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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Function meets form

Copyright 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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Staff photo by Jill Brady
Staff photo by Jill Brady

"Sunburst," a cherry and maple bench, is sturdy enough to seat three. The "Oceana" end table, middle of the page, is Wanrooij's best-selling piece.

Staff photo by Jill Brady
Staff photo by Jill Brady

This table, titled "Whiskers," was created by Woolwich furniture maker Paul Wanrooij out of cherry and maple.

Staff photo by Jill Brady
Staff photo by Jill Brady

Paul Wanrooij, in his Woolwich workshop, demonstrates the features of a joiner. Wanrooij calls his work "functional art."


OTHER EXAMPLES of studio furniture and fine woodworking can be seen in Rockport at the Messler Gallery, which is affiliated with the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

THE GALLERY is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and beginning this summer, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


PAUL WANROOIJ'S work can be seen online at: www.paulusfurniture.com.

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WOOLWICH Paul Wanrooij came to America from the Netherlands in 1994, fell in love, and decided to stay. He married his sweetheart and began looking for a way to make a living. He entered the business world, working as an operations manager at a mail-order apparel company in North Carolina.

But he wasn't happy. And his wife, Beth, knew it.

"I noticed that he always loved wood," she said. "He made a little sailboat one summer, and he just loved it. Then I bought him a lathe for his birthday one year, and that got him going."

Beth Wanrooij convinced her husband to go back to school to learn woodworking. In 2001, he joined the well-regarded Professional Crafts program at Haywood Community College in Clyde, N.C., where he studied fine woodworking. That was the first step on the path to his new life.

Today Paul and Beth Wanrooij live in Maine, where Paul is fulfilling his dream of creating furniture that is both beautiful and functional. It's not easy to make a living as a furniture maker, and the couple is still struggling.

"But boy, is he happy," Beth Wanrooij said. "And everybody is happy when they see his work, too."

Wanrooij, 54, calls his work "functional art," and is selling his pieces mostly through galleries up and down the East Coast.

"If you want to have furniture, you go to a store in Portland and you buy furniture," he said. "But if you want a piece of art, or functional art, then you go to a gallery where you can buy a piece of furniture which you know is kind of unique, that not many other people have."

The whole furniture-as-art field is now known as "studio art," said Peter Korn, executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport.

"It's something new historically," Korn said. "It's furniture built as a means of self-expression. You won't find examples of people doing that before 1930, for sure."

The craftsmen who built the beautiful centuries-old antiques that sell for top-dollar today weren't thinking about their own fulfillment or personal growth when they picked up a woodworking tool, even though their work was the best, Korn said.

At that time, furniture makers were plying a trade, like plumbers or electricians, and those who produced beautiful pieces were simply the best in their field, trying to please their customers.

Today, with mass-produced furniture available for less, "what you're buying is the fact that this piece of furniture was made by an individual who was exploring their own point of view," Korn said.

"That's what happens when you buy a painting or sculpture," Korn said. "You're buying it because someone actually went through a creative process making it, and it was a process of discovery for the person making it. You're buying into that process, in a way."

In some cases, studio furniture isn't made to be used at all, though it may look like a chair or table.

Wanrooij insists that his work be utilitarian.

Much of Wanrooij's work features simple, elegant designs, with lots of playful curves and the occasional quirky feature that gives a new twist to, say, a coffee table.

With his best-selling piece, an end table he calls "Oceana," the eye is drawn to the swirls made by bowed strips of cherry or maple wood. It is attractive, but someone could place a book, lamp or coffee cup on top without feeling as if the piece were ruined.

Another customer favorite is the maple-and-cherry "Sunburst" bench, which looks like a rising sun but can also sit three people comfortably.

Wanrooij has one of these sitting in his own living room, where several of his pieces are on display, and he recently completed a bed based on the same design.

"When you make a bench, it should be a bench," Wanrooij said. "You should be able to sit on it with two or three people, so it has to be strong and sturdy. Same with a plant stand. You can make a plant stand that's very elegant - look at the plant stand over there with very thin legs - but it should be able to support a heavy object."

Wanrooij crafts his furniture in a workshop he has set up in the garage of the country home he and his wife are renting. Hand tools hang on the walls, and throughout the space are the usual tools of his trade - a table saw, a band saw, sanders, glue clamps, a lathe for turning, and other equipment.

Wanrooij works in his shop every day, seven days a week. His days begin at 7 a.m. at the computer, and he is working with his hands by 8 a.m. He often doesn't end his day until 8 p.m.

Wanrooij begins a piece with a few sketches, then makes scale models out of scrap wood or cardboard that he can show to the customer and use to work out the details of his design.

Each piece has an oil and lacquer finish to bring out the natural beauty of the wood.

Wanrooij never graduated from the two-year woodworking program at Haywood Community College. After eight months, the couple moved to Michigan to be near his wife's family.

But Wanrooij had done well at the North Carolina school, so when he reached his new home he just started making things. He also began making the rounds of outdoor shows, but soon came to believe indoor shows and art galleries were better places to market his work.

When he moved to Maine in 2004, he got in his car and drove all over the state - and other spots on the East Coast - meeting with gallery owners.

"Usually I would have one or two pieces in my car, and I would show it to them," he said.

The market for studio furniture is "a small, difficult market," said Korn of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

Wanrooij's efforts at self-promotion led to placing pieces in galleries in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Philadelphia, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Last summer, he sold a couple of pieces at Northeast Fine Art and Design in Northeast Harbor. He also takes commissions. Pricing ranges from $295 for a lamp or plant stand and go up to $8,500 for a reception desk. The Oceana end table, one of his most popular pieces, goes for $1,200, and the Sunburst bench is priced at $2,600.

Wanrooij also has several awards under his belt. He was named the best-selling new artist at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C., and he won the 2005 Niche Award from the Philadelphia Buyers Market of American Craft.

His current projects include a curved cherry reception desk, and a set of cherry-and-maple bookcases, desks and filing cabinets for a psychiatrist's office in Connecticut.

He's also making a conference table for a museum in Connecticut that also purchased three of his Sunburst benches.

In the long term, Wanrooij would like to hire some helpers so that he can focus more on the design aspect of his business.

Even though launching his new career has been difficult financially, Wanrooij and his wife have no regrets about his decision to try living his dream. One of his favorite quotes, Wanrooij says, is from Marc Chagall: "Work isn't to make money; you work to justify life."

"I don't really worry about what's going to happen next," he said. "I just live day by day. It's the creativity that is appealing, to make beautiful things."

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791 - 6332 or at:


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