|He revels in restoration|
|A reliable clientele|
|Ideal business location|
After marrying his college sweetheart, Victoria, in 1977, the couple moved to Savannah. He restored furniture for a local antique dealer and spent hours fixing loose joints and patching veneer. He enhanced his own skills by reading, and relied on his pre-engineering background to understand 3-D structures and drawings.
Two years later, Guenther decided to pursue furniture making on his own. He sectioned off a room in his house as a shop and worked on commissions for friends and acquaintances. This trial-and-error approach was supplemented with classes at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, N.C., learning from the likes of Skip Johnson, Tage Frid and Wendell Castle, and by attending museum seminars and period furniture conferences.
A reliable clientele
Guenther admits he started rather cheaply and severely undercharged his first few dozen clients just to get more work. The plan was to become highly proficient at building historic pieces, and let the money take care of itself.
It was a good plan. He’s earned six-figure commissions and his shop has a steady backlog of work.
Most of the studio’s work emanates within a 300-mile radius, stretching north to Charleston, S.C., and west to Atlanta. Collectors, who have bought auction pieces at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, also find their way to Savannah.
Guenther has an interesting take on who he really works for. “The customer is the boss, but you hope the furniture itself is the ultimate boss,” he says. “But it’s very satisfying to have a client that comes in for a simple repair and then, five or six years later, commissions a major piece of furniture. That’s great. It means you’ve developed a long-term, trusting relationship.”
Museums, such as the Andrew Low House Museum in Savannah, are also a source of work. “For them, we conserved an interesting 1820s Joseph Barry and Son breakfront built in Philadelphia, shipped on a schooner to Savannah,” says Guenther. “It’s now valued as a half-million dollar piece.”
Fiddling with design
Period furniture makers often face ethical dilemmas when it comes to altering traditional styles and proportions. Today’s consumers need their oversized beds and their case pieces designed to accommodate modern necessities such as computers and flat screen TVs. Guenther is flexible, but will only go so far.
“I try not to do anything that’s irreversible, and if something is altered, it shouldn’t cause any damage to the period piece. By altering on a bed, for example, all the different components, such as the rails and posts, are detachable. So you can set aside a short rail, save those, and make longer rails so that people our size can sleep in it. So those alterations I agree with, but cutting a hole in the top of an old piece of furniture to put a sink in it — I totally disagree with that.”
Guenther does extensive research when he has a unique problem to solve and will pull in a specialist, if needed.
“I wanted, at first, to do everything myself; that was important to me. But now I realize that it can be a great advantage to the project to work with people who know a lot more and can add their input and skills. Conservator Roger White, who works here, is one of the best French polishers around and has solved many tricky finish problems for customers.”