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Inspiration is all around them

Scott and Stephanie Shangraw are a husband-and-wife woodworking team. They create handcrafted custom furniture, as well as carved vessels and other sculptures for high-end clients throughout the country.

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The two reside in the Zuni Mountains in the northwestern region of New Mexico, an area known for attracting many artists because of its simplistic nature and rich American Indian history. They say that being surrounded by beautiful mountain views and untouched wilderness inspires them to create heirloom-quality pieces.

SHANGRI-LA WOODWORKS Owners: Scott and Stephanie Shangraw Location: Ramah, N.M. Shop size: 724 sq. ft. About: The husband-and-wife team live in a secluded mountain region where they make custom rocking chairs, tables, hutches, display cabinets, along with artistic functional pieces. Quotable: “The best part about this business for us is working together. A lot of couples don’t, but we do. We enjoy it and absolutely love going to shows together, meeting with people and interacting with customers. I couldn’t think of anything better,” says Stephanie.

In naming the company, the couple played off their last name and the Chinese word Shangri-La, which means utopia or mythical paradise.

Scott, who says the company’s specialty is custom bent wood rocking chairs, gets some of his design inspiration from the late furniture maker Sam Maloof.

“I got to meet Sam a couple of times and I took a seminar with him. One of the things that he said that stuck in my head was that you’ve just got to hang in there, that there were so many times he felt like giving up and his wife would tell him not to because he was so good at what he does. Many times over the past 10 years we felt like giving up, but we didn’t, and now it’s paying off,” he says.

A place to call home

Scott and Stephanie grew up in Roswell, N.M, and married after graduating from Goddard High School in 1986. In the mid-1990s, they moved to Phoenix where they ran a health food business.

Scott had gained an appreciation for woodworking in high school that he passed on to Stephanie, and the two kept busy making furniture in their spare time. In 2004, they decided they wanted to build custom furniture on a full-time basis. Some couples could never fathom the idea of working together, but these two love it.

“I talk to a lot of woodworkers, guys who are on their own, and I can see what they lack because they don’t have their spouse involved. She works with me on the pieces, does all of our marketing, coordinating the shows, updates the website and takes care of customer contact and follow-up. Most of us woodworkers get so involved with the work in our shops, we don’t have time for all of that. A lot of our company’s success is because of her. I think we definitely work well as a team,” says Scott.

When deciding where to move, they felt it was important to go somewhere rural to simplify their lives and keep living costs down, and felt their best options were in New Mexico. They first moved to the mountains of Ruidoso in 2005, and in 2009 moved west to Ramah, where they currently reside on a six-acre property.

Initially, they lived in a 60’ trailer obtained in a furniture trade, but have since purchased a cabin. Water still needs to be hauled to the property from a community well.

Their sculpture "Twister" stands 5 feet tall and is 3 feet wide. It is carved out of an alligator juniper that is approximately 1,000 years old and is embedded with turquoise.

“Moving out here allowed us to be secluded from the hustle in the rest of the world. There are lots of artists here. We found out about this place from other artists at a show in California. With artists, there are so many ups and downs, you have to keep your costs down,” says Stephanie.

They have a 724-sq.-ft. shop in a garage built by Scott next to the cabin where they keep their tools and do all of their work.

“We first came to this place in 2009, right when the economy tanked. I had a year-and-a half backlog at that point and didn’t know how I’d get it all done, but that work dried up pretty quickly and we had to go searching for more work. One of the benefits of being slow, we’ve discovered, is that it has enabled us to come up with new designs, some of the best we’ve ever done,” says Scott.

Rockers and more

Furniture items make up about 75 percent of the couple’s work. Product offerings include a unique selection of rocking chairs, dining furniture, desks, beds and other pieces. Rocking chairs are definitely the company’s specialty and the couple has been creating a lot of new styles, such as Stephanie’s “Bent Wood Rocker.”

The most popular product is the “Mesquite Dining Chair” offered with and without arms. The arm chair has a natural headrest, while the armless chairs have carved headrests. It is considered an exceptionally comfortable chair because of the back lumbar support and carved seat. Desk chairs are offered in three different styles, all of which come with a five-wheel base that adjusts up and down, tilts and swivels. Other items include the “Greek God” chairs and a black walnut settee.

While Scott admits he’s inspired by Maloof, he tries to express his own style in his work.

Stephanie's "Bent Wood Rocker."

“I think I’ve added more curves to everything than what Sam did. My back chair legs are bent wood instead of solid wood, so now there’s a little more flair. You don’t see too many harsh corners or edges. Things flow nicely.”

The Shangraws also create carved wood sculptures, such as decorative floor and table vessels. Most are made from juniper, walnut, cherry and mesquite. Each piece is carved with a chainsaw and grinders. Turquoise and other stones are placed in the natural cracks, if the client so desires. Then the piece is sanded and finished.

While not as popular as the chairs, Scott feels the sculpture work is equally important for his personal development as an artisan.

“I always used to make little bowls, then I started giving them more waves and different contours, and then I started carving logs with a chainsaw and making these huge vessels. It’s a nice break because the furniture has to be so ‘that.’ These allow me more freedom and artistic expression. Right now, we’re just trying to find the right shows to market them in.”

Traveling the circuit

While some woodworkers think they’re losing a battle to manufactured imports, Scott and Stephanie believe that providing a high-quality product, along with excellent customer service, is the key to keeping their appeal to American consumers. Currently, most of the couple’s clients are wealthy individuals who typically discover them through the couple’s website and at juried art shows.

Working with clients can be challenging, but is always rewarding.

“The sales end is the most challenging part — putting a price on your work and trying to educate the customer on why it’s priced the way it is and how much work is put in. I know what I want to make, but that doesn’t mean others will. What I think people like the most, and what really convinces them to buy your work, is your story. They want to know the artist and they want to know the process. They’re not just buying the furniture, they’re buying you,” says Stephanie.

Scott and Stephanie have exhibited at the Southwest Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.; the Texas Mesquite Association Show in San Angelo, Texas; the Contemporary Crafts Market in Santa Monica, Calif.; and the Beaver Creek Art Festival in Beaver Creek, Colo. And they’ve also made the 40-hour drive to Providence, R.I., for the Fine Furnishings & Fine Crafts Show on two occasions.

Scott and Stephanie in the shop with the "Shangrila Rocker" - the couple's most popular offering.

“Travel has been expensive, but it’s starting to get a little better. We’re getting more orders now, but the past two years have been really rough. The shows are expensive, but we weed them out; if we don’t think they’re worth attending, we won’t go,” says Stephanie.

She laughs at how the best jobs can be found in the most unusual circumstances, such as the one commercial job they completed for a hunting lodge in Colorado which required 56 chairs, three rockers and three 14’ long conference tables. The commission was obtained through a designer that discovered the two while they were exhibiting at the Southwest Design Show in Santa Fe, N.M.

The couple exhibits work in several galleries, including the Lionshead Jewelry and Gallery in Vail, Colo., and Clarksville Pottery and Galleries in Austin, Texas. They also offer woodworking classes and hope to do more teaching in the immediate future.

“We would like to expand the shop and put a showroom in it. We’d also like to build a cabin on our property for class participants so that it’s like a retreat here. Right now, we have guests stay at a cabin on our neighbor’s property nearby,” says Scott.

Contact: Shangri-La Woodworks, HC 61 Box 4038, Ramah, NM 87321. Tel: 575-937-5455.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.

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