CWB April 2004

 

Self-Taught Woodworker

A casual trip to Vermont begins a lifetime journey as a master furnituremaker for Dan Mosheim.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

 

Dorset Custom Furniture>

Dorset, VT

www.dorsetcustomfurniture.com>

Year Founded: 1979

Employees: 4 full-time employees

Shop Size: 2,000 square feet

 

FYI: While being influenced by many different historical styles, Dan Mosheim says that his style is based on Beidermeier.

 

When Dan Mosheim grew up, his mother wanted him to work at the bank down the street and come home every Sunday for dinner, which might have happened if he hadn't gone to Vermont to visit his sister and stayed. Then he got married and in 1973, bought some land and started to teach himself about woodworking in anticipation of building a house for himself and his new wife and, for their house, furniture - which ended up becoming his career path.

Over the past 25 years, Mosheim developed a remarkable business with a strong commitment to custom work. To his credit, and to the credit of the Dorset, VT, community, his business also has been able to thrive in a local economy and environment that recently has fostered an explosion of woodworkers.

"Twenty years ago, there were only a couple of us in the area, and now there must be at least 10," he says. "Dorset is known as a strong second-home community for people with substantial money and an excellent appreciation for quality. So it is a market that would naturally be attractive to the very best craftsmen. We all have our own customers, but we have this wonderful arrangement where we share tools, ideas, and from time to time even each other's workshops; and every once in a while, we all get together for a beer."> Mosheim's customers are attracted by his specializing in custom work and by his shop's style based on Beidermeier. This style was introduced to Mosheim in the 1980s through a client who had spent two years in Germany. She commissioned him to build a mahogany desk with brass, black painted details and a darker stain to match the antiques in her house. He designed a turned leg based on a piece of furniture that belonged to her mother.

 

The financial world's loss is woodworking's gain. Instead of following his mother's wishes and working at a bank, Dan Mosheim turned to furnituremaking and has been providing Vermont residents and businesses with his custom pieces for more than 25 years.>

"I liked the piece but thought it was too dark for my home. So, in my next effort, I substituted natural cherry for the stained mahogany and really liked the result. I continued to make other pieces using that palette, sometimes altering the paint colors according to my client's wishes," he says. "In 1988, I encountered a book called 'Beidermeier' by Angus Wilkie. My eyes were opened to the source of my client's design inspiration, and I have been refining my version of Beidermeier ever since." In addition, Mosheim says he is influenced by other historical styles, including Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Federal and American Empire styles, as well as Japanese and Chinese furniture.

Hardware Adds Style

Another feature of a Dan Mosheim piece is elegant hardware. Most of the wood pulls are made in his shop. The metal hardware comes from Lee Morrel, a blacksmith in Colrain, MA. "We have been working together for 15 years, and his designs complement mine," says Mosheim. "We have this history that makes it possible to say, 'I want something like what we did for a dresser five years ago,' and he will know exactly what I want."

In addition to custom work, Mosheim has some commercial clients, including Manchester, VT's well-known tourist hotel, The Equinox. Also, a few years ago, he started to take on restoration work and says that it has given him a good sense of how beautiful furniture was designed and made before power tools.

 

The marble used in this table, "verd antique," is only found in Vermont. Mosheim bought the chestnut wood from a company that tears down old mills and sells the timbers.>

Mosheim feels that at the heart of his relationship with clients is a spirit of collaboration. "I try to involve them in a visualizing process," he says. "Often they will come with a picture that is a starting point. If not, I have a portfolio with about 500 pictures of completed projects. They are not organized by furniture categories, and I do this on purpose. If they are considering a table, they can look through the whole album, which exposes them to a wide variety of design elements that might inspire them. Before I begin work, I try to give the customer a clear idea of what they are going to get using drawings, and in some cases models."

Over the years, Mosheim has learned that when it comes to buying a piece of furniture, especially a custom piece, a person needs to see, touch and feel. This has had an impact on his successful marketing strategies. "I usually don't sell much from my Web site, although it is a useful tool," he says. "Also, I haven't noticed great results when I am in magazines like Architectural Digest, so I don't do a lot of print ads. I do a huge amount of repeat business. People come to me when they have seen a piece of furniture that I made in a friend's home.

 

The top for this 14-foot-long table is one solid piece of bubinga. The board was so long that the cut-off was used as the face of the sideboard against the far wall.>

"Also, I have had the good fortune to get commissions to do a lot of work for a single client at the same time," Mosheim adds. "For example last fall we delivered a dining room that consisted of the table, six chairs, a sideboard, a mirror and two counter stools. I am currently working on another dining room that involves the table, six chairs, a sideboard, a mirror, hanging light fixtures, two wall sconces and a corner china cabinet. My prices run from $1,500 to $15,000, with an entire dining room costing between $20,000 and $25,000, so it is not an impulse purchase. People need to spend time with the furnituremaker and the furniture that he has made," he said.

According to Mosheim, the key to his operation is his four full-time employees. They are quite young, ranging in age from 16 to 29. "These young people are amazingly flexible. They are like sponges, and they have this great energy and ability to focus," he says.

He has trained this young crew so that they have the skills to work alone on a project from start to finish. On the other hand, he says, they also seem to have a keen sense of knowing when to jump in and finish a project for a co-worker in order to keep things on schedule. Mosheim says that he expects that some of his current employees will one day go off and start their own businesses. But that doesn't bother him. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to bring other young people into woodworking careers and provide them with a meaningful learning experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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