|Falling into place|
Tullis rented a small shop space in Long Beach and put in 16-hour days, honing his personal design style at the time.
“After doing the bull nose edge for a few years, I decided to give the front edge of pieces, like cabinet boxes and tables, a more important feature. So I started hand-shaping an elliptical shape using files. Again, all hand work, but it achieved my purpose. This provided a hard edge on both sides of the front.”
Tullis started with a shop rate of $3.50, then “pushed it” to $7, and then $12 an hour. Now he makes “as much as a plumber,” he says. Tullis admits that early on he just wanted to get the experience and greatly undersold himself.
His luck changed as he came in contact with a psychiatrist who was opening an office in Brentwood.
“I met my first big client jogging on the beach. I did his whole office. Then his colleague wanted commissioned work, and then another came along. So I had four or five psychiatrists at a time — all young, all my age, around 38, all competing with each other, trying to get the best stuff,” he laughed.
In 1977, Tullis purchased his home on a five-acre lot in Solvang.
“The area that I worked in was getting scary and, working the hours I did, I knew that would continue. We started looking at Malibu and other beach areas we couldn’t afford. Then I found out about this place and we could barely afford it.”
Tullis built a shop — a 1,260-sq.-ft. double hexagon-style building, complete with beams and trusses — in a year-and-a-half. The shop has large picture windows that bring natural light to his work and let him gaze at the countryside where his shop dog, Sydney, likes to run about.
At the time of the move, Tullis had about 10 regular clients and his backlog extended for nine months. But the market was scarce at his new address.
“I tried to get work here and that was difficult. This valley is pretty small; I didn’t have any connections and my backlog started shrinking.”
He found customers, but they wanted traditional furniture and cabinetry. Tullis obliged.
“The first few years were OK and I learned a new method of fabrication. This went on for about five years in the early ’80s. I had to employ a helper for the bulk work. I made most of the parts in-shop, but used a door company when possible. I made more money doing cabinets than I ever have in furniture, but cabinetry eventually bored me.”
Tullis began a long association with furniture designer Paul Tuttle in 1982. They collaborated on more than 300 pieces in a 20-year period. Tullis credits Tuttle for getting him comfortable in working with other media, including used steel, Formica, glass, aluminum and cane.
“I like more of a hard edge on my furniture. After working with Paul, I really enjoy combining material … I’m not afraid of it. A lot of my chairs are combined steel and wood.”
Nowadays, most of Tullis’ clients are in the Santa Barbara area. But Solvang produced a commission at a leather garment store, First Street Leather, at Mammoth Lakes Ski Resort in 2003.
“The job started small, but ended up to be one of my biggest jobs ever. All mahogany false beams, display cabinets, back lighting; I finished it all and installed it all. It was a very exciting and fun job, plus a great client. Over 100 sheets of plywood, hundreds of board feet of mahogany, and two back operations later it was completed — on time.”
Tullis prefers traditional woodworking tools and hasn’t conformed to high-tech innovations, which he says is very liberating. He has the basics: a Delta 10" Unisaw,
14" band saw, shaper and mortiser; Craftsman radial arm saw, Belsaw 12" planer, Davis and Wells jointer, Fay & Egan 36" band saw, Makita 10" compound miter saw and a Tormek sharpening system.