administrative work. But both work in the shop whenever they get a chance.

"That's why we started the business, to work in wood," says Tim.

Both brothers are skilled woodcarvers, and many of their works feature carved elements. For example, a recently completed dining room cabinet sports a bloodwood carving of a bird on a limb. The 6-foot-tall cabinet is also outfitted with hand-carved handles and dovetailed drawers.

Such handiwork comes easily to the brothers who in recent years have been invited by the Composite Panel Association to carve blocks of MDF panels in the organization's booth at the IWF Expo. "They hired us to show the versatility of their product," Tim says.

 

This mantle exhibits the type of sculptural elements which have set DeSantis Designs apart from its competitors. The mantle is maple with a silver leaf glass shelf.

In addition to Tim and Jerry, the company employs eight workers, half of whom are talented woodcarvers in their own right.

"We have teams of two to three people working on a project at once, usually one lead person and a laborer to help him out with sanding and taping," Jerry says. "Everybody has specialties of their own. For instance, one of our employees used to work for an exhibit company, so he likes to do square boxes and can do them quickly."

Most projects are veneered plywood carcasses with hardwood doors and trim. "Because everything we do is custom, we don't have standard sizes. Since everything is designed to please the customer, it's tough to get a good running start on anything because everything has to be worked out," Jerry says. "We generate cutlists, cut the pieces and join them. Everything else -- fluted columns, handcarving, curved bonnets, turnings -- that's all worked out as we go."

Shop machinery includes a Griggio G320 panel saw; Record CL348x30c lathe; Powermatic 60 8-inch joiner; Powermatic 66 table saw; Dayton drill press; Parks and Delta 12-inch planers; 12-inch DeWalt radial arm saw and 12-inch DeWalt compound miter saw. There also is a Dust Hawg dust collection system, Delta 18-inch scroll saw, Craftsman 12-inch wood lathe and a Cemco 2000 37-inch widebelt sander.

In the early days, the DeSantis brothers hand-applied and hand-rubbed their furniture with tung oil. "Once people began requesting whitewashing, we couldn't use the tung oil anymore because the finish came out looking too amber. So, we started lacquering with M. L. Campbell's pre-catalyzed lacquer," Tim says. Today, around 90 percent of the company's output is lacquered (either in color or clear) in the shop's 300-square-foot finishing room, using Croix HVLP spray guns.

For pieces that require it, granite, marble and etched glass suppliers cut materials to the shop's specifications using templates provided by Jerry and Tim. Granite and marble are used for countertops, table tops, desktops and bar tops. Etched glass is utilized in display, curio cabinets, kitchen cabinet doors, credenzas, dining room tables and coffee tables.

 

Inlay work and hand carvings are utilized in many of DeSantis Designs' projects. This ash dry bar is about 6 feet long, with lacewood, purpleheart, bird's-eye maple, ebony and padauk inlaid in the top. The onlays are the same species. The handles are carved lacewood, and the tambour is inlaid with purpleheart and padauk.

Recently, Jerry and Tim have begun to create more stand-alone furniture for local galleries. "We want to focus on doing limited editions," Tim says. "Right now we're designing one piece at a time, and once the piece is gone it no longer has value for us."

Two area galleries have expressed a lot of interest in the brothers' work. "They are galleries that currently carry prints, paintings and sculpture, and they want to widen their horizons. Luckily, we approached both of them at the time they were looking to expand their focus," Jerry says.

"However, it's a little tough to work on our own stuff. Our production schedule is usually booked up four to five months in advance," he adds.

Despite these time constraints, DeSantis Designs recently shipped six pieces to one of the galleries -- putting the brothers well on their way to their next phase as craftsmen.

 

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