Usable art: Woodworkers' pieces for home — or a museum

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Can a piece of furniture be a work of art? William Alburger of Barto, Pennsylvania, thinks so.

Alburger creates one-of-a-kind shelves, mantels and tables from found wood and barn wood. Each piece is unique — down to the carpenter ant marks — and often a representation of his deep faith.

"I take discarded matter and, with excitement and hope, create something beautiful with value and purpose," says Alburger.

Alburger is one of nearly a dozen furniture makers from all over the country who will sell their work at the upcoming Ann Arbor Art Fair, which kicks off Wednesday. Two of the furniture makers are from Michigan.

Each artist is jury selected to appear in the art fair — which is actually four art shows held simultaneously. And the process, which varies slightly from show to show, is rigorous.

For the original art fair, artists submit images of the works, how they are to be displayed and the booth itself, all of which goes through a scoring process that involves several rounds. Fifty percent of prospective artists are rejected in the first round.

I chatted with several of the furniture makers who will be at this year's art fair. Many started in other fields before making the transition to become woodworkers full time. One company is a husband-and-wife duo who have been selling their beautiful handcrafted pieces at the Ann Arbor fair since 1976.

"It's like a family reunion each year — seeing old friends and customers," says Vicki Munn of VicLan Designs, who works with her husband Lance.

Steven Klein of Dansville got a degree in biochemistry from Michigan State University and then opened his first shop in a garage in Lansing. Today, he builds sets for the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea and continues to make furniture.

"I enjoy making pieces to be used and finding just the right use for that special piece of wood," says Klein.

Each furniture maker featured in the upcoming shows in Ann Arbor has a different style and aesthetic. But they also have something common: They create unique, handcrafted pieces that are as much art as they are furniture.

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Ann Arbor Art Fair details

What's known as the Ann Arbor Art Fair is actually four fairs in one. The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, now in its 56th year, kicks off Wednesday and runs through Saturday. So does the Summer Art Fair, South U, and the State Street Area Art Fair. More than 1,000 artists will exhibit their work. All four fairs run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through July 17 and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. July 18. For more information, go to

Old world craftsmanship

It started with shop class.

Working with wood in shop class at Lansing's Everett High School, Steven Klein found his calling. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree with biochemistry, but soon returned to woodworking, opening his first shop in a one-car garage in Lansing.

Today, he makes sets for the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, and he's been the technical director at the Leslie High School auditorium since 2006.

He works with cherry, malted maple and walnut, specializing in making freestanding furniture from quality wood using old world craftsmanship, as he describes it.

"All of my surfaces and joinery are worked with hand tools," says Klein. "...I especially like the intricate joinery and graceful lines often featured in Asian furniture."

Inspiration everywhere

Jake Blok of Kalamazoo finds inspiration everywhere: nature, man-made objects like lighthouses, even traditional furniture.

"Often it comes from odd little things and from there the entire piece grows," he says.

Raised in a family of craftsmen — his great-grandfather started a business building fine custom homes, millwork and cabinets that is still run by family — Blok started making furniture in high school shop class.

But it was Grand Rapids' Kendall College of Art and Design that pushed him "to a whole new level of creative thinking," says Blok, who majored in furniture design. "I really came to appreciate the artistic element of furniture."

Blok, who started J. Blok Studios while in college, makes tables and cabinets. He says his aesthetic is really about form and proportion.

"I focus on how the eye moves along a piece looking at the piece as a sculpture while still keeping it 100 percent functional," he says. "I find a large portion of the furniture today ignores this element and focuses on ornamentation. I work at taking off the ornamentation and focusing on the form of the piece and ornament it with small details such as stainless steel, accenting woods, etc."

Form, function and faith

Some people place ads looking for jobs or services. William Alburger of Barto, Pennsylvania, places ads looking for old wood.

From what he finds, he creates furniture art — tables, cabinets and sculptures. Depending on where the wood was found or what it endured, some have carpenter ant markings. Many still look like pieces of wood simply molded into furniture.

Each piece seems to be an equal mix sculpture and furniture, with built-in doors and shelves.

Alburger was actually a private businessman for 25 years before a shoulder injury forced him to rethink his career. In 1998, his hobby became his new focus and he opened Wall Furnishings.

Alburger calls himself an eco-artist and says each piece he create also is a reflection of his faith. He works in what he calls a two-acre outdoor studio, mixing woodworking techniques with chemical treatments to maximize color, strength and texture.

He says it's about his love of wood, his gift of art, his passion for recycling and his addiction to collecting, all of which are "perfectly united."

Nojo’s Cherry Dance Cabinet features a lyrical grass motif.

Modern take on classic Asian cabinet

The Tansu cabinet originated in Japan in the 17th century, a step-like cabinet that could also be moved, which was perfect for the Japanese's nomadic lifestyle, says furniture maker Jo Roessler of Nojo Design in Easthampton, Mass.

Roessler's version of the tansu cabinets, or step cabinets, are one of his favorite things to make.

It's a "modern take on a classic piece of Asian furniture," says Roessler.

He says most of his pieces are made to suit his customers' unique spaces or needs. Some are big — 11 feet tall — but most come in around 5 feet or 6 feet tall.

"I love that with these cabinets, there are unending design possibilities," says Roessler. "Some have glass and lighting and I often incorporate either wine storage or small drawers along the side 'risers' on the step side."

Happy furniture

Lance and Vickie Munn of VicLan Designs in Bloomington, Indiana, say their design aesthetic is much like their favorite mantra: Keep it simple and close to the heart.

Their furniture reflects that mantra. They make cabinets, tables and chairs, most made of native Indiana cherry, curly maple and walnut.

"We like to accent our designs with other beautiful woods from around the world," says Vicki. "Our current favorite is lacewood. It comes from a silky oak that grows in Australia."

The couple has been collaborating on furniture for 44 years. They did their first Ann Arbor Art Fair in 1976 and it was then that "we knew then this was a lifestyle for us," says Vicki. They bought property in southern Indiana where they raised their children. Today, their grandchildren visit the same shop their children once did.

Vicki says they divide their workload based on physical strength.

"Lance handles the original boards, ripping and then cross cutting them to size. I make the tenons, Lance cuts the mortise," she says. "We clamp them together for our basic mortise and tenon joint. There are many more steps which we share between us."

Together, they love what they do. "Our customers often tell us we make happy furniture," says Vicki.