The present learns from the past

Chris Lehrecke

One of the first things that wowed Chris Lehrecke, a furniture maker from Dutchess County, New York, was the collection of woodworkers' tools, including literally hundreds of planes, drills, saws, and the like, arranged on a long wall in the museum's Shaker Shed. They appealed quite naturally to his craftsman's soul, but he also saw in them a symbiotic melding of metal and wood that holds a great fascination for him—they are beautiful as well as functional objects that bespeak their materials' unique properties, and that is what he aims for in his own designs.

The son of an architect, Lehrecke grew up in Tappan, New York, in a house furnished with modern designs by the likes of Ray (1912-1988) and Charles (1907-1978) Eames and Knoll, and as a teenager he was introduced to the work of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and George Nakashima (1905-1990). After graduating from art school he decided his talents lay in "building," by which he means that he could have started making almost anything—"whether one is creating houses, boats, sculptures, or furniture, the processes of designing and making are closely connected," he says. He found a job with a furniture maker in Brooklyn, and though the types of things the shop was creating—primarily 1980s postmodern—were not to his taste, he learned a lot about techniques and materials. By the time the business closed, he was ready to start on his own, and he set up a studio in Brooklyn. His first designs were stools, benches, and tables that showed African and Shaker inspiration.

In 1997 Lehrecke and his family moved upstate from Brooklyn to a sleepy little town in the Hudson River valley, where their house, converted from an 1820s Baptist church by the previous owner, stands beside a country road overlooking rolling meadows. A few years later he built a shop nearby, where he now does all of his work, aided by a small staff.

A lot of the time, however, Lehrecke is outdoors, hiking in search of wood and inspiration. Over the years he has established close ties with local loggers and sawyers, who know to inform him whenever they are on a job or see a fallen tree that might interest him. Not only does he let a log guide his design for a stool or table, working with its contours (and occasional deformities such as burls or wormholes) to determine its size and shape, but he is adamant about using indigenous woods in his work. "There are so many beautiful logs available to me locally, that the idea of working in exotic foreign woods seems perverse. I find it really strange that many designers who think it's extremely important to support locally grown foods specify reclaimed lumber from Indonesia for projects in New York City."

Walnut, cherry, ash, white oak, catalpa, and maple are some of his favorites. "Some woods work well both as furniture and as veneers for my lighting shades; others have rot resistant qualities best suited for outdoor furniture."  He mills and dries lumber in a shed near the studio—"currently we probably have fifty thousand board feet of wood in the drying shed."

Lehrecke had never been to the Shelburne Museum before the March visit. While he was enamored by the display of tools on Friday, when he walked into the Horseshoe Barn on Saturday, he knew he had found "his object"—a nineteenth-century swell-body sleigh designed by James Goold of Albany, New York, on which the curves of the metal runners and dash and the curves of the wooden body reinforce and complement each other so beautifully that he just kept running his hands over them.

Returning home, he began sketching and then building a chair that likewise uses wood and metal's intrinsic qualities to support each other—the steel strengthening and complementing the laminated ash he bent to form the continuous arcs of back and seat and arms and base. "For the final model I think I will replace the one-piece seat and back with bentwood slats," he adds.

Next: Toots Zynsky

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All