October 2004

Studio Furnituremaker Pays Homage to the Power of Nature

 

Natural forms, combined with catchy names, keep Mark Levin's work in demand.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser>

Furnituremaker and sculptor Mark Levin says he has been inspired by many things over his 29-year career, but his most recent inspiration is an ode to nature.

"I committed myself to a series of work about six years ago that would emphasize the power of nature," says the Santa Fe, NM-area studio woodworker. "I wanted to show how even the smallest creations of nature, such as leaves and flowers, can evoke such a force of beauty."

That was the starting point for his leaf and flower series of furniture and wall sculptures. "What sealed the deal was moving to Santa Fe, where the spirit and images of Georgia O'Keefe pervade the foothills and mesas of New Mexico. I had a very clear picture of what I wanted to achieve with this new series, and that was to take the joy, spirit and sensuality of O'Keefe's paintings and attempt to imbue my series with those same traits."

Levin's studio is located in San Jose, AZ, 25 miles outside Santa Fe. Unlike some other studio woodworkers who left former careers to enter woodworking, he says he knew at a young age that he wanted to work with wood. "Woodworking was always just pulsating below the old epidermis," he says. "It was at an early age when my mother first showed me how to grasp a hammer. My coronation occurred at age eight, when I received my first set of tools."

 

Levin says just the tops of his leaf tables can include 125 to 150 pounds of wood when he starts, although they end up being about 40 pounds in their final form. One of his Leaf Table series, the Chocolate Leaf Hall Table, is shown above. It is made of walnut with wenge details and is 54 inches wide.>

Entering woodworking as a career wasn't quite a "slam-dunk," however, as Levin's father envisioned college and pre-med studies for his son - and didn't take "no" for an answer. But Levin says he wanted no part of that world and compromised by agreeing to study architecture. His parents relented and he studied under Bobby Falwell at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

"Falwell did his graduate studies under Wendell Castle at Rochester Institute of Technology. I proceeded to learn the 'gospel' as handed down by Wendell via Bobby," Levin says. "The years at NIU were a time of nothing but woodworking, where I created the beginning of my aesthetic vocabulary."

A Career Starts, Then Stumbles

Levin leased the space for his first woodworking shop in Evanston, IL, before graduating from college and embarking on his career. "I was ready to quit college so I could work professionally, but my father's plans to break every bone in my body if I quit convinced me to get a degree," he says.

After graduation, Levin worked in the Chicago area. He describes the next decade as "fabulous," with "more work and awards than a boy could want. Then my Achilles heel activated. I fell in love and she didn't. She left. I went down in smoke and closed the shop, thinking I would take a year or so to regain my wind."

Levin says one year turned into 10, but it was a profitable detour. "I discovered I had a knack for the business world and was fortunate to have a mentor, Alan Baer of Baer Supply Co. in Vernon Hills, IL. Levin worked for Baer for five years and then worked another five years for CabinetVision as an account sales executive. He says his time in selling software also was very beneficial.

 

Mark Levin's Very Cherry side table.>

"Without my work with both companies, I wouldn't have been as successful as I now am. I learned goal-setting and how to implement programs. Everything I did in business had to have a written program, and I have carried that into my woodworking. I learned the mechanics of business and also helpful sales techniques. Most studio woodworkers don't have that experience and background. It helps me while doing trade shows. And the things I learned in my first years in Evanston regarding direct marketing, I still employ."

Levin sells approximately 60 percent of his work via direct marketing. The rest is sold through high-end craft shows or sales in galleries. "The gallery method is more hit-or-miss. Direct mail and my Web site (www.marklevin.com) are very effective tools," Levin says.

Going West

Levin's return to woodworking was in 1996, when he rented a loft in Rockford, IL, and took up where he left off. He says the pieces of his life were falling into place, except for one thing. "I found 'the girl' in a state called New Mexico. I got on a plane to see her. She said 'yes.' We got married and I built a new shop about 25 miles outside of Santa Fe." Levin's wife is Melissa Morrison, also a successful artist.

The shop is 2,500 square feet, smaller than the one he had in Chicago, but outfitted with more machine tools.

"I built my shop in 1999, and it reflects the new direction I have taken. Over the past years I have gone from being very hand tool-oriented to very machine-oriented. It has gotten to the point where if I can't do it by machine, I think twice about it now. I used to hand-cut dovetails, but now I have a multitude of dovetail jigs. I no longer have any reserve about cutting them by machine."

Levin says that people fresh out of school sometimes have a real taboo against using machine tools. "There's this purity thing. Well, I got over it," he laughs.

His shop includes two Powermatic 66 table saws, a Griggio CS1500 sliding table saw, Powermatic 1150 drill press, two Delta bandsaws, a 46-inch Moak bandsaw and a Ramco 37T/60 widebelt sander. Other machines include a Delta DJ 20 jointer, Powermat-ic 160 planer, Oakley H-6 double-sided oscillating sander, Ekstrom Carlson drum sander, State oscillating spindle sander and a JDS multi-router, among myriad smaller machines.

"I am a real machine junkie," says Levin. "I love going to machinery shows. To me, it's like going to Mecca."

Levin works on two to three pieces every day. "I circulate, because I tend to get bored easily, and that way I am always fresh," he says. "I work very methodically, laying out my day and week in advance. I pattern my process now after the way I worked at Baer. Everything is prioritized."

 

Inspired by music is this Duet Bench.>

Levin loves woodworking, but thinks that his success comes from approaching his work as a businessman who happens to be a woodworker. "Marketing is an important part of the work of a studio woodworker," he says. He found that by giving his work interesting names, he is much more likely to attract some attention.

The Marilyn Monroe leaf hall table is a case-in-point. He named it after the actress, he says, because the ripples of the wood are reminiscent of the way Monroe's skirt fluttered in the movie, The Seven-Year Itch. Other works include the Jane Russell leaf hall table and Grace Kelly desk.

"The names are another part of my marketing agenda," he says. "I picked old movie stars, because they were beautiful, but each had a tragic side. Sure enough, the press loved it.

"The Grace Kelly desk is a lamination process, where I build it up into that form," he adds. "The leaf tables and top of the Grace Kelly desk will start out five or six inches thick, but the leaf table, when finished, weighs just about 40 pounds with legs. The top, when I start, can include 125 to 150 pounds of wood."

Levin says he fabricates his work out of solid wood because it lends itself to the sculptural process while reinforcing his design approach. "I feel that solid wood has more virility and intrinsic value than veneer."

The design foundation for his work, Levin says, is "very instinctual and based both on natural and man-made forms that I find pleasing, ranging from leaves, flowers, butterflies and women to automobiles, machinery and architecture." He has "split" apples and pears in two and created coffee tables and turned a cherry into a piece of art furniture as a side table, all part of his Fruit Series. His new series pays homage to classical musicians.

Levin says the evenly-spaced splines that he sometimes uses in the Leaf Series and other pieces "introduce a formal and rigid quality to what is otherwise a very organic shape. To me, these splines represent the other side of nature, which is that beauty can be deceiving, fleeting and veneer thin."

Finishing touches

As to finishes, Levin says he is sort of like Henry Ford. "Instead of black, I offer my customers the choice of two finishes - Danish oil or polyurethane. I don't have a spray booth at my shop, so I work with either of those. My clients seem very happy with the choices, although polyurethane seems the most often picked. I will stain a piece per a client's request, usually using water-based aniline stains with a polyurethane topcoat."

Levin works with a wide variety of woods. His favorite domestic wood is cherry, followed by walnut. "I work with a lot of exotics because that is the nature of what I do," he says. "My clients tend to want something other than what everyone else is buying. Australian lacewood and African wenge are two species I have worked with recently.

Levin's price range begins at $3,500 and travels to the low-five figures. He averages two pieces a month, but makes 20 to 28 pieces a year. His work has earned a wide variety of awards and honors, including the NICHE award two years (2002 and 2003) in a row. In 2002, he won first place in the CWB Design Portfolio competition, and in 2003 won an honorable mention in the same competition.

Levin says he is very glad to be back working with wood. "I have had a few successful sonatas, but am still working on the symphony."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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