Vermont Decorative Furniture Offers Functional Art

The success of his painted furniture has this one-man shop owner pondering how to serve more customers.

By Amy Lester

“I have hit the biggest brick wall in my life as far as trying to market,” says Vermont artist and furniture maker Dave Herzfeld. “I can build and design pieces that are really great. But as far as taking it to the next step, as far as putting it into mass production, that’s where I need help. I have no idea what to do.”

Herzfeld is the sole proprietor of Vermont Decorative Furniture, where he builds tables, entertainment centers, beds, kitchen cabinets and anything else that his customers can dream up. Then he paints on them — Vermont landscapes, farm scenes, clowns, even Renaissance figures if it’s called for, using his furniture as a canvas for his artwork. So far, Herzfeld has not done any advertising for his one-man shop, located in rural Shaftsbury. He hasn’t had to.

“I’m usually very busy just with commission work. People just find out about me,” he says. “I’ve been working in one house in Bennington, VT, for two years doing murals and making custom furniture. How the heck am I supposed to have time to market myself? I grow, but I can only get so much done. I do too many different things.”

Herzfeld’s reputation for skill and versatility are what keep him so busy. Eventually, he says, he would like to work as a furniture designer, licensing his designs to companies that will produce them under his guidance. But until he figures out how to market himself in this way, he is kept busy by a steady stream of customers eager to benefit from his unique design skills.

 

Made from birch, poplar and basswood, Herzfeld says the alien-themed hand-painted entertainment center makes furniture fun.

“When people get ideas, they come to me because they know I can do it,” he says. “They know that I can paint, and they know that I can carve, and they look at me like a tool. They say, ‘If we put some of those things together, you can do that, right? If you can carve a sign, you can carve this piece of furniture and then decorate it. So we’d like you to build this giant cow with drawers in it. And we want to put a motor in there so the tail wags, so make the tail pivotable.’ It’s a lot of functional art fabrication.”

Herzfeld has spent 20 years perfecting the craft of functional art. He started making painted furniture in 1980.

“I’d been painting for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I started when I was a teenager, working for somebody. Painted furniture wasn’t even popular then. I was getting paid probably 25 cents an hour. After a while, I got frustrated and figured I could do it on my own. I apprenticed for a little while with a furnituremaker, then started combining artwork with furniture, as well as signs and other things that are functional.

“Making functional pieces was a good way to still practice as an artist, but make an income and be self-supporting,” he adds. “The custom furniture and painted panels that I create enable people to enjoy the beauty of the art in a different way.”

What Herzfeld enjoys the most about his job is originating and designing each piece. Because he spends so much time creating his products, he tries to make each piece as versatile as he can.

“Once I do the artwork, if it’s good enough and I like it, I license it through a company in Concord, NH, called Porterfield’s,” he says. “They can take one of my images and they can use the image on tissue boxes, calendars, whatever they like. And they can sell it to other companies. So I take my artwork as far as I can.”

Herzfeld says he is able to apply this theory to his woodworking. “I build a lot of corner cabinets with little scenes painted on the front panel. I’ll do maybe two or three cabinets with the same dimensions, and then I make different painted panels that will fit on the front.

“I did some work for a women’s golf catalog company,” he adds. “I made a prototype of a little wastepaper basket with a golfing scene painted on it. I don’t want to sit here and build a million of them and hand paint them, but these kinds of pieces are something that a larger company could license from me and build, based on my design and my painting. That’s what I’m leaning towards. And each panel of the wastepaper basket will fit that corner cabinet. It’s the same dimension artwork. So once the prototype is built, I have the dimensions and can turn around and apply that artwork, change the color, and now I’ve got a golfing cabinet. I try to make things go as far as possible.”

He has to decide what he is going to paint before he begins building, he says. “If it’s going to be a Shaker-type style, it’s not going to have too much detail. If it’s going to be a little more contemporary, you want other things going on.

“This piece here is a farm scene,” says Herzfeld, indicating a three-drawer hutch, commissioned by its owner to be used for storing quilting projects. “I used an off-the-shelf paint for the top of this. The name of the paint was ‘November Sky’ and it was put out by Pratt & Lambert. What was funny is that it actually fit the color and the time of the year of the sky in my scene. It blended right into the rest of the painting.”

 

       
       
     
    This entertainment center features oil paintings of Scottish Highlander cattle. It has a pocket door system, shelves for a VCR and extended TV platform swivels. It is designed to come apart in seconds for installation. The lower half of the two-piece furniture has full-extension drawers for CDs and DVDs. Two adjustable shelves hold other electronics, and both halves are vented. The piece also features raised panel doors and solid brass hardware. The birch and poplar piece costs $4,500. "I have made three of these," Herzfeld says. "I don’t usually do a lot of duplication of items, but I won the Juror’s Award at the Stratton Arts Festival for this piece."

The time it takes for Herzfeld to complete a project depends on how complicated it is. “Is there a lot of detail? Just a couple of flowers?” he says. “If it’s a landscape on a good-size piece, it might take five or six days. For the whole project, it’s probably three to four weeks to build a big piece. When I do a commission for somebody, I usually ask for six to eight weeks, depending upon the time of year, and how involved the project is.”

Working closely with customers means that Herzfeld often has as many questions for his customers as they do for him. “Painted entertainment centers start off at around $3,000 and go up,” he says. “I need to know, are there drawers? How many doors? Are they raised panel or flat panel? Do I have to install it, is somebody else going to install it? Is it built-in or freestanding?

“People who come to me who want a specific piece built will generally have some sort of dimensions,” he adds. “For instance, they might want an entertainment center. They might give me the sizes for a VCR, they want drawers for DVDs, they tell me the size of their TV. I need to fit all that stuff in there.

“Once I get a rough sketch drawn with the measurements I need, I sit down and do a scale drawing of one or two proposed designs. This includes my design of the piece, as well as my ideas for the artwork. Out of that, we narrow it down or change it to one final drawing. At that point, I’m able to give an honest estimate of what it will cost to build. It’s kind of hard to give a ballpark on something where I have no idea of the dimensions or type of wood.”

Herzfeld says that part of the appeal is that his furniture and image designs are done together, which gives his pieces a cohesion that others may lack. “Warren Kimble paints American Folk stuff, sort of like Grandma Moses. Somebody came along and said, ‘Let’s take Warren Kimble’s images and stick them on a blanket chest with a decal or something.’ And what happens is that the person who did the artwork in those situations is nowhere connected with the actual production or the building process. Somebody just took their work and slapped it on something and tried to make a go of it.

“When you look at one of my pieces, I am involved with the design process. That’s a big difference as far as why a customer buys from me or why he buys from someone else.”

Once he’s ready to begin building, Herzfeld says that the type of wood he uses dictates his preparation technique for the finish and painting. “I tend to use a lot more stable-type woods, like hardwoods,” he says. “I try to stay away from softwoods. Hardwoods just hold up better. They don’t shrink and expand as much. I use a lot of birch and poplar, not as much pine.”

 

     
     
   
  The landscape painting on this simple Shaker-style cabinet wraps around the whole piece. There aren’t a lot of mouldings or details, Herzfeld says, because raised panels and excessive detail might conflict with the artwork.  

In his shop, Herzfeld uses a variety of tools, some he has had for a long time and some he has made himself. He uses a Powermatic 14-inch bandsaw and an 8-inch joiner, as well as a drill press. He has a Jet 10-inch table saw with extensions, including a Biesemeyer 50-inch professional fence. “It’s made my life a lot easier,” Herzfeld says. “It’s so nice to be able to set your fence to exactly 8-3/16 inches and be able to cut without having to check it every time.”

Herzfeld also uses a Delta 15-inch portable planer, which he says he really likes. “It’s a good size planer, yet it’s pretty portable. I can move it around my shop,” he says. He uses a Delta lathe and detail operating sander, a Grizzly shaper, and a Leigh dovetail jig for when he works on drawers. Herzfeld made a router table with a 3-horsepower Makita router inverted inside. “I have a lot of basic tools,” Herzfeld says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have machinery in here that takes three people to run.”

Preparing the wood to be painted is the next step in creating a new piece. “It’s pretty simple to prime the wood when I’m ready to start,” Herzfeld says. “Shellac makes a great primer. I sand it and allow for shrinking and expansion. You don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into a piece that’s going to expand and crack and split. A lot of people will paint things after they’ve been constructed and then they have problems.”

Herzfeld likens his prep work on furniture to preparing a canvas to be painted. “You have to build a foundation for what will go on top of it. On a regular canvas, there are probably five layers of preparation that go into it before the painting is done. The furniture is just a 3-D canvas.

“When priming the wood, you have to consider the type of paint you are using and where the piece is going to be used,” he adds. “Is this going into a kid’s room? Is it something that’s going to be handled all the time? Or is it something that’s just going to hang on the walls and never be touched, except for the knobs? Are you going to be eating off this piece, is it a table? Or is it a wall cabinet?”

Once the furniture is primed, Herzfeld generally mixes his own paint. “On some of my pieces, I make up my own colors using glazes. I find Benjamin Moore’s alkyd base works well. In the past I made paints with a vinegar base. It depends on what sort of effect you are trying to achieve. I sometimes use glue as a base. Waxing certain areas of the work you are going to paint beforehand works well, too.”

Some paints do not need protective finish at all, because the finish is built right in. Herzfeld says that sometimes he might want to wax the piece, depending on where it’s going to be used.

In any event, Herzfeld does all his finishing by hand. “I’m a sole proprietorship. I’m not a big company,” he says. “Some pieces take a long time, and it’s all done by hand. If I were doing 1,000 of them, I’d have a different technique as far as finishing goes. I’d use a sprayer or something. But it’s just me.”

Herzfeld says there are some good clear finishes available for his type of work. “Acrylic polyurethanes are good if you are looking for a little extra protection. But then you have to change your paint. If you are using an eggshell, a latex or even an oil-based paint, you might want to use a latex polyurethane over that. I think it works pretty well, it doesn’t yellow as much as the oil-based polyurethanes.”

In addition to selecting the right wood for the function of the product, Herzfeld says the same goes for selecting primer and finish. “Wax is also a good finisher. I’ve also made different types of varnishes,” he says. “But basically, the artwork, the painting design (including color, theme and pattern), the application technique and the finish depend on what you are making and how it will be used. Putting it together in the right way, considering its final usage, helps make a great piece.”

Herzfeld uses different finishes to create different looks on his furniture, like antique. “There are several types of results I’m looking for when building furniture or cabinetry to look antique,” he says. “First, I try to build the piece to reflect the correct time period, which includes picking the right color. There are thousands of shades of blue or green. It’s picking out that right blue or green that makes a piece look great. It has to be not too loud and not too muted. After that comes one-process priming with glue and finishing with latex paint and wax. If you want a piece to look old, you use several colors, several layers. Underneath you paint on glue to give it that old look. Basically, those are my finishing products: latex paint and wax.

“It takes a lot of practice in order to produce the right effect,” he adds. “This is really something that doesn’t come out of a can, but out of someone’s mind.”

Herzfeld feels that he attracts customers because of the individuality and quality that only a custom designer can provide. “It’s kind of hard to find a nice-figured wood,” he says. “I have a pile of wood next door that I just got the other day. The boards are 18-inch-wide cherry boards, which are kind of hard to come across. You’re not going to find that in a lot of furniture stores. It’s got to be custom.”

He says that customers are looking for individuality in a few different areas, whether it is the furniture’s dimensions or the style of the piece. “When you look at a lot of mass-production pieces, things are very cookie-cutter. It’s not so much made for the quality or design. Sometimes what it’s made for is how easy it is to put together, how cheaply they can do it, how long will it take and how much can they make on it,” he says.

“If people are dealing directly with me, it cuts out a lot of middle men. The customer is getting a quality piece designed exactly for what he wants. Some people might want something a little longer, a little bigger. It’s absolutely custom. When you walk into someone’s house, especially when I’m doing the custom stuff, it’s not something you see everywhere.”

Customers who know exactly what they want, even if it’s something he’s never done before, constantly challenge Herzfeld. “I have to be able to paint a whole bunch of different designs. I’m doing Italian Renaissance stuff one day, the next day I’m making aliens on furniture. So I have to be diversified. I don’t just paint ivy leaves on pieces of furniture. I have to be able to do the masters,” he says. “For example, clients will say, ‘We want something Renaissance-like’ or ‘We want something from the Orient.’ Then I have to see what they’re talking about. So I do reference work, whether in books or museums.”

A lot of Herzfeld’s time is spent working on pieces that aren’t necessities, but “wanna-haves,” he says. “That’s why there are wealthy clients. Thank God for them. They keep a lot of other talented people busy. And they challenge you. ‘Here, can you build this entertainment center that looks like a skyscraper?’ If you don’t have that kind of play money and you’re buying furniture out of necessity, you’re not going to have a lot of thrills. It’s going to be very basic. So people with money keep a lot of us busy. But I think many people look at my pieces as investments. Every time I do something they say, ‘Make sure you sign it!’”

One interesting piece designed by Herzfeld is a custom-made cabinet that holds a TV, VCR, DVD and CD player, and has full-extension drawers for DVDs and CDs. It’s made out of birch, poplar and bass wood, and looks like…well, an alien. Red flames stick out from its sides, it has two hand-painted mouths that you must put your hands in to work the electronics. The eyes are moveable.

“This one is a prototype,” Herzfeld says. “You can take that same theme and apply it to a dresser or a nightstand.”

Herzfeld feels that if his work were available to the masses, he’d have a lot of satisfied customers.

“What makes my things fun is the designs, the colors and everything else. It’s kind of hard to just slap a decal on and make the piece something exciting. It doesn’t work,” he says. “I think people care about how much of the artist is involved in the piece.”

But Herzfeld is only one man. “To build this alien cabinet probably took a month. It had to go up a spiral staircase, so it all came apart, then had to be reassembled. And it had to be reassembled a few times, because, basically, I was building a prototype.”

With the amount of time he spends on each design, Herzfeld figures, why not try to license them?

Another frustration Herzfeld says he faces is boredom in working with the same designs over and over again. “I’m an artist. There’s a side of me that, once I do a painting, I don’t want to have to sit there and do the whole thing over and over again. And I’m growing. As soon as I’m done with one piece, I have designs and thoughts for the next. It’s someone else’s job to do mass production. That’s a job, that’s money, that’s marketing. I’m just one part of that whole process.”

Right now, annual sales vary between $50,000 and $75,000, Herzfeld says. Fluctuations are caused by the differing amounts of time each project takes.

At this point, he is unsure about which direction he will go in the future. “The painter side of me is nudging for a lot of attention. If I lived in a more heavily populated area, I could probably hire people to help build, install, etc. This is why I am leaning towards licensing designs to other companies.”

On the other hand, Herzfeld says he is happy where is is. “I like where I live. Building bigger and better pieces is good for me, too. I might wind up continuing to create one-of-a-kind commission pieces. We’ll see.”

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