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Renewal in retirement

Lee Johnson retired about 10 years ago from his position as a lobbyist — he prefers the term “liaison” — in the energy field. He worked for more than 20 years in Seattle, did a stint in Washington D.C., and finished up in Portland, Ore. Once retired, he grabbed his passion for building furniture and forged ahead on his new career. But at the same time, he looked back — way back. Johnson enjoys building “adaptations” of period furniture. Yes, he does some 18th century American pieces, but he prefers furniture designs that span several centuries before that with origins primarily in Europe.

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Lee Johnson Owner of: Lee Johnson Wood Art Location: Portland, Ore. Shop: 1,100 sq. ft. Experience: More than 30 years; 10 as a professional Previous employment: Energy lobbyist/liaison Specialty: Furniture with classic Western European decorative carving Challenges of carving: “Can I control the tool while reading the grain? Can I understand the underlying form? Can I make the peach look fuzzy and the apple shiny? Can I pick out the dominant lines in the fretwork and display them to best advantage? How do I make that acanthus look Swedish and that one Roman? Is the decoration enhancing or distracting?”

“While I think I understand the lure of reproducing furniture that has stood the test of time with its utility, strength and beauty, I find a greater challenge in borrowing some of the best from classic works and adapting proportion, technique, decoration and what-have-you to make unique pieces which meet the need at hand,” Johnson says. “Why copy when I can invent new ways to apply proven designs?”

Johnson’s adaptations cover a wide range of styles and movements — Art Nouveau, Gothic, Rococo, Renaissance, British Craftsman, Western European and more. He talks about classical Greek and Roman proportions, and math and geometry in the context of furniture design.

“I have studied historical geometric design,” Johnson says. “Did you know that the second-best selling book until 1900 to the Bible was Euclid’s 13 Elements of Geometry? And since then we have become a nation of geometry dummies. We just don’t do it anymore. I just get such a kick out of geometry; it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s only natural to assume that the Portland furniture maker has always been a history buff, especially in the 1500s to 1800s range, which is the time span many of his designs are based on.

“My fascination with history didn’t start until I was in Washington during the bicentennial,” he explains. “I got bit by the bug of the beginnings of the country’s history and, at the same time, I was beginning to learn about real furniture making, and particularly decorative work on furniture. So that obviously took me into the history realm, a happy combination of things.”

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Mr. Fix-It
Johnson’s woodworking career began by working on three homes he bought, lived in, and sold on Queen Hill, a neighborhood of old homes in Seattle. It was literally on-site job training.

“That was learn-as-you-go, and I had to get more sophisticated as we bought more expensive, old places with fancier stuff in them. We moved three times in Seattle; we were there for almost 20 years. I built my first nice pieces in the late ’70s in Seattle as gifts for my wife.

During his 30-plus years in the energy field, Johnson attempted to maintain, improve and widen his woodworking skills by working on assorted projects as best he could in his limited spare time. When he retired to Portland, he was concerned he had lost his woodworking abilities, but happily discovered they hadn’t disappeared.

“I’d been doing this stuff for 30 years, but when I retired and went full-time, my learning curve just went vertical. I began to realize quickly how much I still have to learn, especially making the switch to hand tools as a practical way to do one-of-a-kind furniture.”

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Life in the Rose City
When Johnson returned to Portland, he wasn’t the type to sit back in a rocking chair and watch the world pass him by. He didn’t return to woodworking in a small way, such as building a bedside table or a couple chairs. Instead, he built a house.

“We came back from Washington, D.C. and built a Southern Colonial house up here on the hill, and I trimmed it out in the right kind of neoclassical trim, which included elliptical arches with the carved keys, and I carved three fireplaces. We had some palladium kind of windows, dentil moldings on the doors, mantles and a Monticello deck rail.”

The work served as an addition to a limited portfolio, admittedly limited in advanced work, but enough to bring to a few interior decorators and get his name out in public. He took a few blows to the ego, but his persistence in tracking down interior decorators paid off.

“I didn’t have a lot of selling points,” Johnson admits. “Some people looked at my portfolio and just blew me off, which was OK, and the other people started keeping me busy. About half my stuff now is word-of-mouth, the other half is interior designers. I’m actually surprising myself that I’m beginning to recognize in my work a sort of style that I didn’t know was going to emerge.”

Old school
Johnson’s design work is conducted much like it was several hundred years ago. Everything is done in pencil.

“Let’s face it,” he says adamantly. “CAD drawings are accurate and nice, but just dead lifeless, particularly for finer presentation. I do pencil drawings that are almost art and they love them.”

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During the last few years, Johnson has built a wide array of furniture. Besides his numerous Western European decorative carving endeavors, his projects include a farmhouse kitchen work table, matched serpentine chests, fireplace mantles, a powder room cabinet, a Queen Anne cocktail table, pitcher chest, king-sized bed, custom entertainment centers and other items.

On some of his pieces, there is a mixture of several designs, something that would make some purists cringe when looking at the combinations. But that doesn’t faze the maker at all.

“I build to the client’s need — what it has to do, where it’s going to go, and what other kinds of things they have with them,” he says. “I’m matching the piece to the environment and using old forms to do that.”

Some of his favorite furniture designs are from the 18th century, in particular English Arts and Crafts pieces.

“I’m not a Stickley Arts and Crafts guy, I’m more of a Morris Arts and Crafts guy. The Arts and Crafts period had gorgeous decorations, the real stylish-nature rounded corners. They did some of those wonderful geometric inlay designs. That is such a rich period for high-end stuff, and I don’t see many people doing it. I’m surprised.”

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‘I do what I do’
Most of Johnson’s clients are wealthy antique buyers and collectors, people with some education in historical furniture who usually work with a designer that has a substantial knowledge of the work as well. Johnson is connected to several Portland designers who have lived in the area much longer than he has and also have a wealth of clients.

“If there is a specialty that I have, it’s figuring out what the client’s need is and what it is going to take to meet it. With the woodwork, back East it’s kind of a dime a dozen, I think. But out here, classic Western European decorative carving is quite rare. So if I have a specialty out here, that’s it.

“Like most of my hand work, I not only enjoy the result of carving on a piece of furniture, but I also enjoy the process — intensely enjoy is not overstating it,” Johnson explains. “Well-done, properly placed carving immeasurably enhances a piece. That’s obvious on traditional styles, but it is no less true on more contemporary work. I think Sam Maloof hit his high notes with sculpted lines on his later work, just like the ancient Greeks did with their human-form caryatids.”

The Portland furniture maker doesn’t do much to market his work. He is content with obtaining work by word-of-mouth and ongoing relationships with his interior designers. He doesn’t have a Web site, although some of his work can be found on the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers site (www.guildoforegonwood There is no advertising and you won’t find any of his pieces in galleries. However, you will find a substantial portfolio on his iPhone.

“I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t feel like I have to advertise myself a lot. I do what I do.”

But there is one unusual quasi-marketing tool Johnson is quite proud of.

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“For any significant piece that I build, I make a book of how it was built, what was going on at the time period, and I buy an expensive leather-bound Italian volume to put it in. I take photos along the way, write a little bit, and create a history of the piece in the book for the clients. The intention is that a book like that stays with them; they can add stuff, and they just love it. They sit it out on coffee tables for their guests.”

In the shop
There’s no doubt Johnson would prefer to do all of his work by hand — he’s not much of a machine guy. However, he is a realist and will use machines when necessary, relying mostly on his Powermatic 2000 table saw, 15" planer and 6" jointer, General 18" band saw, and Conover lathe.

“I’ve come to regard the machines as apprentices and you have some real good apprentices and some not-so-good apprentices,” he says. “I almost never expect real accuracy from the machines. I like to fool around with them and set them up pretty good. And I use the machines to rough stuff out. But if I end up doing a shoulder on a mortise and tenon, it’s going to look really great with handwork. I can’t get the machines to do those. When I want accuracy in something that looks real good, then I’m going to use hand tools.”

Johnson stopped counting the number of planes he collected after 60. He built his entire bench plane set off eBay and proudly exclaims he rehabbed them all. His oldest model is an 18th century Madox molding plane from London, and he also has a fine assortment of Japanese chisels.

He buys his wood from four local dealers and uses Oregon walnut more than any other species. He works with non-ferrous materials and has made his share of visits to the local salvage yard to gather up old leaded glass should a period project require it. Finishing is also done in-house and, before he applies finish to a piece, he provides his clients a sample of what it would look like upon completion.

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“I tell my clients ahead of time … it’s going to be close to the wood, we’re not going to have any thick film finish. If you want that, we’re going to send it to somebody who does that for a living. I use an oil-varnish mix made by an outfit in Seattle called Dalys ProFin. It’s very dust-friendly; it gives my surfaces a nice, hand-rubbed look.”

Mr. President
Johnson is active in the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and served as its president in 2008. The guild has approximately 250 members and is primarily a hobbyist club with a smattering of professionals. It originated as a group of furniture makers getting together for the purpose of doing an annual sales show, but that has “fizzled” during the last few years.

“We do participate in an annual show with a number of the other craft [groups] in town called the Spring Showcase, sponsored by the Northwest Promotional Marketing Association. The big core is the ceramicists, but the wood guys have joined that the last couple years. It draws about 20,000 people.”

Johnson’s second career as a furniture maker is obviously a pleasurable one, and he has a youthful delight when he talks about it. He builds between six and eight pieces a year and keeps a comfortable backlog of six months. A few years ago, he let his backlog grow to about two years, but he won’t let that happen again. He prefers to experience the enjoyment of the job, not the pressure.

He says his current challenge is to keep moving forward, to take on increasingly difficult jobs, and continue to push himself. In some areas, he has become quite talented and, in others, he feels there is a need for improvement.

“There’s a leap coming of some kind, but I don’t know what it is. I need to learn some more sophisticated inlay techniques because I don’t do much of that now. My steps are just going to be to get better at some time periods with my adaptations. I’ll [continue] doing original design with elements from different periods, something that would have been built in that period to perform that function.

“I really work to satisfy myself. I have to be real happy with the piece before it goes out the door and obviously the client does. But it’s almost more important to me that I’m pleased with what I’m doing. And then when other people like it — what a wonderful bonus.”

The retired energy lobbyist has a rather philosophical approach to his work. He takes great pride in making beautiful things, and if he can leave a small, but very nice, body of work behind him when his time is up, he’ll be a happy man.

“There’s no end to this particular craft. There’s always new stuff to learn, find, new stuff to try. I come to the shop every day about 10 a.m. and stay until 6 or 7 p.m. I treat it like a real job. I’m right on the teetering edge of full-time hobby versus business only because I don’t have to work to live. And this particular thing that I’m doing, I’m living to work. And I love it. Every day is Saturday."

Contact: Lee Johnson Wood Art, 5034 N.E. 105th Ave., Unit C, Portland, OR 97220. Tel: 971-219-0839.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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