Artistry Based on Design
Vermont custom furnituremaker Steve Holman builds his business and commissioned pieces on a sense of design that just keeps getting better.
By Ann Gurley Rogers
Steve Holman only has to commute about 100 feet from his home outside of Dorset, VT, to his workshop, which has 1,620 square feet on 1-1/2 floors. In the winter, his dog Max spends a lot of time curled up by the wood stove in the shop.
Holman fuels it with an amazing collection of kindling that is generated from his custom furniture jobs. On his Web site www.holmanstudios.com he has a very personal resume that admits that he takes being a good husband and father a lot more seriously than being a good furnituremaker. He tells about coaching kid’s sports teams, singing (badly) in the church choir and playing a mean game of tennis. Nonetheless, his furniture is a striking combination of craftsmanship and inventive artistry.
Holman came to his career and relaxed lifestyle by way of an undergraduate degree from Davidson College in North Carolina. Despite being English major, after graduating he got a job working in a wooden boat shop on Cape Cod, then building housing for farm workers in California and working for a furnituremaker in San Francisco. In 1981 he moved to Vermont and worked for a post-and-beam home builder, but eventually opened his own custom woodworking shop. His customers mostly commission him to do pieces for their residences, but he occasionally does corporate office work as well.
“When I started as a custom furnituremaker, I was hopelessly naive about what it takes to do good work. You probably could attribute it to youthful idealism and enthusiasm,” Holman says. “I now believe that a formula for excellent work is a combination of good hand skills and good sense of design.
“I still have a long way to go with my design sense,” he adds. “In 1985, I did what I consider as my first good piece, an armoire made of cherry and curly maple. I still think of it as good. It was well conceived and, by then, I had enough technical proficiency to know that it was well made. The design concept was solid, and the execution was meticulous. It was the first time I felt confident that it all came together. I have improved my design sense by becoming more aware of design, not just in furniture, but in all kinds of crafts. My design sense has slowly gotten better as I have done this work.”
When Holman opened his shop, he says that he put together as complete a shop as he knew how to at the time. “Since then the development of the shop has been an evolution that probably will never stop,” he says. “I could think of another 300 pieces of equipment that would make a difference.” Holman says that he depends most on the following pieces of equipment: SCMI 16-inch joiner, Griggio 20-inch planer, Paoloni 12-inch sliding table saw (with a 5-foot stroke), Powermatic 66 table saw, Bridgewood 20-inch bandsaw, General 12-inch by 36-inch lathe and two shapers, one a Jet and the other an “old monster” switched from a leather belt drive. The shop also has a Felder slot mortiser and Delta disc/belt sander and oscillating spindle sander.
“Good equipment makes it possible to get through the routine work faster, so you can get to the hand work that makes the piece unique,” Holman says.
having fun with ‘the name game’
Working in veneer expands Holman’s repertoire to include exotic, highly figured woods. “Also, there are pieces that I just couldn’t make without veneer,” he says. “By using veneer, I can avoid the obvious problems caused by the hydrotropic nature of solid wood.”
Holman considers that public relations and marketing are the least developed part of his business and his least favorite task. “On the one hand, I realize that you have to sell yourself as well as your work,” he says. “You have to convince people that you are special, that you are a ‘star,’ so that they want to buy your work. Doing that is not in my nature. I am shy and not too gregarious. I think that people who sell the most work are sociable and good schmoozers.”
In part, Holman markets himself by participating in furniture and gallery shows. He maintains an inventory of furniture for this purpose. Additionally, he is represented by three sales galleries, although he considers that this enterprise loses him money, since he has to split the revenues with the gallery owners. He says he keeps pieces on display in galleries mostly because he hopes that the exposure will generate new commissions.
Holman also belongs to the Design Guild of Vermont and the Furniture Makers Guild. He says that his associations with the other members is a helpful way to compare notes with peers, especially about marketing issues. He says that this is especially important in Vermont, where it is easy to become isolated.
Last year the business generated gross revenues of $175,000. His individual pieces fetch between $1,500 and $25,000. Holman feels that he has come a long way in developing his ability to set a realistic price for a piece. “In the beginning, I would underprice an item just because I wanted the job so badly,” he says. “I am trying not to do that anymore. I am trying to get my prices to reflect the amount of time that is going into the work. Then I need to make the customer believe that it is worth that much — back to the marketing deal.”
Holman relies on two employees to maintain his level of production. He says that his employees must be skilled woodworkers, especially because he rarely does the same piece more than once. “I like to be able to give my employees enough latitude so that they can improve their skills, and I try to pay my workers enough so they will be able to stay with me,” he says. “One of the challenges, though, is that a relatively unskilled nail-banger on a construction crew can make more money than I am able to pay.”
Although he has come a long way in developing his business over the last 22 years, Holman believes that it will always be an evolutionary process, especially with regard to his design skills.
“That is why this work will always be interesting to me for as long as I am able to do it,” he says.
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