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Northern exposure

Furniture craftsman Kevin Rodel of Brunswick, Maine, goes beyond the basic elements of design with his Arts and Crafts-style tables, desks, bookcases and chairs. Rodel, who has 30 years of experience designing and building furniture, started working for Thomas Moser, then went his own way in the mid-1980s, building a loyal clientele. He has further established himself in the fields of interior design and consultation, and also keeps busy writing and teaching.

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Rodel does reproductions and adaptations of the designs by C.R. Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley and others associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He is drawn to the style because of its diversity.

Kevin Rodel Location: Brunswick, Maine Shop size: 1,200 sq. ft. Experience: 30 years About: Rodel draws inspiration for his commissioned furniture from the roots of the original International Arts and Crafts movement. Gross sales: $70,000 Advice to other furniture makers: “Try and find a style that you do like and just research it and research it some more until you know and understand it cold. Then see what you can do with it. Start with just modifying existing designs, then try out some spec pieces. It’s important to advertise, but do so wisely. I can’t say how or where, because everyone’s locale and style of work is different, and that should help direct where one advertises.”  

“If you see the Shaker style, you know its characteristics right away; the same with Federal and Queen Anne styles,” he says. “With Arts and Crafts, it isn’t like that. You would never know that what Stickley did and what Joseph Hoffman did in Vienna was really the same movement unless the movement was explained to you. That’s why I’m still in with Arts and Crafts. It’s a vibrant, rich and varying design style, so I’m always finding new opportunities for design.”

Setting sail
Rodel was born in Philadelphia and initially sought a career in sociology after graduating from LaSalle University. While looking for a job, he did some volunteer restoration work on a wooden ship in Philadelphia harbor. The Gazella Primera was a Portuguese cod fishing barkentine, then owned by the Philadelphia Maritime Museum.

“I found that really fascinating, and that made me start wanting to learn about woodworking. I just read everything I could about the trade and started teaching myself.”

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Rodel, who was 25 at the time, began networking within the woodworking community. There were a couple shops and showrooms on Philadelphia’s bustling South Street, where he often went to admire the craftsmanship. But with student loans to pay off, Rodel took job on an assembly line in an auto factory.

By age 27, Rodel realized he really wanted to become a full-time furniture maker and headed for the Northeast. “I had the impression that New England had a lot of small furniture shops. It seemed like the place to go to learn traditional-style furniture making, which was very hard to find in a big city like Philadelphia. I tried Lancaster County (Pa.), but that area was tied up by the Amish, and I couldn’t beat their wages.”

He settled in Topsham in mid-coast Maine. This was the late 1970s and Rodel was not yet interested in opening his own business. He just wanted to work for someone, as he knew he had a lot to learn. He soon landed a job with Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers.

When he started at Moser’s, there were about 11 woodworkers, a finisher, a secretary, and the owners, Tom and Mary Moser. The company, now based in Auburn, Maine, has since grown to about 100 employees with showrooms through the country.

Rodel says his skills flourished during the seven years building Moser’s Shaker-style furniture. “That was basically my wood school. That was where I learned to build furniture because, at that time, everything in the shop was made by one person, beginning to end, aside from finishing.

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“I learned how to work efficiently and safely, and learned how to cut joinery and use machinery. We used table saws as much as we used hand planes. It was a great experience.”

Rodel liked the shop and his co-workers, and didn’t particularly aspire to go off on his own. But the nature of the business changed over time, especially in the mid ’80s when Moser decided to expand and fill orders faster.

“I had already spent three years in an auto factory assembly line, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back to that production-oriented lifestyle. That’s when I realized it was either do that or find my own way.”

Finding a niche
Now that Rodel teaches woodworking classes to emerging craftsmen, he laughs at the question: “How did you get started?” The answer lies in the chicken-and-egg scenario. “How do you promote yourself if you don’t have any products?” he replies.

His first clients were relatives and friends. Once he built and photographed some decent pieces, he started a marketing effort aimed at local and state publications. It was a lesson learned from Moser.

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“A lot of furniture makers think they’re doing fine, they’ve got work and, all of a sudden, that dries up. So you do have to spend a lot on advertising and that’s always been my biggest business expense every year,” says Rodel.

In the beginning, Rodel would take any job he could get. He had no obligation to a particular style. His pieces were relatively simple, and he was happy to make a nightstand, window sash or stairway. He was thrilled to make a set of kitchen cabinets.

Rodel was adept at making Shaker-style furniture, courtesy of his tenure with Moser, but developed a yearning to make more elaborate designs. Around 1989, he stumbled across the Arts and Crafts style and was hooked.

“As it turns out, I’d seen pieces of that era all of my life, but I was never able to identify that particular style. At that time, it was a forgotten movement. Everyone knew about Shaker, Queen Anne, Federal and Colonial. But until the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement, only the historians knew about it. For some reason, it had been totally eclipsed.

“Aesthetically, in the American Arts and Crafts, the Stickley stuff was the first thing I was exposed to. It has a similarity to Shaker in that it is pretty basic and straightforward and much heavier, and it has some ornamentation through the use of exposed joinery.”

By 1991, he was getting enough work in the Arts and Crafts style alone to have the privilege of turning down other types of work.

The basic rules
Rodel has a national clientele, concentrated on the East Coast and Chicago area. Interestingly, sales in Maine are not so hot, averaging about one in-state commission every two or three years.

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Rodel’s solo career started to take off with the design of the “Prairie Desk.” He had it photographed soon after the finish dried and put an ad in the New Yorker magazine, which led to a quick sale. He’s since sold 18 Prairie Desks, including one to a customer in Belgium.

If you order a piece from Rodel, don’t expect collaboration. He has a problem with customers asking for too many “bells and whistles.” He says, “too much ornamentation has a counter effect on the piece. I think I’m at the point now where I have enough of a reputation where people just say, ‘I want what you build.’ They don’t generally offer too much input.”

Rodel does, however, want to know the item’s intended function and anything he can learn about the clients’ lifestyle and home décor. Clients usually contact Rodel through his Web site to start the commission process. He asks for a deposit when the order is placed, a second payment after six months, and the balance before the piece is shipped.

“Everything on my Web site is ‘standard,’ which really means I don’t have to do a design. If it’s not on the Web site, it’s a custom piece, meaning I have to do a design and charge a design fee ($300 to $500). About 50 percent of my orders each year are new designs.”

Rodel, who buys most of his wood from Irion Lumber in Wellsboro, Pa., produces about 10 pieces per year.

Other endeavors
Since 2002, as his schedule allows, Rodel has taught intermediate level casework and table construction and design at various woodworking schools in his region, including the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, and Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Last October, Rodel gave a brief discussion at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., in conjunction with the exhibit, ‘At Home with Gustav Stickley: Arts & Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection.”

Rodel has also co-authored a book, “Arts and Crafts Furniture: From Classic to Contemporary” (Taunton, 2005), with Jonathan Binzen and “dabbles” in design consultation. On occasion, he has been hired by clients to design projects that are either too far away or too large for his one-person shop to handle. Several of these pieces are shown on his Web site.

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Rodel rents his 1,200-sq.-ft. shop in a rehabilitated 19th-century textile mill on the banks of the Androscoggin River. It’s about a 15-minute drive from the L.L. Bean clothing retailer in Freeport. The shop features a Jet 15" planer, 10" Ulmia table saw, 12" MiniMax planer, a Delta/Milwaukee 14" band saw, an antique Kandi-Otto drill press, a VacuPress, two workbenches and a lot of hand tools.

Rodel prefers to work alone and has no plans to hire employees, though both of his sons, Ryan and Jamie, have helped out on their way to college. He applies all of his finishes by hand, often with the Tried & True brand of linseed oil and occasionally with shellac. He subs out upholstery and stained glass work.

“After doing this for so many years, none of the construction or actual building is really difficult anymore. The most difficult thing is coming up with a design that really works.”

Rodel is gradually becoming more interested in Chinese and Japanese furniture and architecture. He points out that they don’t stray too far from Arts and Crafts.

“One of the things that I realize is that a lot of my design is architecture. I think Arts and Crafts, and Chinese, and Japanese styles are all architectural,” he says. “I’m doing more work with more of an Asian flair. My interest is leaning towards being inspired directly by original Asian pieces.”

Soon to be featured on his Web site will be what Rodel calls the “Mieji bedroom suite,” a Japanese-influenced bed and dresser, and several more new designs incorporating the “jin-di-sugi” surface treatment that he has been experimenting with for several years. n

Contact: Kevin Rodel, Box 63, Brunswick, ME 04011. Tel: 207-725-7252.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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