Never settle for less

34_john_landis_newleadJohn Landis is a perfectionist when it comes to making furniture. The good news, he says, is that his employees are, too.

Landis is the owner of John Landis Cabinetworks in Ivyland, Pa. The three-man shop produces custom furniture and caters to residential clients in the Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore suburbs. Landis primarily shows his work through regional craft shows and galleries.

At the 1998 Philadelphia Furniture Show, Landis met a client who set the framework of his career goals and defined his business. The client was a woman who had traveled from Connecticut in search of a custom dining set. After hours of surveying the show, the woman decided on one of Landis' table. She said she was spending an inheritance from a beloved family member on the furniture.

34_john_landis_1"It was at that moment I told myself this shop would never ever build a piece short of top-notch. We would strive for excellence from customer service to the application of finish," says Landis. "Right down to my employees, every single piece of furniture we build, we build it to the point that we love it, that we'd want the piece in our home. We recognize the relationship with the client must be one of trust and sincerity and that that relationship is the key to a successful business."

Landis has kept that mantra, knowing that once furniture leaves his shop, it becomes a part of the clients' lives. He offers completely custom pieces, as well as 11 unique lines that allow for clients to easily return for additional pieces.

A sentimental person himself, Landis keeps handwritten records of all commissions in a leather-bound journal he purchased in Italy on his honeymoon.

Twist of fate

Landis grew up in Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia. His father was a surgeon, but had a complete woodshop in his basement for hobby work.

"Having access to that shop, I goofed off and built things for the house. As I became a teenager, I built things for my girlfriends to try to impress them - jewelry boxes and things that I'm positive have since fallen apart. But I think I developed a liking for woodworking then," says Landis.

In 1986, Landis attended the University of Virginia where he received a degree in architecture. He practiced architecture for a while, but learned quickly that he didn't enjoy designing something and passing it off to be built by someone else.

35_dining_setWhile in search of a more satisfying occupation for which he could implement at least some of his college training, he stumbled upon Peter Kramer, a woodworker who owned a shop and showroom in Little Washington, Va. The visit awed him.

"I didn't even know that the woodworking profession existed - that people built furniture outside of huge companies. It was a huge eye-opener. When I walked into his shop, that was my first inclination - that that was my profession. I loved what I saw there."

After a few years of substitute teaching, Landis got an interview with Kramer. The interview consisted of two questions. First, Kramer asked Landis if he had a set of chisels and how often he sharpened them. Then, he asked Landis to look over the desk they were sitting at and discuss how long it would take him to build the same piece. Needless to say, with jewelry boxes and garbage bins in his portfolio, Landis did not get hired and was told there were no apprenticeships open.

34_john_landis_2John Landis

Owner of: John Landis Cabinetworks

Location: Ivyland, Pa.

Established: 1997

Shop size: 4,200 sq. ft.

Employees: 2

About: John Landis Cabinetworks produces collections of furniture for the dining room, living room and bedroom. He primarily caters to residential clients within the Philadelphia suburbs and often shows his work through regional craft shows and galleries.

Quotable: “With the majority of my clients, purchasing my furniture is a monetary investment or an emotional investment to them. Each client we deal with is going to be dealt with as if they’re a family member that I will see at the next barbecue.”

"Only after years as a professional did I see the brilliance of his questions. He found out so much about me from them. The answer to how often you sharpen your chisels isn't monthly, weekly or even daily, but simply ... when they get dull."

But at the time, the rejection made Landis lose interest in a woodworking career. He wasn't cut out for it, he thought. Landis made ends meet by teaching eighth-grade English and history. Restless and still dissatisfied, he moved to Princeton, N.J., in 1994 on a whim. His goal was to get to New York City and start an acting career, which had always appealed to him. Then he met Jennifer, who is now his wife.

"When I met her, I knew immediately that I wanted to marry her. And it became clear that I didn't want to get married and pursue an acting career - it wasn't a smart thing to do."

Fiscal responsibility

Landis quickly got his priorities in order, pursuing a profession he could rely on to start a family, but yet still enjoy. Through his future father-in-law, he gained a connection to a woodworker running a fine woodworking apprenticeship in Bucks County, Pa.

"I drove down to see this guy and the same inspirational feeling happened as when I walked into Peter Kramer's shop. There were guys on benches doing mortise and tenon joinery. It was exhilarating. I thought this was undoubtedly what I had in mind."

Landis started his apprenticeship in fall 1995 and was lucky enough to get an experienced mentor to efficiently teach him the basics. He ended up spending one year as an apprentice and two years as a journeyman at that shop. The first year was spent learning technique and design. But that slow pace, along with Landis' architectural background, was the key to the way Landis designs things today.

35_lingere_chest"After lunch on Fridays we were told to stop working and just free-form sketch. We were encouraged to stretch our ideas on paper, to really experiment and push the concept. Now I love the design process and am thankful for that experience."

There were also shop privileges for anyone who worked a 40-hour week. Landis took full advantage, hoping to develop his own pieces and a portfolio and get into a show. In 1997, he got into the Philadelphia Furniture Show for the first time and has attended every year since.

"That first year I had a tiny booth with a dining table, a bed and a console. I sold one dining table at the show, but that sale was like I just hit the lottery. My wife and I took my in-laws out to dinner and it was celebration time, it was fantastic. And so I continued to apply to shows from that point on."

Landis was on the cusp of running his own business and ready to break free from being an employee. It was a terrifying time, he says. He had a child on the way, his first of three, and his wife was ready to stop working to raise the newborn. He didn't want to leave until he was busy enough with orders. But when he turned into somewhat of a rival for his boss, it was clear it was time to go. His first shop was a 1,000-sq.-ft. renovated barn in Washington Crossing, Pa., with a small finishing room.

Dedication to clients

On average, the shop produces 50 pieces a year. About 80 percent of Landis' commissions are residential. With shows in Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Massachusetts and Rhode Island and galleries in North Carolina, the company draws clients from all along the East Coast. No matter who they are or where they live, his dedication is the same. He will do everything to ensure the client's satisfaction.

36_landis_and_employeeLandis attracts clients in a variety of ways, mainly through regional shows, but also through galleries. Aside from the Philadelphia Furniture Show, Landis regularly participates in the Providence and Baltimore Fine Furnishings shows, the American Crafts Council show in Baltimore; and the Crafts America shows in D.C. and New York.

Riding out the recession was made easier by a diversification of orders in the early part of 2009. John Landis Cabinetworks was commissioned to build a wine cellar table of solid walnut and wenge and two large dining tables for the winter garden for a new restaurant opening in Clifton, Va., just outside of Washington. Another large commission for a bed-and-breakfast followed.

Galleries showing Landis' work include the Wooden Stone Gallery in Davidson, N.C., and the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C. From 1999 to 2006, Landis owned a gallery space with a partner in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on the banks of the Potomac River.

Defining style

Landis has always drafted his own designs by hand. Early in his career, he started with a scattered variety of styles, having been taught by a studio furniture designer. He actually did himself a disservice by trying to appeal to everyone when coordinating pieces to put in his booths at shows.

"Instead, I appealed to no one. [My booth] looked like a yard sale. I'd have a dining table of one wood, then a buffet or a console out of another wood in another style, then a coffee table and end table in another wood and another style. I think I was trying to put feelers out in every aspect, the 'we do it all' approach. It didn't look very good."

36_panel_bedAfter realizing this, he started honing his show display to one nice dining set in one style and then one bedroom set in another style. In 2001, business took off. He sold two full dining sets, 10 additional chairs and a bedroom set.

Landis describes his designs as "architecturally influenced." Each piece features one unique aspect and the rest of the piece is simple, supporting that main element. For example, one of his popular chairs, the Pierced Back chair, has a complicated, three-dimensional sculpted back splat, while the rest of the chair employs simple tapers and arches playing second fiddle to the splat.

"People would say my designs are simple and I used to take that as an insult. It took me years to understand that was a compliment."

Landis adds that while many clients see his minimalism as contemporary, others see it as traditional. It's all up to their interpretation.

In 2002, Landis began to notice that big retailers such as Ethan Allen were featuring bedroom sets in their catalogs. He took that clue and designed four new bedroom lines in the following years.

36_dining_setThe Lay collection, for example, is offered in a panel bed, armoire, chests and bedside pieces, dining tables and chairs. Simple, but still visually interesting, it is marked by subtle curves and soft edges.

One of Landis' most popular designs is the Recessed Panel collection. Offered in dining tables, cabinetry and cocktail tables, it is characterized by mitered molding and a single band of accent wood that flows below aprons and around the legs.

Shop in the suburbs

Landis' shop is north of Philadelphia in a tree-lined industrial park. Landis plans to add a showroom "within the next decade" and to encourage walk-in traffic.

His shop features a large collection of Bridgewood machinery. High-tech tools are conspicuous by their absence. While efficiency and profit are important to a business, Landis feels that the more a tool does, the less interaction a craftsman has with the piece.

"So many things can be picked up on while working a piece," says Landis. "I may decide an arch needs to be steeper, an overhang should be longer or a reveal not so prominent. I may miss something important if I were to simply hand over a spec sheet to the builder, let him input some numbers into a computer and feed the wood."

37_entertainment_centerLandis recognizes there has been huge growth in 3-D rendering via CAD/CAM programs, but has left those to others as well.

"I can sit with a client and work a concept right there with them; all the while quickly giving them sketches of what we're working toward. I feel I can manipulate the pieces and proportions and get to the desired product quicker this way."

Landis lets his clients select the species of wood used. He favors the combination of walnut and wenge, but most clients match figured maples with other imported woods. Landis buys stock from World Timber Corp. in Hubert, N.C., a supplier he has had a relationship with for 13 years. The shop does its own finishing using tung and Danish oils.

Settled for now

Landis, 40, is at the point where he's meeting personal goals for the business. The shop has a four-month backlog and has survived the recession.

"I was prepared for almost anything to happen, but I wasn't prepared for nothing to happen," says Landis. "When we were preparing, I met with the guys and said we had to be ready to cut hours and tighten the belt. We were all worried about it, but we never slowed. We've been busy the whole year."

Landis recalls how in the beginning he always tried to appear to be running a bigger operation than he did. He had a preconceived notion that no one would be comfortable buying from a guy with a small shop on his property. Nothing could be further from the truth. As long as you are professional, the customers will come, he says.

39_lay_diningroom"I'm still the guy that answers the phone and helps you decide whether you want extensions on your dining table. I'm still the guy who drives to your house, measures your space and talks with you about the design. I go on 90 percent of deliveries because I want to be there when the client gets the piece."

Recently at a show, Landis introduced himself to a fellow woodworker whose work he had admired for a while. The woodworker replied that he knew who Landis was. After all, it was Landis' work he had seen in Washington years before that had inspired him to be a woodworker. Flattered, but flustered, Landis replied, "That's bad news for both of us. After all, who's steering this ship?"


John Landis Cabinetworks,145-D Railroad Dr., Ivyland PA 18974. Tel: 215-520-9071.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.