CWB February 1999

Northwest Craftsman's Pieces Are Built to Last

Washington State furnituremaker Alan Rosen creates one-of-a-kind 'contemporary antiques' which combine high functionality with timeless individuality.

By Jean Headley

Lummi Island, WA, a heavily wooded, rural island accessible only by ferry, is home to a varied population of retirees, artists and craftsmen. Included among the island's 650 residents is a craftsman considered by many to be one of the Northwest's finest custom woodworkers and designers of wood furniture.

Alan Rosen has created and designed original furniture for more than 25 years, 15 years of which have been spent on the island. "I'd say my forte is designing individualized furniture for people," Rosen said. "When I work for my clients, once I build a piece for them I will not repeat that design for anybody else. I will repeat my speculative work for the (wood furniture) gallery, because those are my own original pieces, and a lot of people want these pieces in different sizes and in different woods. But once I've drawn somebody else's mind into my work, I really consider it theirs, and when I'm done I burn the templates."

A partial list of Rosen's clients includes several Seattle law firms; Grizzly Imports in Bellingham, WA; renowned art collector David Usher in Carmel, CA; and, most recently, Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.

The client provided Rosen with the lumber for this pair of spalted maple cabinets. A tree from his property was sawn into 3-inch planks and given to Rosen, who resawed it and bookmatched the doors. Inside are adjustable shelves. The finished pieces also have bookcases that set on top.

"When I first got here I found it very frustrating," said the native New Yorker. "In the East, there has been a history of fine furniture making for 200 years. Here, people had dirt floors as recently as 100 years ago, and fine woodworking is not as prevalent," said Rosen.

"But since I've been here, this area has become one of the livelier markets in the country, because of the new money that is in the Seattle area. It's estimated that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 millionaires under the age of 39 in this area. Most of these were created from Microsoft alone," he added.

"I've found this to be a double-edged sword, though, because a lot of these folks are more likely to throw $60,000 into a car that will lose half its value in a couple of years, than they are to invest $10,000 in a dining room table which may one day be worth $40,000. But, I'm seeing these folks with the new money beginning to develop a better appreciation for investing in furniture that will one day be a family heirloom."

With $145,000 in sales last year, Rosen's local acclaim continues to grow as repeat clients pass his name on to other interested buyers. "Quality is the most important element of my work. The pieces I create should not only be beautiful today, but should stand the test of time and provide the same enjoyment for future generations," Rosen said.

In the early '70s, Rosen said he served a stint as a carpenter's "gofer," nailing and hauling plywood, and decided he enjoyed working with his hands. He scoured the New York City Yellow Pages and went door to door to every furniture and cabinetmaker listed in the Flushing/Queens area until a professional woodworker named George Kaplan agreed to hire him as an assistant.

"At one time (Kaplan) ran a shop in Manhattan which employed 12 European cabinetmakers. It was a super high-end, high-quality shop. When I joined him he was semi-retired and was performing mostly repairs on 18th and 19th century antiques which people would bring from Park Avenue, because he was a renowned repairer and refinisher," Rosen said.

"It was my job to take everything apart, and then he would make the new parts. We would then reassemble it as a team and he would refinish it," said Rosen. "The pieces that rolled through that shop provided me with a textbook type of education in woodworking design. I saw for myself why some designs lasted and why others didn't."

A second apprenticeship resulted when Rosen again hit the streets looking for a woodworking job by going door to door. "I started in northern New Hampshire and worked my way south through every town until I arrived in the NY/CT/MA tri-state area. At that point I had only $12 and a quarter tank of gas and I found Al Engels, who agreed to hire me for two days - long enough to earn gas money. We worked together for those two days and hit it off like father and son, and I ended up staying for a year and a half."

Engels produced antique reproductions and provided Rosen with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience reproducing a variety of furniture, including grandfather clocks, secretary desks and Bombay chests.

"Engels was a teacher. He would stop what he was doing and call me over so he could show me things and explain to me why he doing something this way as opposed to that way. I started as a sander and a finisher, and then I picked up a lot of joinery skills. Before I knew it, he was going on vacation and I was running the shop while he was away. It wasn't long before I could perform any task required at that shop," Rosen said.

"He took everything I had learned up to that point and put it together for me. The thing that I love most about woodworking, which he instilled in me, is that it's a very anarchistic craft. You can give 10 people a drawing of what you want a piece to look like, and you will see 10 totally different approaches to how that thing was built," Rosen added. "He also showed me really efficient ways to work, because we were competing against bigger shops all of the time and we had to work smart."

Rosen struck out on his own in 1973, spending a handful of years in Colorado and British Columbia before arriving on Lummi Island. "When I left my two apprenticeships where I had worked primarily on antique reproductions, it took five years before I could build something that didn't look ancient," he said.

Rosen became a student of architecture and devoted time to learning the history of furniture, while at the same time he was continually formulating and creating original pieces.

"Now, I can look almost anywhere - car lines even - and get ideas. But I still find that my classical training overrides everything that I do. I still proportion my work in the classical methods, and I consider my work as 'contemporary antiques' in that I'm a very practical furniture builder. People call it art-furniture because of the level of quality that we work at, but it's all very useable and practical furniture. I don't build tables that you can't use or chairs that you can't sit in comfortably," Rosen said.

"I like to take a lot of old ideas and basic shapes and clean them up - get rid of a lot of the ornamentation, and just spend time in the detailing of the joinery," he added.

One of the major selling points of Rosen's work is the level of finish applied to each piece. Rosen uses a hand-rubbed finish comprised of a two-hour fast-drying Minwax polyurethane mixed with Daly's teak oil. Each coat is wet-sanded and wiped, and Rosen progressively works his way up to a 1,200-grit polish.

"You could literally use our tabletops as mirrors to shave in. The finish doesn't feel like plastic, but has that nice protective urethane built into it," Rosen said. "I used to spray, which was how I was trained in my apprenticeships, but I found it's quite a hassle for my clients. If anything happens to a sprayed piece, they would have to return the piece to us for repair. Whereas with my finish, they get a jar of our mix along with explicit directions of how to repair a scratch. It's a lot more user-friendly."

Rosen is primarily a custom builder and is usually booked at least six months in advance. With the help of two full-time assistants, he also creates speculative pieces for several wood furniture galleries on the West Coast. "Most of my speculative work for the galleries is in bubinga, bird's-eye maple and Peruvian walnut. For my custom jobs, we use whatever the job requires," said Rosen.

For his custom work, Rosen generally has the prospective client send photos of the environment the piece will go into and photos of design elements that the client finds particularly attractive. "The photos don't necessarily need to be of an entire piece of furniture that they like, but maybe a chair leg that they like or the side of an armoire," Rosen said.

Clients are welcome to visit Rosen's shop and meet with him for as long as they want at no charge, he said. But once they leave, Rosen requires a retainer to cover his design time. "When I'm done with the design, they get an exact price of what it's going to cost so that there are no surprises," he said.

Chairs are put together with either deep mortise and tenons or sliding dovetails. Next to his finishes, Rosen said he is best known for his exposed dovetail work. "When we build our chairs, we can put them together without glue and sit in them in the shop. The joinery is very tight," he said.

Most of the equipment in Rosen's 2,000-square-foot shop is acquired from Grizzly Imports in nearby Bellingham. "The 12-inch joiner, the 20-inch planer, the drill press and edgesander are Grizzly tools. The fellow who owns Grizzly is a patron of mine. I've done hundreds of thousands of dollars of work for him in his own home and in his main headquarters. He kept four of us employed for nine months working on his office suite alone," Rosen said.

His shop also includes a couple of table saws, a 20-inch bandsaw, a 24-inch thickness sander which Rosen built himself, and a 12-inch compound chop saw. And, of course, there are windows with some beautiful views.


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