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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
He's also making a conference table for a museum in
Connecticut that also purchased three of his Sunburst
In the long term, Wanrooij would like to hire some helpers
so that he can focus more on the design aspect of his
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