While many people only dream of turning their hobby into a profession, Kevin Mack, the owner of Kevin Mack Fine Furniture in Malden, Mass., has made it a reality. After working as a carpenter for more than two decades, the maker of unique, heirloom-quality studio furniture managed to put himself on the map as a furniture maker in only five years.
Feeling unfulfilled with carpentry and homebuilding, he enrolled in 2006 in the cabinet and furniture program at Boston's North Bennet Street School, an act that changed his life. "North Bennett was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never went to college, but by being surrounded by creativity I learned so much," says Mack.
Mack has managed to stay busy in a tough economy, filling orders, exhibiting at regional craft shows and teaching. When time permits, he builds a spec piece for one of several galleries that represent his work.
A need for change
Mack, 43, was born in Easton, Mass. As a child, he was encouraged to be artistic. His mother was an artist and many family members claimed woodworking as a hobby.
Owner of: Kevin Mack Fine Furniture
Location: Malden, Mass.
Shop size: 3,000 sq. ft.
About: Mack is a custom furniture maker who recently completed the cabinet and furniture making program at the North Bennett Street School in Boston. He now offers various studio furniture items to residential and commercial clients throughout New England, while he works on expanding into the New York market.
Quotable: “I love that woodworking provides me with artistic release. Having gone to school at North Bennet, I learned to focus all of this energy that I had, but didn’t know where to put.”
He started as a roofer in the construction trade, then "graduated" to cabinetry and countertop work. After eight years as a subcontractor for The Home Depot, he moved to Chicago, got married, divorced and returned to the Boston area in 2005. One major factor in his transformation was his daughter, Alexandra, who is now 10 years old. Her pictures cover a wall over his workbench.
"Having Alex forced me to grow up in a lot of ways," he says. "I was unfulfilled being a carpenter and I wanted to do more than just make a paycheck. I wanted to create things of beauty."
But he needed training, which North Bennet provided. "For somebody who lives in New England, North Bennet is it. You're taught how to do it right the first time. But you're also taught patience. It's interesting, I came from a world where a crew of experienced carpenters would build a whole house in five weeks. It takes at least the same amount of time for one person to build a quality piece of furniture."
Mack graduated from North Bennet with 14 pieces of furniture in his portfolio, even though students are only required to make five. He was unsure of his ability early on, but his confidence grew.
"Somewhere in the middle of the first and second year, things just started to click and I was able to put my own flavor into the furniture and people bought it. I made a Shaker table, a tool box and a hope chest. Someone bought the hope chest for $3,500 out of the school store when I was a student. If that doesn't turn you on, I don't know what does. I had been so adrift, but I followed my calling. North Bennet turned the light on."
As Mack's skills improved, he began acquiring clients, but most of the early orders were for refinishing.
"They were testing the waters. They wanted a North Bennet kid to do the work. They were attracted to North Bennet craftsmen the same way I was attracted to the school."
The client breakdown
Mack says about 60 percent of his customers are homeowners who contact him directly, while 25 percent are architects and designers. Mack has also done some work for small hotels and restaurants.
"My clients all want a special piece of furniture, something that sets them apart from the rest. They love wood and how it can be used to capture their heirloom possessions."
Mack acquires work in several ways, such as word of mouth, referrals from North Bennet, contacts made through furniture shows and through his website. Mack also sells through his hometown gallery, Possessions, in Melrose, Mass.
Most of his clientele is from the New England region, but he's trying to expand into the New York market. "New York has a lot to offer in the way of shows, like the [International Contemporary Furniture Fair] and many small galleries," he says.
Mack is able to appeal to a broad audience because he has two distinct design approaches. These approaches stem directly from distinct personal traits. His humble and intellectual side encourages him to build simple and subtle pieces. His energetic and creative side influences more vibrant pieces.
He might be relatively new to the field, but Mack aspires to become a highly recognized woodworker and to make his mark in the world of furniture, like some of the master craftsmen we all know.
"When I think of what I want to be like, I think of Sam Maloof. People went to him because he had a certain aesthetic. I want to get to that point where I make designs that just simply awe people.
"I think there's too much homogenization with furniture these days. I want furniture to be eccentric like the person that buys it - furniture somebody will love and that their grandchildren will fight over."
Blending and bending
Mack believes that for his business to prosper he has to blend his design style with a client's needs.
"I think the Northeast is the most competitive market in the country. You really need to find your own unique niche."
While at North Bennet, he concentrated in early American, Federal era designs. Now his work is much more whimsical, featuring variations on Federal designs with added color.
Mack has been able to see how quickly consumers change their preferences by attending regional craft shows, such as the Fine Furnishings & Fine Craft Show in Providence, R.I., where he's a two-time winner of the Best in Show award.
Exhibiting at the show taught Mack that while traditional designs might be popular one year, buyers can change their tastes in future years. That's why, in recent years, he has made more stand-alone pieces with hints of various traditional design styles.
"I revel in change. My style's ever-evolving. I continue to incorporate new disciplines into my designs," he says.
Mack's favorite woods are walnut and mahogany, but he loves wood in general. "They all find a home in my work. The more eccentric the better. I work with a lot of veneer as well. It allows me to paint with wood."
Mack shares a 3,000-sq.ft. shop with four other woodworkers. He says there's a great shop synergy and he enjoys having what amounts to co-workers to share ideas and commissions.
The shop features a Grizzly 10" table saw, 20" planer, lathe and downdraft sanding station; Williamsport Machineworks 16" jointer, JDS Multi-Router; Rikon 18" band saw, Powermatic mortiser; DeWalt 12" sliding miter saw and Reliant dust collectors.
Mack is old school when it comes to creating designs because he went to an old school. He learned drafting at North Bennet and often does up to 10 sketches before creating a full-scale drawing. He'll usually build a full-scale model before starting the actual piece.
Mack hand-finishes most of his work and does all of his own upholstery. While he currently has no need or a tremendous desire to hire an employee, adding an apprentice is a possibility. "They'd have to be a North Bennet student, though," he says.
He currently teaches entry-level woodworking and marquetry at The Eliot School in Boston and plans to teach a class on chair making there and on veneering techniques at his shop in the near future.
Mack works 12 hours a day, six days a week and maintains an order backlog of about three months. When necessary, he supplements his income as a refinisher and part-time carpenter.
"The economy drives the market, so I'm realistic with my prices," he says. "I need to make a certain amount of money to pay for the work, but I'm not going to charge somebody an outrageous price. A commodity has a certain price and the level of quality dictates. I want to make lasting, high-quality furniture. There are so many people out there doing standard work.
"I really love what I am doing and I reinvest in myself by building spec pieces to develop a body of work to highlight my skills. The spec work allows me to experiment and take risks that I might not otherwise get with a commissioned piece. I want to reinterpret the great furniture of all eras, freshen it up and add my spin to it."
Contact: Kevin Mack Fine Furniture, 57 Madison St., Malden, MA 02148. Tel: 774-219-3042. www.kevinmackfinefurniture.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.