|The start of 'something fantastic'|
|The Tulsa experiment|
|Valuing the middleman|
|On the brink|
Tim Warlick has come a long way in the last 18 years, following an almost predetermined path that has led him to ownership of a one-man furniture shop in Pawtucket, R.I.
From his college days studying design to stops at cabinet and furniture shops, and an invaluable five-year stint at one of the world's most renowned restoration shops, Warlick's furniture-making career resembles a calculated step-by-step process that has finally brought him great satisfaction as a shop owner.
Tim Warlick Furniture & Design opened about a year ago in Pawtucket, R.I. His business is basically split in thirds â€” a continuation of the restoration work he began in New York, building reproductions (sometimes with design twists that set them apart from the originals) and, lastly, his own furniture. He keeps very busy dealing with interior decorators and antiques dealers in New York, a testament to his talents and success.
The journey begins
After an initial interest in studio furniture, which was short-lived, Warlick took his first job at a Cincinnati shop at the age of 22. The shop produced furniture and high-end kitchens, and Warlick was the designated helper for about a year.
Owner of: Warlick Furniture & Design
Location: Pawtucket, R.I.
Shop size: 1,800 sq. ft.
Education: Master's degree in functional design (furniture sculpture), Murray State University, Ky.
Experience: 18 years, including five years at Jonathan Burden Inc., New York, a furniture restoration firm
Recent projects: Pembroke table, drum table, game table and own work
On restoration work: "I'd definitely recommend it to anybody that really wanted to learn good craftsmanship. The advantage with the antiques is that you learn the history and you learn what can be done with handwork and craftsmanship. So I would definitely advise people who want to learn to seek out the best work experience they can get."
His apprenticeship continued at Moss-Fauset Woodworking, a cabinet and furniture shop in Hoboken, N.J. The business was owned by Kalle Fauset, who had a studio furniture background and was a product of the Program in Artisanry at Boston University.
"What was interesting about Kalle, he came from that studio furniture background but he went right into doing commercial work," recalls Warlick. "His clients were interior designers and architecture firms in Manhattan that would bring him their designs to build. It was very high-end stuff; a really high-dollar clientele."
Moss-Fauset proved to be a perfect fit for Warlick. "I knew I had a lot more to learn and I wanted to be in a shop where the quality of work being done was so high. Kalle's shop was like that," says Warlick. "I worked there for almost four years until it was time to move on."
The next stop was Jonathan Burden Restoration, a high-end restoration shop in lower Manhattan. Warlick arrived hoping to improve his hand tool skills, and got more than he bargained for.
"That's where my education really started," Warlick says. "The great thing about Jonathan's shop is that he dealt with very high-end 18th-century English [furniture] mainly; that's his market. We got our hands on pieces from the best shops in London and attributed to [William] Vile and [John] Cobb, [Thomas] Chippendale, George Bullock and John Linnell."
Learning the ways
Warlick soon was completely immersed in his restoration work and became a history buff, studying period furniture and designs of the time. He was constantly researching the craftsmen of the 18th century, eager to learn how they made their furniture, who their clients were and where the materials came from.
"I think he just wanted to learn more about classical design and how things were made back in the day," says Burden. "I think he was completely fascinated by these pieces. We are lucky that we do work on the finest things in the United States. We do have that reputation of working on the best furniture that needs restoring, not in the gilding or anything like that, but in the woodworking. He saw some tremendous pieces of furniture and saw how they were made. And when a piece was missing he got to carve it, shape it or whatever, or find the right veneer that was missing."
Burden's restoration shop deals primarily with high-end antiques dealers in New York, London and Paris, as well as top decorators and interior designers. There's a retail gallery above the shop, which showcases antique, 20th century and contemporary furniture.
"It's really a store to the trade," Burden says. "It's open to the public, but my clients are all the high-end designers and decorators in New York; a lot in California and quite a bit in London as well. It has our reproductions, along with the mirrors, stools, side tables and chairs we make. They're pieces that we thought were fantastic designs and were worth reproducing. Tim was involved in that."
Though Warlick was challenged by the restoration work, he had other woodworking dreams. "I quickly gained confidence that I could fix whatever was broken, even if I had broken it myself," he said with a laugh. "It was funny because when I started in the job, I wasn't sure if I even wanted to do that kind of work. I didn't bring my tools in for a long time. I ended up staying for five years, then decided it was time to leave.
"Doing restoration, you could see over time my heart wasn't really in it. The people that do that for life, they really have a passion for it. With me, I always wanted to get back to building new furniture."
With his wife Wendy and two children, Warlick left their tiny New York apartment and headed west.
The Tulsa experiment
Warlick opened his own shop in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., hoping to drum up some local business while maintaining contacts with some of the best clients, interior decorators and antiques dealers from his New York days. He had a desire to produce new furniture with his own designs and reproductions that contained some new elements.
"I thought I could keep my contacts in New York and still do business, which I did and it worked out fairly well but I could see it wasn't going to work out long term because I would have to crate and ship everything. I rolled all those things into the price, trying to make it as seamless as possible. It's a mental thing. If you're not on the East Coast, they think you're on the other side of the world."
The local business simply didn't pan out. Although there were people in Tulsa who could easily afford to buy fine furniture, Warlick believes they just didn't value it that much. He had more time on his hands than money, although he did purchase some woodworking machines at auctions, stripped them down and restored them. But a little over a year ago, the three-year Tulsa experience came to an end.
"My wife is from Connecticut, and she wanted to move back east. She gave me a grace period when she decided to move to Tulsa but that was running out. Then one day I came in and my landlord had sold the building, so I had to move anyway. We had been checking out different places and decided on Pawtucket. It's been a great move."
Valuing the middleman
In New York, Oklahoma and now Rhode Island, the talented woodworker has always done his utmost to stay in close contact with his best clients, almost all of whom are in New York. He has also maintained a strong relationship with Burden.
"Since I've been out on my own, I've done reproductions for them like copying chairs and some restoration. But it's very selective; only referrals.
"Early on, I built pieces on spec, just to have show pieces. You have to able to show people because the work does the talking. I've had some good success selling my work through the galleries of three different antiques dealers in New York, including Jonathan's, the Gerald Bland Gallery and the Philip Colleck Gallery."
Though furniture makers have been known to resent the financial arrangement that accompanies showing their work in galleries, Warlick has a contrarian outlook. Without the interior designers and gallery owners, he doesn't feel he would be able to reach the high-end clientele he constantly seeks out. Their value to his business can't be underestimated.
"That's the way the very high-end clientele buys fine furniture," he explains. "They don't go out and shop for themselves. They listen to their interior designer or they're familiar with a dealer. So they go to these intermediaries, but these people work for their money. This clientele expects a lot of service.
"I got a job a couple of years ago reproducing some Chippendale chairs for a woman through Philip Colleck. We talked about the job, it all looked good, we were just waiting for the deposit but it wasn't coming. So I called my interior decorator who was saying the woman came in the week before and they had a good meeting. She said, 'I had her over for dinner the other day and I think she'll be cutting us a check pretty soon.' There's that much effort to have some chairs made but that's the way they have to do business. They're kind of friends with these people."
Warlick is trying to develop a new market for contemporary pieces with the New York dealers. But because they usually sell only antiques, it hasn't been easy. However, he is quick to point out that working with the New York connection is a necessary part of his business, and is much more than what some makers perceive as working with some needless middlemen.
On the brink
Warlick works with both veneer and hardwoods. He was fortunate to indirectly purchase a vintage stock of veneer from a New York company that sold off its inventory. Actually, a friend of his bought the veneer from Frederick Victoria & Son, but was getting divorced. The friend would only sell the entire stock of veneer or there was no deal. So, Warlick bought it all. Hardwoods in his shop come mainly from Downes & Reader Hardwood Co. in Stoughton, Mass., and Irion Lumber Co. in Wellsboro, Pa.
In his Pawtucket shop, you will find a multitude of hand tools; dozens of hand planes, saws, chisels, gouges and the like. Almost all of his machines have been restored following purchase at auction. They include a Northfield 36" band saw, Delta 10" Unisaw, Moak shaper, Northfield 12" jointer, Rockwell 24" planer and two lathes.
Warlick would like to be building more and more of his own furniture. He is considering holding his first one-man show at the Philip Colleck Gallery. It is in the planning stages, and Warlick would have to produce several more spec pieces to pull it off.
"I've got to make a plan and commit to it if that's what I'm going to do. Right now I'm officially undecided. We'd like to be able to expand that part. I've got a lot of ideas. I think there is a bigger market, ultimately."
He also wants to tap into the kind of clientele that used to buy the high-style 18th century furniture; the modern-day equivalents of the French aristocracy, English upper class. Warlick says for some reason they're not much interested in fine furniture but if he could capture a little of their interest, there would be potential there.
"It's the early days for him," observes Burden. "I think you've caught him right at the beginning of something fantastic. And I think I would definitely revisit him in the next five to 10 years and you will see what happened. It's really going to be very interesting to see how he develops his business."
"An interesting thing I did just a few months ago; Gerald Bland and I designed this game table with backgammon, a chessboard top that was based on 18th century furniture," Warlick says. "The top lifts off and flips over. I made four of those; two ebonized and two in pearl, with machined aluminum parts substituting for the bronze that the original had. It was an original design very much under Gerry's direction. The collaboration is great, especially when you are working with someone with good sense.
"These are dealers, if they think they can sell something, they're interested. I've been pursuing that and I want to do more of that because I think ultimately that's where the better opportunity is."