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An artistic approach

After spending more than three decades as a high school woodshop teacher and athletic coach, pursuits that always found him surrounded by other people, it may seem strange that Glen Guarino now delights in working alone in his 12' x 20' shop, a facility that looks like a hobbyist’s hangout and doesn’t even have a sink or bathroom.

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But Guarino is no mere hobbyist. In fact, his wife Marie, who seeks out galleries and shows where Glen can display his creations, refuses to speak of him as a “woodworker,” preferring to call him a “furniture artist.”

GUARINO FURNITURE DESIGNS, LLC Principals: Glen and Marie Guarino
Location: Cedar Grove, N.J.
Established: Official start was in October 2007, but Guarino, 60, has been working with wood since he was a child and has been in the same basic work space since 1978.
Maker of: Museum-quality, one-of-a-kind hardwood studio furniture
Shop size: 12' x 20', soon to be enlarged to 24' x 20'
Number of employees: None
Species used: “I do a lot of accents with rosewood, bubinga and cocobolo, but I have never actually bought a piece of any exotic species,” says Guarino. “Many years ago, I received permission to rummage through a five-acre landfill that was situated next to a lumber yard. I found lots of exotics that the lumber yard had discarded, and it was still in usable shape. By contrast, the domestic species had mostly turned to dust.”
Web site:

“I have banished the word ‘workshop’ from my vocabulary,” she says. “His work comes to life in a studio [italics ‘studio’].”

“I specialize in designing and building museum-quality, one-of-a-kind hardwood studio furniture,” Glen explains. “Many of my pieces are tables, but I will design and build almost any freestanding furniture as well as other work found in a home or office. The last few pieces have been side tables, a conference table, display case and several mirrors.”

It may seem pretentious for someone who was not even incorporated until October 2007 to be aspiring to such artistic respectability. Once Guarino’s imaginative and graceful, yet functional, pieces have been seen, however, there can be no argument that the 60-year-old native of Newark, N.J., is anything but an artist.

Also, it should be noted that even though his business is relatively young, he has been designing and crafting wood furniture since he was 9 years old. Nor is there anything new about his work space. He began using it in 1978, when he and Marie bought the house they still live in. At that time, Glen converted the one-car garage into a workshop — make that studio — and he has been there ever since.

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Double teaming
What has changed in the last year or so is the amount of time and dedication the Guarinos put into their new enterprise. No longer a full-time teacher — although he does teach some courses at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. — Glen is in almost constant motion, visiting clients, creating designs, buying materials, constructing and installing pieces, overseeing photography, and attending exhibitions.

Marie, who acts as his artist’s agent, says she is on the telephone or the computer at least five days or more every week, tracking down leads and contacting potential clients, gallery owners and show managers. “My goal is to find places that will display Glen’s furniture in the way it deserves to be seen,” she says.

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Much of Guarino’s work is characterized by sweeping curves that give each a soft, flowing look. He favors natural woods, often combining species in a single piece, and prefers clear coats to colored stains. Some of the designs suggest an Asian influence, others a hint of Art Deco.

In his artist’s statement, Guarino declares, “I hope my furniture speaks clearly, in a language that conveys a sense of the person behind the art; of someone who loves the creative process and respects the beauty of the material from which it is made. As each viewer moves a hand along the lines of the work, I want him or her to sense the skill and love for the craft needed to create it.”

He adds, “As each design becomes real and tangible, I get a sense of a tree evolving into a new life as a useful piece of art. I’m grateful to be the catalyst for this rebirth.”

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Hands-on approach
As may be assumed from such a personal approach, Guarino gravitates toward extensive use of hand tools. “Machines, while certainly useful at times, can create an artificial distance between the artist and the material,” he suggests. “My hands-on approach allows me to let the design’s simplicity reveal itself, creating a piece that imparts serenity and calm.”

Until recently, Guarino has focused strictly on one-of-a-kind creations. “I make lots of tables and mirror frames,” he notes, “and while there may be some similarity from one piece to the next, I’ve always managed to find some subtle detail or nuance that I could change.”

Nevertheless, when he launched the Web site for Guarino Furniture Designs LLC, Marie urged him to include a page for limited reproductions. Although only five designs — three tables and two mirrors — currently are being shown, Glen does have plans for more.

“My ultimate goal is to be a true practitioner of three disciplines — designer, craftsman and businessman,” he explains. All of these are necessary, he believes, if he is going to be able to sustain himself as a working artist for the next 20-plus years.

“There are two basic paths to financial success for an artist,” Guarino reflects. “One is to keep doing one-of-a-kind creations and hope to become so well-known that people will want to collect your pieces. The other is to develop a few signature pieces and reproduce them, gaining enough distribution so that they become recognizable and help brand your work in the marketplace.” He cites famed furniture artist Sam Maloof as someone who has taken both routes and succeeded with each. “Sam continues to create original designs, but he also is famous for his chairs. Take a look at a Sam Maloof chair, and you know instantly that it is his work.”

With obvious esteem and not a hint of envy, Guarino adds, “I would love to be able to emulate Sam’s business model. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind running my life the same way he has. He’s a special person.”

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In one respect, Guarino has already followed in Maloof’s footsteps: Like the California-based master, he has been entered in juried shows (26 overall since 1981, including eight since the business got under way in 2007). He has garnered prizes, and also had his work accepted for display at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. In November, he learned that Lark Books is putting two of his pieces in its spring 2009 release, “500 Tables.” Dating back to when he was still teaching in high school, his work has been featured five times in Fine Woodworking magazine and on the magazine’s Web site.

A secret weapon
Considering the scant amount of technology and power equipment present in Guarino’s small studio — a 12" Sanco combination joiner/planer, a 20" Inca band saw, a Hitachi chop saw, an Atlas horizontal mill, three hand routers (two Milwaukee and a Porter-Cable), a Fein hand sander, and a 9" Atlas table saw he bought used 30 years ago for just $25 — one has to wonder how he will configure the limited reproduction line for repeat runs. After all, he has no CNC capability and no computer in the work area, just a laptop that normally stays in the house.

Glen, however, has a secret weapon — his son Lucas, 30, who is a manufacturing engineer. When Guarino showed Lucas an Asian Interpretation table that he had painstakingly made three times, all in slightly different versions, the younger man said he could take the basic design and model it so the parts could be produced on a CNC machine for future renditions. That effort is now in the works.

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Lucas also was the extra pair of hands when Glen constructed a 14' x 8' storage shed in a corner of his small backyard. “My shop has a peaked roof, so I couldn’t get much into the loft space above the work area,” he explains.

Nevertheless, while Guarino may be used to working in tight quarters, that doesn’t mean he is willing to settle for that forever. In fact, he says, plans are afoot for him to double the size of the studio to 24' x 20', or maybe even a little bit bigger than that. “We’ll do that during 2009,” he says.

Along with the larger footprint will come additional equipment and systems, he says. “I’m going to get a new 12" table saw. I’ve been looking at Powermatic, Laguna or Recon, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m also going to get a downdraft table to help with both architectural drawings and sanding. And I’m going to install a new dust collection system. I’m not happy with the one I have now.”

Glen estimates the overall cost of the expansion, including the new equipment, will come to around $42,000. That brings up questions about the markets Guarino serves and the manner in which he expects this expenditure not only to be paid back, but also to pay off in added income.

Like many artists, he juggles a diet of commissioned work with speculative projects. Pricing can be a bit of a mystery when the value of the design far exceeds anything a simple time-and-materials formula would suggest. “I try to keep abreast of what others are charging for work that I believe is of similar quality to mine,” he says. “I certainly don’t want to price so high that it is out of reach, but I don’t want to give it away, either. Of course, I always include an amount for overhead, which in my case is relatively small, and I also want to make sure that there is a portion of the price that will cover photography. Since I am doing mainly one-of-a-kind pieces, I have to have pictures for future shows and to record the pieces I’ve sold.”

When, if ever, would Glen turn down a commission? “I don’t do that very often,” he says. “But every time I receive a commission, I ask myself, ‘Am I really helping this client? Or is what she wants available at a good quality furniture store?’ If I decide that this is the case, I might steer a customer in another direction.”

He adds, “I want commissions that allow me to express my creativity, not merely build someone else’s design.”

Designer puts his cards on the tables
The tables shown here both come from Glen Guarino’s Asian Interpretation line — if anything can be called a line when an artist works mostly on one-of-a-kind pieces. The 30" tall, six-foot square conference table (top) is made from cherry and wenge. The side table (bottom and inset) is made of shedua and ebony, and measures 37" tall x 48" wide x 15" deep.

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Guarino says, “When designing these tables, I wanted to include some elements suggesting a relationship to Asian furniture, but I only wanted to give an impression of the style, not to copy it. I share the same respect that many Asians have for the material. Understanding that a living tree could have grown for more than 100 years and that no two trees are alike, I feel responsible to use the wood in a way that displays its beauty and gives it a new life as a piece of furniture.

“Like Asian craftsmen, I prefer to perform most of the work using fine old hand tools, instead of relying on machines that may speed the work, but limit the design possibilities,” he continues. “I believe machines put too much distance between the work and the artist. The process of creating is what drives the artist. What I am trying to do is capture simplicity in a design that imparts a certain amount of calmness to the viewer.”

Guarino acknowledges that the design of the side table seems basic, but emphasizes that the construction is “a complicated puzzle of interlocking parts fitted together to produce a strong table that will last for generations.” For this project, he devised many patterns, jigs and fixtures needed to help him precisely carve each individual section so that all the sections would match. “For example,” he says, “each bottom detail had to be carved on each side of each leg. Many hours were spent carving, fitting, scraping, sanding, finishing and polishing.”

Guarino’s best payday
Considering that Glen Guarino sees himself as a furniture artist and specializes in museum-quality work, it is odd that his biggest paycheck (figured on an hourly basis) was for moving an armoire he had neither designed nor built.

“I had done a piece for a client, and after I had put it in place in her home, she asked me if I could help her with another problem,” he recalls. “She showed me a heavy armoire sitting in a hallway and explained that it was part of her master bedroom suite, but no mover had ever been able to figure out how to get it into the bedroom, since it was too huge to go through a doorway. This was the third house in which her husband and she had lived, and the armoire always remained outside the bedroom. She told me he was ready to chop it up for firewood, and that she would be very grateful if I could save it from that fate.”

Guarino took a look at the piece inside and out, figured he could do the job and quoted a price for what he estimated would be a couple hours of work. She agreed, and he came back with a friend to help him move it. Just 20 minutes later, they had disassembled the bonnet, moved the piece into the bedroom and replaced the bonnet. “The job went more quickly than I guessed, and my pay — by the hour — was more than I have made on any other project,” he says.

Alan Richman is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.

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