Visitors to Michael McDunn’s shop in Greenville, S.C., enter into a gallery space, where his work is displayed alongside the sculpture, paintings and pottery of other artists. The serene setting surprises those expecting to see the sawdust flying.
Creating a high profile is serious business for McDunn and that impression starts with the outside of his building. The structure sits prominently on a knoll overlooking a major city street and at one end of the city’s artisan’s corridor. It has the clean look of gray stucco, and is enhanced by three oversized metal sculptures, which strike a commanding pose. The jumbo pillared signage of gray modular concrete announces in bold black letters “The Studio of Michael P. McDunn & McDunn Gallery of Fine Art”, and beckons “There’s something important here that you have to see. Come on in and take a look.”
Inside the gallery
It is an easy trek up the wood ramp and through the front door directly into the gallery. The “Open” sign is out and McDunn is there to greet. “I put in this gallery 11 years ago to raise awareness of my furniture and also spotlight the work of the many talented artists in the area,” explains McDunn. “I appreciate all forms of art, and gain inspiration from it.”
Owner of: Michael P. McDunn Studio/Gallery
The gallery is a breath of fresh air with a feng shui feel — uncluttered, serene, and geometrically pleasing to the eye. It is a testament to McDunn’s visual awareness and a validation of his keen business acumen. The works of art show against a palette of skillfully illuminated off-white walls composing the 900-sq.-ft. room. A red Dutch door on the left is the entrance to McDunn’s office and in front of that is a display case containing woodworking merchandise, including hand tools, turning instruments, chisels, stains and finishing products.
McDunn’s Biedermeier-style desk stands like a trophy up front and is a lead-in to the eclectic art collection. It is modeled after the solid, unpretentious, functional pieces common in Germany during the 1800s and is representative of his flawless, intricate woodworking techniques. Amboyna burl veneer, ebony pulls, inlays, and leather top tooled with 22-caret gold set it apart from common manufactured furniture.
Below the desk is a mahogany coffee table of single-board construction and wedged through tenons. Interspersed among pottery and paintings are two walnut Pembroke-style tables, willowy with slender, tapered legs and holly
inlays. A chestnut collectables cabinet and drop leaf table are down the line, one hand-rubbed with oil and the other coated with clear lacquer, which are McDunn’s typical methods for finishing his custom pieces.
Above his mahogany Mission-style dining table hangs an unusual display — a rack of martial arts bokken (swords). In 1996, the same year McDunn added his gallery, his oldest son convinced him to join the Aikido School of Self Defense. Since then he has used once- or twice-a-week training as exercise and a way to balance his life. As a woodcrafter, turning out wooden training weapons became inevitable. “I usually make 20 bokken at a time in three different styles and in various kinds of hardwood. They are handmade with a lot of attention to aesthetic quality and replicate the original metal swords used for centuries in Japan.”
McDunn’s weaponry sales represent about 1 percent of his total business.
Even more versatility and variety are revealed in McDunn’s portfolio. There are photographs of tables, chairs, beds, consoles, subwoofer cases, jewelry boxes, and a Dr. Scholl’s wood foot, which a marketing company commissioned for its “carving a niche for the ’90s” sock campaign. His “Winchester Coffin Table” was crafted for a longtime client, attorney David Ward, for whom he has done several pieces. “My wife and I bought some beautiful aged walnut at an estate auction and asked Michael to build something with it,” says Ward. “He came up with a great idea for a table with a coffin motif inlay on the skirt.” (The wood was originally meant for the coffin of D.D. Winchester, who died more than 100 years ago.) “Michael is a great artist. You just can’t buy anything comparable to what he can make.”
McDunn’s work seems to trend toward tables. “Of all the furniture I could make, tables are probably my favorite,” he says. “When you think about it, a table is the most intimate, important piece of furniture in a home or business. It’s where you eat, do homework, conduct business matters. A lot of important activities go on at a table. It’s the place for families.”
McDunn’s gallery is always included in “First Fridays,” a monthly tour of some of Greenville’s art venues. The event gives patrons and art enthusiasts a chance to view a wide range of media along a four-mile corridor that spans Main Street.
Inside the shop
The genesis of McDunn’s own work is through a solid red door at the front of the gallery, where the mood switches to a more active gear. The 3,300-sq.-ft. shop is brimming with equipment. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that McDunn is a man who likes tools and has been in the business long enough to amass a shop full of them. The list includes three shapers, three table saws, four lathes, two joiners, two band saws, a spindle sander and JDS Multi-Router.
A noisy, dust-spewing 395 Husqvarna Alaskan two-man chain saw has been indispensable for tackling McDunn’s Cedar of Lebanon project. The rare tree, which grew not far from his shop, had seen its last days. McDunn gladly took most of the trunk when it was offered. It has a tantalizing aroma, which may be why ancient Egyptians burned it during ceremonies to induce tranquility. He has used some to make communion boxes for hospitalized church members, a cross, and a highly decorated ceremonial mace, or staff.
McDunn describes Cedar of Lebanon as “very resinous, medium-hard and fairly easy to work with. I’ve had a little trouble with it cracking when it’s kiln-dried.” He adds, “I revere wood and enjoy working with all kinds. Making useful objects from it is my way of preserving it and expanding its life as well as showcasing its versatility and extreme beauty.”
There is always a variety of projects on the schedule, amounting to a four-month backlog. About 70 percent of McDunn’s work is designing and crafting one-of-a-kind, custom pieces and the rest is antique restoration. Presently, he is working on a conference table for the Fine Arts Center’s new building for students gifted in the arts in Greenville. The top will feature veneers in a sunburst configuration, plus an intricate art inlay designed by McDunn’s part-time employee of eight years, Asher Parris, a former student of Bob Jones University’s art program. McDunn relies often on Parris for artistic renderings and lauds his innate talent.
A liquor cabinet for a private individual, perched on a workbench in the finishing stages, is a good example of McDunn’s timeless, non-conventional, functional style. It measures 6' wide, 3' tall, and 2' deep with some unique details. The convex front is of bendable plywood, formed in his 10x5 vacuum press, then veneered with curly maple. “Veneers and inlays are two of my favorite design features. The procedure for both takes longer, but they definitely add to the look and the value.”
For projects of this dimension, McDunn renders the plans the old-fashioned way at the drawing board, and then discusses them with his employees for a plan of execution. Matt Clubb, one of his full-time employees who has been with him for almost two years, is a graduate of James Krenov’s Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods in California. He is well-trained to handle the challenging jobs with McDunn’s supervision.
A new full-time employee, Jamie Ray, a former construction worker, assists Clubb while he learns the woodworking trade. Ray met McDunn at a Greenville Woodworkers Guild meeting, one that featured a demonstration by Sam Maloof. He thought, “I want to work for [McDunn].” It was a fortuitous encounter, as McDunn was looking for another employee. “I have trouble finding and keeping good, reliable help. They stay with me a while and then go off and open their own businesses and become my competition. Only one has made it, though, and that was in antique restoration. I can’t function without good employees. I need to delegate some of the work so I can spend time on bringing in business and designing new projects. The older I get, the harder it is to go from working at my desk to doing the woodworking or ... switching between the right brain and the left brain.”
For every job, there is a clipboard. A bank of close to a dozen hangs on a beam, each with a time sheet for keeping an accurate record. Labor accounts for most of the total cost. McDunn keeps a close eye on those sheets and nudges his employees to stay on schedule. “If you don’t watch, pretty soon it’s out of whack with my estimate and the profits sink.”
The making of a woodworker
Growing up, McDunn didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Woodworking as a career had never crossed his mind, although he did build dollhouse furniture for his sisters, carved a bit as a Boy Scout and took industrial arts courses in high school. He was born 54 years ago in Germany where his dad (a machinist and gunsmith) was stationed in the Army. The family transferred to Massachusetts and eventually moved to Pennsylvania, which was McDunn’s jumping-off point. When he turned 19, he packed up and struck out on his own. He headed for Texas, because he was told he could probably find a job there.
“When I got to Texas, the United States was just getting out of Vietnam, the economy was bad and it turned out jobs were scarce. I ran into a buddy whose girlfriend was from Greenville, and we all decided to move back here.”
For a while, he overhauled engines at a truck repair shop. During this time he met Don Haskell, a good friend to this day, who reignited his interest in carving. His love for woodworking began to emerge, but it didn’t pay the bills. To make more money to live and to fuel his hobby, he bought a tool belt and hammer and went into construction. Within a year, his new career came to a halt when he crushed his foot in an accident and was laid off.
With his last paycheck, he bought his first lathe. He turned several bowls and consigned them to the Greenville County Museum of Art, where he also took courses on three-dimensional design and aesthetics. “I was really fascinated with design concepts, but I really didn’t want to go back to school. I found it more instructive to learn on my own by experimenting with various woods and tools.”
McDunn’s association with the museum eventually led to a job offer. He was stowed away in a basement woodshop where he could continue turning wood bowls and carving a bit. “You might say I was the resident woodworker. I kept on selling some of my pieces in the museum store which gave me confidence that I had some talent. They kept me busy building displays and framing pictures for the curatorial department. I also helped build the museum restaurant and some of the furnishings.”
Claudia Beckwith worked with McDunn at the museum and remembers his stellar reputation as a good worker and a good person. “I’m still using the desk Michael built back in the late ’70s,” she said. “I can’t praise him enough. He’s always been creative, dependable, balanced and solid to the core.”
More than any other experience, McDunn’s stint at the museum 30 years ago seemed to seal his career direction. He had developed the pulse of a woodworker and the mind of a businessman. “I really liked the art atmosphere. I started to feel as though I was innovating and creating something, which was missing in all the other jobs I had had up to that point.”
McDunn worked in the same capacity at the museum for five years, starting at $2.75 an hour. In 1981, recently married to Alice, (“the most important person in my life because she has raised our children and helped to keep this business going”), the time was right to move on. “At the museum, I found that many people wanted things built, and I thought I could make a go of my own business.”
He found himself in a vicious cycle, trying to find the right place to practice his craft. In a five-year span he bounced from one place to another, renting space in five different locations — in a carport, a machine shop at a defunct Air Force base, the basement of his home, an old tool-sharpening building, and in a warehouse he shared with his only competitor in town. “Then, in 1989, I found the perfect building, took out a mortgage and moved in.” He proudly recalls his first major project after starting his business — a solid padauk (a red/dark purple South American wood) conference table for an architecture firm, a contact through his work at the museum.
“Since then I just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. As we like to say in the shop, ‘bit by bit.’ It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve made enough for a modest living and to help our three kids through college. Every year, I revise my five-year business plan that targets things like additional equipment, employees, shows, organizations and, of course, income. To meet my goals, sometimes I work six to seven days a week with no vacations. We do occasional weekends, though. I like to fish and hike and go backpacking in the Appalachians not far from here.”
Even with his total involvement, he contends that “the work I do evolved and took on a life of its own without orchestration from me. Everything seems to have fallen into place to keep me firmly entrenched in woodworking.” His success may be due partly to his Zen-like philosophy of living day-to-day and assimilating every experience that comes his way. Consequently, over the years he has self-educated himself and learned intuitively by watching and doing.
Making a profit
McDunn is always trying to ramp up the bottom line. His ultimate goal is to corner business from the 15 percent of the wealthy sector in Greenville who can afford to pay his prices. He estimates he has about 2 percent. He could make it easier for himself by lowering his standards, but that has never been in the plan. “I follow my heart and preach the value of fine workmanship. I figure if people can afford an expensive Mercedes or BMW, they can afford my furniture. But it’s a hard sell. Some have a different ideology, where they don’t value furniture the way they do a car. Appreciation is misplaced, as far as I’m concerned, or maybe it’s lack of knowledge of quality furniture. Seems like elections and stock market fluctuations upset their spending habits, too.”
Ironically, it is McDunn’s consistent demand for quality that has won him exciting and unusual commissions. He is well-known for his work on the renovation of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a local historic landmark. For three months, he built niches and sconces for religious icons as well as white oak gothic-style kneelers, refinished much of the alter, and gold-leafed metal crosses and wooden angels. It was a job that generated several more in the five-figure category.
For the Michelin headquarters in Greenville, McDunn designed and built a 22' x 6' conference table. It was rendered in the requisite Herman Miller contemporary mode to match the other furnishings. He also did a conference table for the founder of Carolina First bank. And when Greenville’s Frank Lloyd Wright house, “Broad Margin,” changed hands, McDunn was commissioned to craft new dining chairs and tables of cypress in the Arts and Crafts style from original Wright plans. (The house is one of 13 Wright actually signed.)
Word-of-mouth advertising, being in the right place at the right time, and extensive networking have won him many coveted contracts. Other techniques such as mailing brochures to interior decorators and setting up a Web site have also contributed to his name recognition.
For the most part, shows have not been part of his overall marketing plan. “From a practical standpoint, shows haven’t worked for me. I could spend $100,000 on building an inventory and sell one $700 table. That’s when you slap your head and decide to use another approach.”
There are exceptions. Every year he exhibits several pieces at Artisphere, a high-end show for artisans representing every media. It is held in the Falls Park area of Greenville in a three-day period in mid-April. The event draws a big crowd and gives McDunn a chance to get his name out to prospective clients. Part of its success lies in the fact that Greenville, a city of approximately 60,000, is a cultured community and many residents support the arts.
Besides his participation in Artisphere, he took another opportunity to show his furniture at the beginning of the year. For four months, several of his pieces were in a show at the Franklin G. Burroughs - Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “Preparation was a killer,” he says. “I was required to build 18 pieces with a contemporary flare and functional assets. I was working 10 hours every day of the week building chests, tables, chairs. It was worth it for the exposure, and I did sell some pieces. You have to look at it as a long-term investment. Sometimes you have to gamble.”
McDunn has taken a lot of business risks in his career, but he can’t always act on his dreams. He wants to purchase a brick warehouse in back for his shop and make his present building one big gallery. “I’m a true capitalist,” he says wryly. Nevertheless, right now he has to invoke one of his favorite quotes from Clint Eastwood, “A man has to know his limitations.” But the dream keeps him plugging away and minding the other points in his five-year plan. As he likes to say, “Bit by bit.” n
Contact: Michael P. McDunn, 741 Rutherford Road, Greenville, SC 29609. Tel: 864-242-0311. www.mcdunnstudio.com
This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.