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Wednesday, 26 January 2011 20:31

Something to hold on to: Master furniture maker inspired by handmade revolution

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John Gernandt loves the word tactile. It’s not so much the word, really, as the whole concept. People, he says, love to pet things. It is in our nature. We are, by default, a touchy species.

He is saying this as he sits on a low wooden stool, running his fingers along the pock-marked texture carved into the sides. See, he says, it’s tactile, human.

Gernandt is a master carpenter, a third-generation furniture maker, and the piece he’s sitting on is one of his own, on display in his downtown Waynesville gallery, Textures on Main.

His creations are dotted around the gallery, and though they’re all different, most are easy to pick out as being crafted by his hand. The workmanship is excellent and has built him a reputation in the world of custom furniture-making. His portfolio includes works done for millionaire clients, as well as some done for locals. He’s not an elitist in that sense, as evidenced by his belief that furniture – even art – should be touchable.

He’s a strong proponent of the handmade revolution, and speaks with passion about populating modern life with objects made by actual craftsmen. He counters what he sees as the myth that handmade or custom is necessarily more expensive.

“My furniture doesn’t cost a dime more than if you go to a nice furniture store, and it can’t, because that’s my market,” says Gernandt.

There is, he says, something to be said for having and using things that someone has poured time and thought and talent into.

“When you sit down at a table where there’s handmade dishes and glasses and chairs, it’s a good feeling,” he says. “And it’s heirloom furniture.”

And that’s what he’s in the business of building: heirloom furniture.

He has a workshop in the basement of his Main Street gallery where he uses only domestic woods to craft his works, 80 percent of which are commissions.

There are curving templates of every shape and size hanging on the walls of the workroom, which he proudly says are all what he calls human curves. They are all modeled after curves one might find on actual humans, none are made by protractors or compasses. “I think they’re just stale,” he says of such mechanical curves. And that’s part of what Gernandt says is appealing about his work. It’s human, tactile.

As an example, he points to a particular table back upstairs in the gallery. Its legs have a slight outward slant which, he says, came from the person who commissioned the piece. He had her lean forward as her husband traced the curve of her lean, and that is the curve of the table. There are examples of that everywhere, he says.

In terms of strict classifiers, his style is contemporary, and that is what he markets himself as. But he doesn’t see contemporary as a strict genre to which he must conform. He is adamant that contemporary is the culmination of all traditions that have come before, and he takes great pleasure in studying them then incorporating them into what he does today.

“I enjoy studying furniture history,” says Gernandt, pointing out a King Louis ankle wrap on a cabinet standing against the wall. That’s part of the fun, incorporating elements of history into new creations.

Gernandt’s own personal furniture-making history started early, age 9 to be precise. His grandfather was a furniture maker, and he loved working with the older man. As a young boy, he approached him with the notion that he, too, would like to make furniture for a living. His grandfather considered and pointed the young Gernandt to an unsanded chair.

“’There’s a chair down there, sand that,’” he said. “‘It’ll take you eight hours a day for five or six days.’” And when he completed the job, his grandfather awarded his stamp of approval, conceding that maybe his grandson had what it took to make it a career.

He did do a stint away from the craft for a while, getting a degree in education before returning to furniture artistry for good in his twenties.

Then he and his wife Suzanne, a textile artist, moved to Western North Carolina with their children because, he says, it’s at the heart of craftsman culture in America.

And business has been good for them, though, of course, not perfect.

He is hopeful that there will always be a market for quality crafted pieces like his, pieces that have a story and a history.

He’s very excited about the idea of apprenticeships to keep the craft alive, and hopes that what he’s able to pass on to future furniture makers is the idea that what makes them important and unique is their creativity.

He’s aware that, in terms of cost, he can’t compete with flat-pack factory furniture, but there is something more valuable, he says, about creativity and craft.

“I think people are starting to understand the importance of creativity in their life,” says Gernandt. “You feel better about your life, and there’s value in that. There’s real value in that.”

To see more of the work of John and Suzanne Gernandt, visit www.texturesonmain.com.

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