The art and craft of making furniture

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Close up photo of furniture maker Bill Russell of Fishtown painting a tabletop edge with pigmented color mixed with apple cider vinegar. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )

Collectors with an eye for style can experience works from classic to experimental this weekend at the 16th annual Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show.

Pieces by Philadelphia's Bill Russell and Peter Handler, Maine's Thomas Moser, and the studio furniture team of Michael Bell and Susan Zelouf from Ireland will be featured. The invitational, the longest-running show devoted to furniture and furnishings in the country, will be held at the Navy Yard's Cruise Ship Terminal.

"What we're really selling here is a whole experience," says organizer Josh Markel, a designer and furniture maker. "You can have a relationship with a live artist and you can be part of the design process because you have a specific setting and dimensions in mind.

"It is an interplay between the artist and the patron. When you have the final product, you know how it came together - it's a very rich experience."

Collectors with an eye for style can try to pick out artists who will become legends of their craft in the future.

Collectors such as Dorothy and Marshall Reisman have a knack for picking items by talented furniture makers. Last week, Christie's New York sold furniture from their collection in a 20th Century Decorative Art & Design sale. A coffee table the couple "acquired directly from the [George] Nakashima workshop" brought $33,750, a dining table "commissioned directly from Sam Maloof" sold for $11,875.

Visitors can look for pieces that combine superb design and execution. An excellent investment, successful studio furniture is a joy to live with and holds its intrinsic value.

Tonight's preview party, which benefits the nonprofit art organization InLiquid, is called "Tomorrow's Collectibles." Collecting experts David Rago and Suzanne Perrault are scheduled to attend that event. The two are famous for their arts-and-crafts and modern sales at the Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, N.J. Rago's walk-and-talk on the show's floor will focus on the evolution of innovative furniture design.

"One of my favorite themes is the 'Design Line,' the fact that these things don't come out of nowhere and they don't stop in one particular place," says Rago. "There's a continuum that goes on from the rejection of the Industrial Revolution to today.

"I'm going to talk about the correlation between arts-and-crafts and George Nakashima, and then Wendell Castle and people working today. Tying it all together and giving people a perspective on these things - that's what I plan to do."

Rago urges people not to pigeonhole their collecting energy into just one style or period. He suggests purchasing or commissioning pieces from artists working today and displaying them with classics.

The show "is very exhibitor driven," explains show organizer Markel. "We have a committee of exhibitors that review applications. And once you're in, you're in."

Markel agrees that future stars always are on display: "I can't name names, but I saw a young woman, just getting out of college. She did some stuff - especially a rocker - and I was jealous as I could be that I hadn't designed it. It was stunningly simple and beautiful in a more modern style, and I thought, 'this gal is going far.' "

One must-see exhibitor this year is zelouf+BELL, Michael Bell and Susan Zelouf, who exhibited at the 2004 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.

"He's just an amazing craftsperson - his technique is over the moon," Markel says of Bell. "He's done a very eclectic bunch of work. Some of it is in a modernist vein, some of it is quirky, almost otherworldly."

A preview of their work is at www.zeloufandbell.com.

The most widely known maker in this year's show is Thomas Moser, who gave up teaching to pursue furniture design in 1971. While some exhibitors work alone, Moser has a large workshop. See his work at www.thosmoser.com.

Moser was to host a panel yesterday on the "American Craft Furniture Movement of the 20th Century" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He will hold a special sale today through Sunday at the St. Davids Golf Club, as well as exhibiting his furniture at the show.

Moser is proud that he not only followed his dream, but supported a family in the process. "A lot of people in this field scorn material success," Moser said in a phone interview from Florida. "We're probably a bit of an anomaly.

"Most people who build what we build and sell, do it in small shops of two-to-five people. The idea of having 60 people making furniture is pretty unusual. I always say, look at the product and let it speak for itself."

While woodcraft abounds, some exhibitors use other materials and techniques. Bill Russell is a fine Philadelphia artist who applies his finishes and decorations to furniture he finds or has made to order. Look at the exquisite series of painted screens at www.billrussellstudio.com.

Russell is best known for his vinegar-painted furniture in patterns ranging from traditional wood graining to fanciful designs. He is the author of Decorative Furniture Finishes With Vinegar Paint and will offer a faux-painting workshop in May at his studio on Frankford Avenue.

For the show this year, he has created a special collection decorated with complex intersecting arcs.

"What influences me and informs my sensibility is a sense of space and form in space," Russell says. "I'm certainly working with surface, but I'm thinking about the spatial relationship the surface might have."

Exhibitor Peter Handler of Philadelphia began working with aluminum when he was a jewelry maker.

"An interior designer came up to me at a show and said, 'you work bigger?' " he recalls. "And I started making furniture. In 1984, I made my first piece of furniture with black and red anodized aluminum legs. That was the only thing in my show booth anybody saw."

At his Web site, www.handlerstudio.com, the artist notes that, while in graduate school, "I discovered aluminum as a material and metal machining as a creative subtractive process."

"The process is analogous to what woodworkers do," Handler says. "I use a milling machine, lathes, band saws, a sander. I have a wall full of templates. People think it's cast because it is so organic in form."

The aluminum he shapes becomes imaginative legs for tables, beds, and soft seating. He also has made a series of Jewish liturgical objects including menorahs. He is working on a line of furniture that expresses his concern about climate change, "Canaries in the Coal Mine."


The Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show preview reception is from 6 to 9 tonight; the show is from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Cruise Ship Terminal, 5100 S. Broad St. Admission prices for tonight begin at $20; tomorrow and Sunday cost $12 for one day and $15 for a weekend pass ($2 discount on phone pre-orders). Information and tickets: 215-387-8590 or www.PhilaIFS.com.