The Next Generation of
American Studio Craftsmen
Article by C.G.Wolfe ● Photography by Ricardo Barros Photographs
The Collective Studio show room is spartan and unadulterated, there is no need for accent pieces or ancillary décor - the furniture stands on its own. The show room has the stripped-down chic feeling of an urban gallery exhibit, but this isn’t Chelsea or Tribeca, this is New Jersey horse country. The rich, figured hard woods that are the soul of each design, are salvaged from local forests, fields and farms, and the furniture reflects the region itself; a crossroads of sturdy rustic tradition and contemporary upscale refinement.
“There is a reason our work fits beautifully into so many homes,” Collective Studio Master Woodworker, Stephen Garfield recently told his friend and fine art photographer, Ricardo Barros. “Some houses retain their historic character, others embrace the present. Our furniture compliments both.”
Collective Studio, LLC, is the partnership of Garfield and fellow master craftsman, Jim Thorpe, who at the outset of their relationship bound themselves to a single-page pact they drew up together - a signed commitment to uphold the best traditions of the American Studio Craft Movement, a movement pioneered by innovators in furniture design and construction like George Nakashima, who rejected mass-production for works produced in independent studios, by artists using traditional materials and processes. Central to their pledge is the promise of integrity in the relationship with their clients, and in the design and construction of their furniture.
“We discussed it for months and that’s really important to us,” explained Jim Thorpe. “In terms of our own work, if I don’t like it - it’s out. If he (Stephen) doesn’t like it - it’s out.”
“Nothing’s coming out of our studio that isn’t as good as we can possibly make it,” Stephen Garfield added. “That’s the essence of studio furniture…This is a different pew in a different church.”
Seemingly dichotomous by nature, but complimentary in their work and styles, both men were exposed to their craft at an early age but took divergent paths on their life’s journey before arriving at their road less taken.
Exuberant and outdoorsy, with a Bohemian élan, Stephen Garfield is where SoHo meets the Somerset Hills. A classically schooled artist and painter, Garfield is also a fox hunter and equestrian who has been a nationally ranked polo player. He spent 30-plus lucrative years alongside his wife, Judith, in the rough-and-tumble fashion industry, before reconnecting with his woodworking roots, and though he’s apt to stray to topics of nature, spirituality, or his Hunterdon County farm when discussing furniture, by no means mistake him for a dilettante. Garfield learned his craft at the hallowed Nakashima studio, where he worked for the master himself, George Nakashima, before further honing his skills at the New York City studio of Don Ruseau, a maker of fine 17th and 18th century antique reproduction furniture for museums and private collections. These unique experiences coalesced into a singular deft ability to visualize the seamless union of classical form with contemporary flair and functionality.
New Jersey native, Jim Thorpe, appears as you might imagine when you hear his name; clean-cut, strapping, and collegiate-looking. When he’s not in the workshop or ripping logs, “I have an addiction to the saw mill,” he admitted. Thorpe spends his spare time on the ice hockey rink. His movements and words seem measured and purposeful, but the more you talk to him, the more you get the sense that he has another side, one that’s not afraid to venture out of his zone with the puck, a speculative nature that probably suited him well during his 23 years on Wall Street, where he ran a successful trading desk at one of the top firms.
“First and foremost we get along on a personal level,” said Stephen Garfield, “But I draw, I like to draw out things, but you know Jim has an intuitive sense of things that I really admire. He’s much more spontaneous.”
Thorpe developed his woodworking skills alongside his father, Harold Thorpe, a master woodworker. His informal summer apprenticeships in his father’s workshop started with the fundamentals.
“My hands were just raw from Marine stripper, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s strong stuff,” he related.
Stealing home from Manhattan during his spare time, Thorpe continued fostering his love for woodworking with his father, where he perfected the skills of joinery and other intricacies of the trade. But after an epiphanal visit with George Nakashima at his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Thorpe eschewed his office in the city for a timber-frame barn and saw mill back in New Jersey, and began making furniture full-time.
Garfield and Thorpe were drawn together by their love for wood and furniture making, particularly live edge furniture. Known as “flitch,” a board, or slab, is milled from the tree leaving the natural edge, including the bark. In this way, the contours and intrinsic nature of the wood determine the design of the piece.
“It defines you, you don’t define it,” said Thorpe.
Most of the timber in the Collective Studio inventory is reclaimed locally from fallen old growth hard wood trees.
“This region from New York down to Virginia has been the heart of many different furniture movements because we have an incredible natural resource in the wood that we have,” Garfield explained. “That point where New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey all meet has got the most incredible cherry in the whole world, people from all over the world go to that area for what they call blood cherry. It’s incredible.”
“The more I started working with Steve and meeting different people, I really drilled down into the local stuff,” Thorpe added. “The beautiful maple, oak, cherry, from right around here. Sandy provided wood like you couldn’t believe. It just makes sense to work with what you have.”
The conversion of a tree to furniture is a long, expensive, and often risky process, taking anywhere from two to three years as the tree has to be milled, naturally aged, and then kiln-dried before it has enough moisture removed to create a structurally sound and enduring piece of heirloom furniture.
“And there’s still no guarantees,” said Thorpe, “because you don’t find out what you have until you’re well into the process.”
“The problem isn’t finding wood,” Garfield added. “The problem is finding great wood. That really becomes the challenge and there’s a lot of wood available but until you crack it open, you don’t really know what it is.”
Many live edge furniture makers, like Garfield and Thorpe, embrace the organic characteristics of the timber, choosing boards not only for their beautifully figured grains, but also for their knots, burrs, and other so called, disfigurements.
“I was talking to a friend of mine who had this door, and in the grain you could see the waves of the ocean,” said Stephen Garfield, who often sees elements of nature reflected in the cloud-like grains and watery sap streaks of a fine piece of hardwood.
These beauty marks, scars, and wrinkles reveal the individual story of the tree they once came from, and each board, even though it may be hewn from the same section, has its own essence that serves as both the medium and the muse, inspiring artisan and client alike.
“Every piece of wood is like a person in the sense that even the next plank from the very same tree might be as similar as a sibling, as a person might be, but they’re different,” said Ru Amagasu, the grandson of George Nakashima, who is a friend and frequent collaborator at Collective Studio. “The shape is different, the character is different, the personality is different,” he added. “So because of those differences, a client can come in and they can pick out something that’s most suitable to them and interestingly what you’ll see is that people certainly have preferences… beauty is in the eye of the beholder… you want to go through that process.”
Collective Studio Furniture incorporates classic elements with today’s aesthetics. This can be a bold statement, like the rectangular iron base on their figured walnut, “Harding” reception bar, or whip stitch parchment wrap around the legs of their old growth oak, “Johnson” cocktail table, or a subtle nuance, exemplified by Garfield’s signature “Bernardsville” buffet, a gorgeous flitch-top design with elegantly tapered cabriole legs. Brazen and unadorned, these custom, one-of-a-kind pieces hand-crafted in Garfield’s and Thorpe’s woodworking studios, don’t accentuate a room, they define it. They are that one great piece that you are looking for that blows a room up and makes everything else stand out; functional forms of visual art with a sculptural allure that makes you want to run your hands along their edges and your fingers through the intricate grains. Sitting at a massive table created by Thorpe, from a regal slab of burled oak with a gorgeous walnut base, it’s hard to keep from running the flat of your hand over the grain and exposed joinery and your fingertips along the rugged live edge.
“That’s what you are supposed to do,” Garfield assured us.
Garfield and his fellow master woodworker, Jim Thorpe, are the new breed of American Studio Craftsmen, and while they continue to have a reverence for Nakashima and other pioneers in American studio craft like Wharton Esherick, Philip Powell, and Paul Evans, they are separating themselves from the idiom of the mid-century movement, limited only by their tools and their imaginations.
“We’re all united by this fact that we love studio furniture, that legacy of studio furniture. We’re proud to be a part of that. To show it, to further that conversation is really what we want to do,” said Stephen Garfield.
“We’re the next generation,” Thorpe added. “We’re the next interpretation of that evolution.”
Collective Studio Furniture is open by appointment at 914 Mt. Kemble Avenue, Morristown, NJ. Please call 908.287.1116 or visit collectivestudiofurniture.com
Sydney and her horse Dakota.