Self-Taught Furniture Artisan Wins Awards

     
 
This breakfast table is in cherry. Laufer says he likes to use lighter shaded sapwood in the tabletops because of its wonderful color patterns.  
     

While Rick Laufer is a fairly new studio furniture maker, his work is already gaining attention.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

R.A. “Rick” Laufer is a self-taught woodworker who came to the profession by a rather circuitous route. A graduate of Duke University with a Master’s Degree from Yale, he worked as a union organizer for more than a decade and still acts as a labor consultant. He began working with wood some 13 years ago, doing basic repairs and renovations for his home in Arkansas at that time, built in the 1800s and listed on the National Historic Register.

His furniture design work began in 1992, and by 1998 he had started his Baltimore-based business, Blackwater Woodworks. Laufer has been working as a full-time studio woodworker since then, amassing an impressive list of awards and recognition for his original designs, including the 2000 Niche Award for furniture design, awarded by Niche Magazine.

While Laufer is in the process of designing a new 1,400-square-foot off-site studio, for the time being his home serves as his workplace. Evidence of his woodworking business is everywhere in his house, from the garage, which houses his floor-to-ceiling supply of Eastern hardwoods, to the basement workshop filled with machinery, hand tools and works-in-progress, to living areas furnished with originals of his elegant designs, up to the attic, where he stores prototypes and finishes pieces.

In the beginning, Laufer says his efforts were limited to basic carpentry and “learning what one can do with tools.” He says he learned from trial and error all along the way.

When he moved to Baltimore at the end of 1991, he built oak cabinetry for his kitchen. He built early pieces of furniture in Arts and Crafts and Mission styles, but says he grew tired of those design periods and took his work in a new direction.

“I became intrigued by the work of Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter and George Nakashima. I was particularly interested in the post-war work of Danish designers,” he says, adding that he prefers balance and simplicity over fussy design and ornamentation.

The first word that springs to mind when seeing a Laufer design is “sculptural.” He calls what he does a blend of California craftsman and Danish modern, and adds that he strives to create furniture that highlights the inherent beauty of wood, while keeping functionality in mind.

“I make furniture I like, the way I like it made,” he says. “I like wood that doesn’t hide behind heavy stains and factory lacquer. And I like furniture that does what it is supposed to do. A chair, for example, doesn’t need to shout ‘I’m art,’ but it does need to look appealing and feel comfortable.”

     
 
The “Lawyer’s Swivel” desk chair is done in cherry, with a curly maple spindle back. The chair is 44 inches high, 25 inches wide and 21 inches deep.  
     

Laufer uses thick, figured lumber, usually cherry, maple and his personal favorite, walnut. He uses both the lighter shaded sapwood and the darker heartwood, because of the wonderful color patterns they create. He takes a lot of time working out the “bugs” in a chair design so that it not only looks good but also is very comfortable. Spindles are designed to give full lumbar support while the seats are deeply sculpted for comfort.

“It’s a balancing act,” Laufer says. “A chair can look good, but fit wrong. Maybe it’s too upright. Or you can make a really strong chair that feels okay but looks like a tank. The trick is to get a strong, elegant chair that makes you want to sit back and stay seated. I have to tweak the design until I get it right. You would be amazed at the differences a slight change in the tilt of a seat or the shape of the back can make in a chair.”

Laufer got his business started by photographing a few of the designs he made for himself and using the slides to apply for admission to a craft show. “That was the Philadelphia Furniture Show in 1999,” he says. “I entered the show on a whim, but was accepted and came home with orders.” Things grew from there.

Today he continues to attend shows like the Philadelphia Show and the Paradise City Arts Festival, as well as participating in juried or invitational craft exhibitions, like the upcoming Chair Show at the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

“I’m excited to be included in that show,” he says. “It starts out this fall at the Folk Life Center in Asheville, NC, then will travel to museums and art centers around the country.”

Laufer’s work also can be seen in selected galleries, such as the Grovewood Gallery (“a wonderful place”), also located in Asheville, and the on-line gallery www.guild.com. Laufer is developing his own Web site, www.blackwaterwoodworks.com.

Laufer begins each new project by drawing a rough sketch and making a prototype, working out glitches as he goes. During the evolution of one of his chairs, the award-winning Blackwater Library Chair, Laufer stayed up one night making a series of arms, working the design until he could get it to flow.

Most of what he makes uses walnut or cherry, but he will use other woods in designs at the client’s request. “I like walnut because it looks great, is wonderful to work with, and you can find it in consistent, good quality,” he says. “I usually work from my own design unless a special request intrigues me. My clients generally give me ‘carte blanche’ to come up with a design. I think I have a style people either like or they don’t. The only finish I use is three coats of a tung oil-urethane mixture, then three coats of wax and oil.”

Laufer says he is happy to be designing and building furniture full-time. He loves the creative process, but admits he is also a tool guy. His workshop is bursting with machinery and hand tools he has collected over the years. He says he knew nothing about tools when he began and had a couple of interesting learning experiences. For example, he found a router at a garage sale, bought it and fit it with a sanding pad (“Don’t try this at home,” he cautions), a move that sent the router flying.

Today, his shop contains five new routers, a 10-inch Inca jointer/planer, a Delta Unisaw and a 14-inch Delta bandsaw with riser blocks and a new 1-hp Baldor motor. He also has a 15-inch Delta planer; 6-inch General jointer; Record Co. lathe; 14-inch Delta drill press; a new Tormec wet grinder that he uses “for consistently sharp edges,” and a large collection of hand tools, including a half dozen Japanese chisels and Nielson hand planes.

One of his favorite tools is a wooden spoke shave that he found in the used tool bin at an old Baltimore tool company. He uses it to smooth spindles.

Chairs are Laufer’s specialty and are fairly labor-intensive (an arm chair can take 50 to 60 hours of work), but Laufer says he doesn’t skip steps to save time. “I find that hand planing gives me the curves I want. A disc sander can ruin a chair by gouging it.”

     
 
Laufer calls this his “Still Pond Bench for Two.” It was selected for exhibition at Chair Show 4, sponsored by the Southern Highland Craft Guild in Asheville, NC. The show will run from 2001 to 2003. The bench is walnut with a waved top and raised, inset seat in curly maple.  
     

Laufer has won national recognition for his work. He has been invited to exhibit at a variety of competitive shows and exhibitions and has received various awards. During a 10-day period this spring, he won the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council Award for best work in hardwoods at the Philadelphia Furniture Show and “Best of Show” honors at an exhibition of Asian-inspired art at the Target Gallery in Alexandria, VA.

In addition to the awards he has earned, Laufer’s work has received attention from other sources. Photos of his pieces have appeared in numerous publications, including a book called “Beautiful Things” by Guild Publishing. Taunton Press is including his work in a resource book recognizing the work of 125 selected furniture craftsmen.

Laufer continues to expand his offerings, working on a desk design that will house a computer. He also is designing a small couch. “I have started thinking about a couch or settee,” he says, “playing around with some sketches.”

His prices vary according to the materials used and time entailed for each piece. His Newport Rocker sells for $2,350 while a four-drawer trestle desk sells for $4,250 and a hanging CD cabinet sells for $1,550. He usually has a four- to six-month backlog on orders, he says, but tries to speed up the process if the customer has a special need.

Pricing his work has been another area where Laufer says he has had to work out the bugs. “I was underestimating overhead and the hours I put in. One thing I learned quickly is that it is critical to keep accurate time records.”

Laufer says that he hasn’t gotten rich with his business, but he is more than satisfied with the freedom and rewards his profession affords him. “What I like is the creative process — envisioning a design, and then turning it into something real. I like taking heavy, rough lumber and opening that lumber up: cutting, shaping, planing and smoothing until the wood is transformed into something useful, attractive – and sellable.”

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