Texas’ top furniture and lighting designers

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
A
www.brookemdavisdesign.com www.makeshiftatx.com 337-356-4666
Breaux-Arts Design www.cargocollective.com/breaux-arts 210-413-7882
Quatro Lighting Designs www.quatrolighting.com 817-346-7991
Oct. 31-Nov. 30. Kerr Arts & Cultural Center. 228 Earl Garrett St., Kerrville. www.texasfurnituremakersshow.org
www.dannykamerath.com 214-827-0674
www.JeremyGrubb.com 281-414-8382

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Last month, Indulge brought you the work of Texas fashion designers. For October, we expanded the search to include Texas-based furniture and lighting designers.

What we found were works of exquisite beauty by designers who go largely unheralded, as there are few retail outlets for these custom-made creations. The craftsmen, and women, toil in relative obscurity, and that is a travesty, as their work is some of the most imaginative and exacting to produce.

“It takes days instead of hours, weeks instead of days,” says furniture designer Danny Kamerath, who works in the attic of his Dallas house, taking as long as two months to make a chair.

He is one of the old-school woodworkers who prefers to use hand-drawn sketches before he picks up his hand tools. Occasionally, he will use Adobe Illustrator to refine the scale of a piece; other designers use computer-aided design to finesse their ideas in two dimensions before picking up a board.

One, the only woman in the mix, is utilizing advanced computer-aided production tools to design and cut the wood then finishes her intricate pieces with hours of hand-sanding.

Our single lighting designer uses CAD techniques, as well as hours of hand assembly to create his pieces.

Their prices reflect hours and days of labor, making the four- or five-digit price tags seem perfectly justifiable. These artisans are creating heirloom pieces of art that will last much longer than their first owner.

None of the artisans set out to be furniture and lighting designers; they fell into it from a variety of first jobs. They stay because they love the rewards of visualizing a functional piece of artwork and having it come to life in their hands.

They all have well-documented websites with online galleries.

For a firsthand look at the craft of the custom furniture makers, head down to Kerrville for the yearly exhibition at the Texas Furniture Makers Show, Oct. 31-Nov. 30.

Danny Kamerath

Dallas

“I thought when I started doing this, I’d be rich because everybody sits down,” says Kamerath, who delights in making chairs.

He also produces tables, cabinetry and sculpture. He found that just because everyone needs and uses chairs, they aren’t necessarily interested in handmade ones, unless their interior designer convinces them it is exactly what they need.

And if they don’t subscribe to an interior designer’s service, “They don’t care about buying craft unless they go to North Carolina,” he says of the state that has a gallery that carries his work.

The lure of handmade objects is always stronger in far-away lands.

“It’s part of the tradition of Texas,” he says. “Look at the the local museums; it’s all about somewhere else.”

Kamerath, 58, had been a graphic designer and art director at The Richards Group, one of Dallas’ largest advertising agencies, when the events of 9-11 and a trip to Africa propelled him to jettison the Mad Men career.

“Driving back home from DFW airport, everywhere I looked was another vulgar expression of wealth,” he says. It did not sit easy on his mind, and he soon retreated to his attic and began making the furniture he had been sketching during client meetings.

He makes tables that look like mountain ranges topped with a thin layer of clouds, and cabinets that borrow from Mondrian in their gridlike supports and multicolored doors and drawers.

He forces wood into liquid shapes, making the concentric rings of a splash on top of a coffee table and then places carefully chosen flat rocks on the table for anyone who wants to reconfigure the rock-on-rings configuration. His chairs, though, are where his imagination soars, reducing a back support to what looks like a cartoon thought bubble, and minimizing chair arms to little more than low hip-height supports.

He names his pieces for friends, and when he finds a chunk of wood too small for a human-sized chair, he’ll turn it into a sculpture such as Kate, a little mahogany chair with delicate legs that flare into a massive pedestal that is over 5 feet tall.

His piece My House and a Chair for Booker T. combines a 5-foot-tall mahogany pedestal with four small arched windows at the top that allow a view inside the column to see a small white holly wood chair that is mortise-and-tenoned into place. A visiting Girl Scout asked him how anyone could use the chair, as it was so high. That is when he created a ladder out of a long twig of pecan wood for access, inspired by sculptor Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

“Making these sculptural chairs makes me a better chair maker,” he says. “They are fun.”

Michael Wilson

Wimberley

Michael Wilson was a sushi chef in Los Angeles for 17 years. This entry from his résumé will dog him the rest of his life. How can you not ask, “What happened?”

He says he and his wife had bought a house in Echo Park, a gang-infested neighborhood in Los Angeles, at a time when L.A. housing prices were at their highest. The house also needed a great deal of work. After fixing what he could, they went in search of furniture.

“I was flabbergasted by the prices. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me try and make something because we can’t afford to buy it.’ That’s how it all started,” he says.

By his own admission, his first attempts were dreadful. But that did not deter him.

“I never stopped, for some reason, and after a while, I got the hang of it. I wanted out of the restaurant business and told myself if I made one finished product a month for a year and nothing happens, I’ll stop,” he says.

Nine months into his plan, he met architect Wallace Cunningham and furniture designer Sam Malouf, who encouraged him. “I started to think I could quit the restaurant,” he says. “I never looked back.”

Running a shop in Los Angeles, in an even more dangerous neighborhood than that of his home, was expensive, so Wilson and his wife looked for property where they could live and have a shop. They found Wimberley, a scenic little town outside of Austin. Wilson thought it was close enough to the large metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio to bring him clients.

They have been there for five years and he was right; moving to Texas brought him to the attention of Scott+

Cooner and Grange Hall, wholesale design showrooms in Dallas that now carry his pieces.

He makes sensuous, body-hugging chairs, and tables with insectlike jointed legs that stand on point. Cabinet and chest fronts are animated with organic swirls.

“I get inspirations from minute things — watering the garden, I’ll notice the bark of a tree, or the back of a horse and its muscle structure,” he says. He’ll store these disparate images away and then later contemplate which form is most suited to a chair, or a table or desk.

“As much as I am focused on forms and shapes, everything takes the form of furniture as a final product,” he says. “I see a lot of stuff that may be beautiful, but it has to translate into comfort. I try to make [my furniture] as comfortable as possible.”

Jeremy Grubb

Houston

There were early signs that Jeremy Grubb had artistic talents, so his mother enrolled him in a children’s drawing and sculpting program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The early training did not help much in his adult years, during his stint with the Marines or later when he tracked down bail jumpers and worked as a bouncer.

When he began working as a residential remodeler, the old pull of using his hands to craft something of beauty began to tug at him; so did the desire to finish his education. While working renovations during the day, he completed a degree in interior design and got a masters in sociology. As he began building furniture pieces for his remodeling clients, word of his talent spread.

His pieces are gracefully simple with whimsy — bees made of marquetry buzz across a table top and gather in the dark circles of burled wood; other table tops are punctuated with blue butterflies or a spray of orchids. A console table called Rising Sun has wooden tendrils that hang from underneath the table top. It wouldn’t work on a dining table, but for a console table that never hosts an accompanying chair, it is a radical addition. A chest with black top and legs has doors that are carved to look like white angel wings.

“I am completely self-taught about bringing creative thoughts into the physical world,” he says.

Grubb learned some of the finer points of furniture-making by looking at magazines and taking a handful of woodworking classes. “I typically draw things by hand, sometimes making life-sized sketches,” he says. “Sometimes I just start building.”

His work moves from functional to sculptural. A 4-foot-wide large camelia made of a light-colored wood was carved, petal by petal, and hangs on the wall as a 3-D medallion of the woodworker’s art. The camelia has been joined by a calla lily and a sunflower.

“I like making cool stuff out of wood,” says Grubb. “I design ridiculously difficult stuff, then have to figure out how to make ’em.”

Brooke M. Davis

Austin

Of all the furniture designers, Brooke Davis has the most job-centric credentials. She attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and obtained a master’s degree in industrial design at Purdue University.

She has taught industrial design for a number of years at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and at Appalachian State University. Three years ago, she moved to Austin, where she teaches computer aided design at the Art Institute. She started her own business, Make+Shift, a shop rental space that provides resources for small business to develop their products.

Davis produces beautiful pieces of furniture as well as functional products such as an elliptical cruiser, a scooter propelled by the elliptical pedals usually found in gyms on stationary equipment. Her portfolio contains a can opener for tuna cans that also squishes out the juice, as well as award-winning leaf-top tables.

She moves from the technology of computers to handwork and back again. Her large organic leaf-top dining table was designed on a computer and cut by a CNC machine (a computer-programmed machine that automates the work done by machine tools such mills and lathes).

The piece was hand-finished with more than 150 hours hours of hand-sanding. Davis says the challenge is, “How do you use industrial processes to look like one-of-a-kind pieces?”

“I really like the furniture medium to work with. On the production side, the injection molders and things like that,” says Davis.

James Breaux

San Antonio

James Breaux is an architect-trained furniture designer. Architecture was the meal ticket until furniture design began intruding on his thoughts. He says he spent five years dreaming about it, and two years seriously pursuing it.

He is still balancing the two. The first half of this year was spent on architectural commissions; the second half is devoted to his furniture projects.

“It’s the same set of problems, the same set of forms and ideas are floating around, but the mind/hand challenges of furniture-making I don’t get in architectural projects,” he says. With his furniture practice, “The decision-making process is more concise, and I can design and execute more.”

Breaux’s pieces are geometrically intricate. Chair bases twist and fold as if the original pattern were devised by origami.

A coffee table has a base with an undulating wave pattern modeled on the movement of a stingray. A round slab of marble tops four straight legs, but underneath, curved, half-round supports make a kaleidoscope of shapes as the eye moves around the table. There is always movement in Breaux’s pieces.

He combines his experience in figure drawing with the ergonomic demands of the human body and his ability with design to create things that are visually captivating and physically comfortable.

Erik Thompson

Fort Worth

Erik Thompson is the homegrown design talent. Born and raised on Fort Worth’s North Side, the 33-year-old has parlayed his electrician skills into a custom lighting business that is bringing him corporate and residential clients with huge projects.

In his Fort Worth warehouse, there are 24 20-foot-long bands that will support lengths of beaded crystals for a ballroom ceiling in the Grapevine Marriott Hotel.

For the cancer center at Baylor Plano, he is designing 18 enormous chandeliers that look like flowers whose petals are the colors of all the various bracelets that denote cancer support, such as pink for breast cancer and blue for prostate cancer.

He has a portfolio of large-scale lighting fixtures for big-name clients; he has even designed fiber-optic chandeliers for the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

For every commercial client, he has a residential one; Thompson says his customer list is split 50/50 between the two. He has created a floor-to-ceiling light fixture of crystal teardrops for a residence in the W Hotel in Dallas, and a 35-foot-long glass-topped LED-lit bar for a Canton client’s home.

A black Murano glass chandelier was fabricated for a client who brought him a big box of pieces that she had purchased online.

“I always had a knack for taking things apart and putting them back together. That’s where I got my mechanical building skills,” he says.

Which is why he is extremely excited about one of his most recent residential projects, which is working with a homeowner in Dallas who made a fortune in robotics. Thompson’s client wants a 50-foot-long chandelier that splits in two and moves up and down depending on the number of people using the dining room.

His wife, Claudia, is part of Quatro Lighting Designs, named for their four children, and he finds that when they go out to a restaurant, they look at the lighting before they glance at a menu.

“So few people realize just what kind of impact lighting can provide,” Thompson says, “which is why we don’t advertise ourselves as electricians. We do lighting.”

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse, images, internet links or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?