Michael McDunn’s work spans a gamut of styles, including primitive tables and finely detailed antique reproductions. View more photos of his work here.

McDunn made this sideboard from walnut lumber originally intended for a local resident’s coffin. He fashioned an edging of tiny coffin shapes. Photo by Blake Praytor.

View more photos of his work here.

While Michael McDunn has built fine furniture in Greenville, SC, for the past 30 years, he also has built a community presence.

He is both gallery contributor and gallery owner, displaying his and friends’ creations at McDunn Gallery, adjacent to his Studio Michael McDunn. He is both teacher and student, leading and attending seminars at woodworkers’ gatherings across the state. “There’s always stuff to learn from other people,” he says.

When the city wanted to enliven its downtown area, it asked McDunn and 11 other artists to occupy small studios there, where passersby could watch art being made. McDunn complied, opening a second location where he and a studio intern work mostly outdoors, hand-dovetailing jewelry boxes and making other items that don’t require heavy machinery.

“We sit out there with our little umbrellas. We’re kind of street performers,” he laughs.

Though McDunn obviously doesn’t mind displaying his work – he had a recent show at Burroughs-Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach – the McDunn Gallery adjoining his shop grew out of a more basic need. He wanted to build a better-looking entrance to his shop.

“When people came in, they sometimes walked out because it was so scary,” he says. Plastic sheets hung from the ceiling to separate the entrance and office from the shop, and dust was everywhere.

His wife and office manager, Alice McDunn, remembers, “I begged him for years to clean up that place.” She also wanted him to have space to show several pieces of his work.

He seized on the idea of a display space and expanded it (“I will do without before I’ll do it halfway” was his mantra), and now McDunn Gallery shows his and other woodworkers’ pieces, plus pottery and paintings by other Greenville artists. His office and shop open off it.

A side benefit, McDunn says, is that work he used to show in other galleries on consignment now stays home. “Every time I’d get something back, we’d have to refinish it,” he says. The shop includes two shop assistants, finishing specialist Asher Parris and fine-furniture woodworker Matthew Clubb, plus two interns.

There is a TV inside this Kyudo Cabinet, built for a customer who likes Japanese martial arts. Kyudo is a form of Japanese archery. McDunn turned poplar on a lathe to simulate bamboo and used it for the “bow” handle and other trim.

McDunn’s work in the gallery, like his work in general, covers a wide range of styles, from antique reproductions to his take on rustic. Under his hands, “rustic” refers to imperfections left in the wood. He calls attention to such points of interest with a series of inlaid bow-ties or “bats” of a contrasting wood.

“You can take somebody’s eye and guide them to the point that you want them to look at,” he says. Sometimes, “I’ll angle them a little bit if I want you to look at something else,” he adds.

But rustic never means rough. McDunn believes in giving a smooth finish to even the most primitive-looking piece.

He developed this philosophy from turning wood. Desert wind and sand had smoothed the exterior of an ironwood bowl he was hollowing, he says. The bowl’s exterior looked “rough and gnarly,” but felt smooth to the touch. He liked the effect so much that he adapted it to furniture, creating a contrast between imperfections that the eyes see and smoothness that the hands feel.

He was working construction back in the mid-’70s, when he started taking 3-D design classes at the respected Greenville County Museum of Art. His goal was to improve his finishing work, but he stayed on five years as the museum’s woodworker, doing framing and creating pedestals to hold artwork.

He started making furniture for other clients at night, then went full-time with it. His work includes a dining table and chairs he built in 2002 for a Greenville home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house, Broad Margin, is one of 13 that Wright signed, he says. To make the table and chairs, he used Wright’s original drawings.

“They were kind of interesting because they were actually blueprints. They weren’t your typical black-on-white. They were blue,” he says. “It was basically just the profile of the chair. It didn’t have any details on construction. It kind of reminded me of those drawings now where architects write ‘fasteners as needed,’ whatever that is.”

McDunn used all mortise-and-tenon joinery. Wright had specified that everything was to be made from a single log. “I got some 20-inch-wide cypress. It wasn’t too hard to do,” he says.

Another interesting project came from a woman who was interested in Japanese martial arts and wanted an Asian-flavored entertainment center. McDunn came up with the Kyudo Cabinet. Kyudo is a form of Japanese archery, and a bow-shaped handle opens doors that, when closed, form “a four-way bookmatched pattern that is the bull’s-eye of the target,” McDunn says.

All the trim is faux bamboo. “I just turned it on the lathe, out of poplar,” McDunn says.

A sofa table he built has massive, spreading feet that are hand-carved to look dimpled. The design was a collaboration between McDunn and his friend, Bud Lawton, of JKL

McDunn stands in his shop before a collection of hand tools.

Design in Greenville.

Much of McDunn’s work has been antique reproductions, because that was the style favored by many of his local textile-industry clients when that industry was booming.

One traditional piece — with a twist — is his “coffin sideboard.” It features walnut lumber that a local man intended for his coffin, but never used. After the man died, McDunn’s client bought the wood at auction. In recognition of the wood’s original purpose, McDunn made a traditional sideboard edged with tiny coffin shapes.

The Greenville area, which in recent years has acquired many international firms, including a BMW plant, is getting more cosmopolitan, McDunn says. His clients’ tastes are broadening to include more contemporary design, which is his favorite.

“I’ve got a few good years left in me,” says McDunn, 54. “I’ll get to make some stuff I might want to.”

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