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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Where fine art meets functionality:
Master furniture makers Rob Hare & Michael Puryearby Ross Rice

We often take the concept of furniture for granted. More often than not we just want something comfortable, functional, and not out of place in our houses. When it comes to design elements we tend to think more about artwork, paint and fabric, and architecture before considering the objects we interact with daily therein.

Many of us are thus missing out. Though often considered a luxury, well-designed hand-crafted furniture is and always has been a revealing and viable mode of artistic expression, often tapping into archetypes and symbology both designer and buyer aren’t necessarily conscious of. The history of furniture is as revealing—if not, sometimes, more so—as the history of art or architecture when it comes to showing the cultural values of any civilization at any given point in time.

Like any fine artwork, hand-crafted furniture also gains value over time, unlike that IKEA contraption you bought on sale, sitting in your living room; a more solid investment than your garden variety 401k these days. The Hudson Valley is home to some of the top talent in the field; this month we’d like to feature two of the better known: Rob Hare and Michael Puryear. They also happen to be good friends. And two of the nicest, coolest guys you’d ever hope to meet.


Rob Hare has a round red barn in Rifton. (Quick: say that five times fast.) No really, it’s perfectly circular, built around a thick metal pole in the middle, spacious yet cozy, getting the maximum space from the minimum of material. Inside, a local radio station plays over a speaker system, various and sundry band saws, joiners, and woodworking apparatus are spaced out in different stations, and of course, the ever-present warm, slightly spicy smell of fresh wood.

Like many fine craftsmen, Rob started out in the less practical field of sculpture, earning a Masters at the University of Cincinnati in the mid-70s. His early works were in metal and casting, with which he developed an austere style that was his attempt at “big American sculpture,” often counterpointing straight geometry with undulating curves.

The question was where to do it. Though Rob was originally from northwest Connecticut, as was his wife Lorraine Archacki, friends lured them to the Hudson Valley, where the real estate was still a good deal, and they wound up in Red Hook for several years. Later, in 1980, when a 10,000 square foot building became available on Ravine St. in Kingston, they jumped on it, and with the help of a low-interest loan and a historic preservation grant, renovated the building as a home and workspace. The project was one of the first successes in the resurgence of the Rondout, earning them a full spread in Fine Homebuilding in 1984.

Though Rob still considered himself a sculptor, he was getting the bills paid as a drawing teacher and cabinet maker; one of his more high-profile projects was designing and building the jewelry cases and fixtures at Rhinebeck’s Hummingbird Jewelers in 1980. But it was a piece that once belonged to his grandmother that provided the catalyst for the next step in his career.

It was a small writing desk, with a flat writing surface, inkwells, and drawers…that folded up neatly into an elegant and portable wooden box with cast bronze fixtures. Rob set about reinterpreting it in his own style. “As an object, it’s just beautiful. A large part of what excited me (about it) was that I didn’t have a large studio anymore, so I needed to scale down. And then I realized that where I‘d started was a love of finely crafted things.”

“But I wanted it to be sculpture. And when you look at a box like that, you don’t know what’s in there. You say: I want to look. It draws you in. So I decided to make objects…that drew you in. And once you’re in, you’re mine.” First the seduction, then the reveal.

Rob’s boxes took awhile to find their audience—it was a hard sell in the City. “I tried to hawk them in New York. I’d go to galleries, go downtown to SoHo and they’d go, ‘oh, these are way too conservative for us, you need to go Uptown.’ I’d go Uptown and they’d go,’oh, these are way too weird for us, you need to go Downtown!’” Those who did discover the boxes realized that Rob has the skills and aesthetic to design and build larger pieces, and soon commissions started coming in.

“At the end of the 80s—during the economic downturn at that time—the clients that stuck with me were the furniture clients. One: I really enjoyed the furniture, two: it incorporated a lot of the issues I’d been dealing with in sculpture, and three: I could earn a living at it,” Rob laughs. “The more my work has developed a following, or a recognition of what I do, the closer it’s becoming sculpture again. I may draw a real different line between furniture and sculpture, but the creative energies at this point are very similar…the big difference being function.”

Things started taking off in 1994 when Rob managed to get an invitation to the prestigious Philadelphia Furniture Show, which at the time was THE show; people flew in from around the world to attend. Rob was open to collaboration with clients, who would see his work and request customized versions of his designs. One client in particular pushed Rob out of his comfort zone, with good results. Starting with the basic idea of a Japanese Geta Bako—a box near the front door with drawers for shoes—the client wanted something like that…for his office. Something Rob admits he would not have come up with solo. “It was wonderful. He was one of those clients who trusted me, yet kept pushing me.” He kept sending him e-mails; one of a Bauhaus bookcase that interested him and one of an art-and-crafts piece from an English furniture maker. A new piece emerged, something both had a creative investment in.

Rob’s approach blends fine woodworking and expertise with metals. All of his pieces are carefully worked out in advance, utilizing finely honed drafting skills. Subtle curves, deceptively simple design, and skill with materials result in beautiful furniture that make the most of natural forms and symmetry in the wood.

“I’m drawing things now that are harder and harder for me to make.” Rob shows me a drawing of a new table, similar to one he had already designed. But where that one had a frame for the tabletop to sit on, this one consists of four curved metal legs, attached to the glass. The problem to solve: how to make the glass stick to the metal, as all four legs are independent, unattached. It’s a neat challenge, but Rob has a glue expert coming by to help him figure it out; tests need to be done. “It’s going to be an immense amount of work…but it’s really simple looking.”

Rob and Lorraine separated in 1995; he remarried childrens book author and illustrator Iza Trapani in 1997, and the new couple found a good deal on a 150-acre farm in Rifton. The round barn—built by Rob—is where Rob continues to create elegant furniture, inspired by a sculptural sensibility. “I’m not a big fan of the word ‘artist’, because it gets thrown around a lot. I make stuff. I’ve made sculpture, I’ve made houses, I’ve made boats…and I make furniture.”

“You go to the Louvre, and there are works of craft that are considered equal to works of what we call art. But what I’ve come to believe is that it's not for me—or ‘us’—to consider at this time. It’s something to look back on and say ‘this person really had something.’ ”


“It wasn’t so much a career choice as an evolution. But once I got here, I realized that it addressed me in a way that nothing else had. It’s a circuitous story I don’t know how to begin…”

Michael Puryear has a great laugh, and he’s not afraid to use it. Sitting around his dining room table at his home near Shokan, he exudes a serenity of someone who knows the value of what he can do, and doesn’t have to shout about it. The high quality wooden furniture pieces speak for themselves.

But the road here was indeed circuitous. Born and raised in Washington DC, he was the third oldest in “a fairly large family. My brother and sister always seemed to know what they wanted to do, and I hadn’t a clue.” (The brother to whom he refers is world-renowned sculptor Martin Puryear, whose many accomplishments include representing the US at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1989, winning the Grand Prize.) Michael loved diving, so marine biology sounded pretty good. After two years at Howard University however, he came to the conclusion that “at that time, I wasn’t ready for college,” and pulled out.

Drafted in 1965, Michael spent two years as a lab technician at the Fifth Army Med Lab in St. Louis, and afterward got his old job at the DC Library back, where over eleven years he worked his way up from page to supervisor. “It was great. I consider that a really important part of my education. Being around that kind of information was just amazing. I taught myself photography through books there, basically taught myself woodworking the same way. You have to experiment, but basically all that information is there.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Michael was also struggling with dyslexia, which wasn’t accurately diagnosed in him until a few years later. Though it caused difficulties for him, he “had learned how to compensate. That’s what all dyslexics do.”

“I don’t look at dyslexia as a disability, as much as a difference. It’s part of the spectrum of being human. It’s just because we’ve focused our education on symbolism, that it’s become a problem for a dyslexic. I think there’s a tremendous advantage. Dyslexics are very visual people, with amazing associative abilities.”

Michael returned to Howard, and finished his bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Shortly after that he quit his job at the library, and moved to New York City to get into photography. Once his landlord noticed that Michael—who had built his own dark room, desk, and bookcases—was handy, he hired him to do some cabinetry for him. One thing led to another, and soon Michael was a professional contractor, with plenty of work remodeling Brooklyn buildings in the mid-70s during what he calls its “brownstone renaissance.”

But that too was unsatisfying. Michael got involved in a co-venture with some friends who started a shop for model works, special effects, and props. Now he had access to the tools for fine woodwork, and “it was a luxury to learn while I was actually making a living.” Michael didn’t stay long in a comfort zone though. “At a certain point what I would do is design a piece, and then give myself one element that I hadn’t done before.” After awhile, he had assembled an impressive skill set. “When I realized how much I knew was when I started teaching,” mostly at trade schools across the country.

Michael and his wife—photographer Sarah Wells—moved from the Bowery to a Chelsea loft that they got a great deal on ($800 per month), and Michael started showing his furniture pieces. Word-of-mouth, some advertising in Metropolis magazine, and a fruitful partnership with a high-end interior decorator helped get the ball rolling, and exhibitions at some of the major shows—like the big one in Philadelphia—cemented his reputation. Plus, he was getting a lot better at the business side.

When a new landlord bought the Chelsea building, he wanted to renovate and bring it up to code, so he made an offer to Michael and Sarah to buy them out. After a year of negotiations they settled on a good figure, and Michael started looking north to the Hudson Valley. “I knew the area, my brother lived here…my wife and I were outdoor people, we’d come up here to bike and backpack.” Sarah’s photography business was City-centered though; it wasn’t until she passed away in 1998 from cancer that Michael finally decided to leave, and move upstate. He ended up in his present Shokan location in 2004, and has found love again with artist marketing consultant Nicole Carroll.

On Michael’s web site, he describes his style as being “Shaker/Scandinavian with Japanese and African qualities.” When asked about it, he gets a good hearty laugh at the potential incongruities before explaining himself. “Well, the Shaker and the Scandinavian…that’s where my design awareness kind of came in. When I started to really be aware of design and attracted to it, it was the simple forms, that reductive quality, the clean-ness. It wasn’t necessarily Bauhaus, in that it was just sterile, but definitely reductive, essential. But it had these details—especially the Scandinavian—that were kind of sculptural. There’s an aspect of what I do that’s very much about the hand, and how things feel, how they’ve been used…these are all things that the Shakers were very much about.”

Many of Michael’s pieces use contrast, using different woods to produce an effect, as well as the inherent tension/release of curves against straight lines. “It started with one piece that I did, inspired by looking at the high tension (electrical) line poles along the NY State Thruway. These two phone poles, connected by an arch that holds the wires. I saw it and saw it…it resonated. Then later when I was designing a table and I thought oh…this would be a way to use this.” From this came his signature “floating table,” where the surface sits atop arched pieces, appear to float. “A lot of my work is about the tension of geometry, but also the illusion…or what I call the psychological implications of arches…in that they have a natural tendency to lift.”

Michael still teaches, presently one day a week at SUNY Purchase, in White Plains. “One of the things I tell students is to pay attention, to really look at the world…to look at the world without judgment, just take it in, don’t be saying it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If it has any kind of resonance, look at it some more.”

But what is most impressive about Michael—other than his beautiful and inspired work—is how he has found happiness and success completely on his own terms. “In a sense, the lesson of my life has been: you don’t always have to plan. You will live, you will have a life. It’s the cultural idea of this ‘I’ve got to fit in something, get in it.’ I think it’s oppressive to a lot of people. There’s what I call the tyranny of the over-achiever, where you’re made to feel like (that’s what you need to be). Well, why? In some ways that’s the problem. What’s important to our humanity? ”

“The process is often more important than the results. That’s where the real creative things happen.”

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