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Visions drive passionate work

Henry Fox has an uncanny ability to visualize designs in his head that most people, including many furniture makers, simply are incapable of doing. If there was such a thing as a sixth sense — visualization — the owner of Fox Brothers Furniture Studio in Newburyport, Mass., would certainly qualify as possessing it.

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Whether it is a bicycle-powered aircraft built at MIT, or a wooden rowing shell similar to the one he rowed in during college, Fox develops his design ideas from the shapes of all types of objects. His furniture represents a combination of his custom designs, architectural elements and his constant use of alternative materials, which result in pieces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

HENRY FOX Owner: Fox Brothers Furniture Studio
Location: Newburyport, Mass.
Shop size: 5,000 sq. ft.
Professional experience: 25 years
Known for: Use of alternative materials
Member: New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association
Favorite show: Smithsonian Institution Craft Show
About his work: “I design and build original contemporary furniture that is made out of mostly wood, and that is a response that really is very accurate. The other thing that I’ll sometimes say is I am just like an architect, but I don’t build houses.”

The crafts world would characterize his custom furniture as mixed media because of his history of using materials such as stainless steel, copper, Imago, bronze, glass, cobalt glass, slate, leather, Dacron, lapis, mother of pearl, aluminum, gold leaf and, most recently, copper cloth to accompany various domestic and exotic woods and veneer.

In the genes
It’s possible Fox’s architectural prowess is genetic. After all, his great-grandfather was renowned architect John Mervin Carrere, who partnered with Thomas Hastings to form the architectural firm Hastings and Carrere in the late 1800s. The firm designed numerous projects, primarily in New York, including the famous New York Public Library, which opened in 1911.

“I think about him from time to time because clearly three-dimensional visualization is an aptitude that has been passed down,” Fox says. “It skipped my father, but he is good at other things. And I actually have Carrere’s drafting tools and I use them from time to time, which is sort of intense. There have been times, not recently, where I’ve thought that it would have been interesting to have talked to him and say, ‘What do you think of this table? What do you think of this stuff?’ ”

As Fox describes it, he grew up “making stuff.” It began with an endless cycle of making and tearing down tree houses, which was followed by building a few boats when he was a little bit older, some that floated and others that met a less fortunate fate. His most ambitious childhood project was the design of a catamaran when he was 12 or 13, which he built with very rudimentary tools, that was “moderately successful.”

Getting started
Without any formal woodworking training, Fox moved to Newburyport and joined his business partner, Andy Willemsen, to form Wendover Woodworks in 1983.

“He showed me the way around the shop, but it was quite clear that I had the aptitude to operate the equipment and also to think about what it was that we were interested in making.”

They built traditional work, reproductions such as mahogany pencil post beds, small carvings and decorative moldings, but Fox felt there was something missing. He was more interested in the design component and building aspect, and the aesthetics left him kind of flat.

“In the beginning, I was really nervous about trying to design original work, because I didn’t know whether it was going to be received or how it was going to be received. But we just kept going and somewhere I sort of took a survey and said, ‘I think I’ve got the aptitude to do this; I’m going to keep going.’ ”

Designer found inspiration an at early age Some of Henry Fox’s design seeds can be traced to his lifelong love of boats and his years at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he was a member of the college’s lightweight crew for four years and subsequently coached for another four years. “I can first remember getting involved in rowing and thinking that these boats were beautiful to look at,” Fox says. “And I think they used to be more beautiful than they are now. When I first started at Trinity, we rowed in a beautiful wooden boat … I don’t remember all the material that was used, but you just looked at all the structure and it was fantastic. The wood was very thin, and it was as light as possible, but obviously addressing specific engineering in terms of strength and stiffness.” It was the shapes of rowing shells and other boats, as well as airplane wing shapes, that provided him with what he describes as his “tangential inspiration.” The Daedalus, a human-powered aircraft that was built at MIT and now hangs at the Museum of Science in Boston, is another source for some of his design elements. “It’s an amazing structure … a human-powered airplane that’s unbelievable to look at, and looks like a rowing shell in an abstract way. “One of the amazing things about watching rowing, or anything that is being well done, is the apparent effortlessness that is projected. I remember, as a small boy, watching rowing and thinking that it was just this beautiful and quiet effortless event. And the contrast of what it appears to be and what it is, is quite amazing to me ... I think some of our most successful furniture designs are kind of effortless, and those are the ones that are absolutely the hardest to do. The amount of effort that goes into making it appear to be effortless is enormous.”

After a few years in business, Fox and Willemsen moved their shop down the street to its present location, a renovated car dealership, which houses a 4,500-sq.-ft. shop and 500-sq.-ft. showroom. In 1996, Willemsen decided to pursue other things, and the business was renamed Fox Brothers Studio Furniture, not after Henry Fox, but his two sons, Willy and Orren.

Essence of his designs
Working solo sent Fox deeper into the design phase of woodworking as well as his experimentation and use of alternative materials. Through the years, he has assembled a portfolio of chairs, tables, beds, desks and case pieces that have little resemblance to the traditional work he produced at the beginning of his furniture-making career.

Fox believes design is a natural progression, commencing with a conversation with a client to develop an outline, description and vision of what the piece should consist of.

“As you’re having a conversation, things are already forming. Is it a literal version? I would say more often than not it is fairly literal, so it’s fairly clear. And then you’ll work through permutations, which I say is a logical process of elimination. So you might be starting here, you go like that and you end up in sort of a reductive final version.”

Fox doesn’t use a computer to design. He says he is getting better at drawing, but most of the time he sketches. Often he’ll have an idea pop into his head, go to the bench and let the idea migrate to paper. The difficulty of the task is combining a fresh idea — possibly unconventional — while keeping within the fixed parameters, such as elevation, proportion, dimensions and other design restraints.

“To make something that’s interesting and not boring, but also simple, is extremely difficult and can take a long time,” explains Fox. “For some reason — and it doesn’t always work this way — I think of the process of designing as somewhat organic. You literally plant the seed, the plant grows at a lot of different rates, and you might be doing something else, and that affects the soil conditions or however you choose to think about it.”

The furniture maker has designed and built more chairs than any other type of furniture. He routinely makes prototypes of his chair designs, but rarely for other pieces.

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Alternative materials
There is excitement in Fox’s voice when he speaks about some of the

materials he has used, particularly in his chair backs. When he comes across a newfound material to experiment with, he’s like a little kid on Christmas morning. Stainless-steel rods or huge pieces of a plastic-type material called Imago don’t look like they’d make comfortable chair backs, but Fox has managed to succeed at achieving that. His use of alternative materials is the signature of his furniture designs.

“I don’t know how it started. I think it is kind of contemporary architecture-based. It’s one of the things I’m interested in … One of the issues for us is you have to have a comfort level in manipulating the material and how you would deal with issues you wouldn’t normally deal with in wood. There are lots of different questions about all of them, such as their working qualities.”

The problems that arise when working with different materials are mostly in terms of expansion and contraction. Many of the traditional woodworking rules apply no matter what Fox is building, so he has to learn how to address wood movement on an individual basis with each material.

Here are a couple material thoughts from Fox’s bag of tricks.

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• Imago: “In the case of our plastic chair [the “Owl Chair”], we used Imago, made by Knoll Textiles. The Imago is off the charts, I think. It comes in a 4x8 sheet; one sheet will make six of those chairs. One of the real advantages is that we can manipulate it on woodworking equipment, so we can cut it on the table saw, sand the edge, [and] we can drill it. The only little variable is the shaping of it ... we’ll heat the material with a radiant heater and it will get kind of mushy, and then we have a male form and we’ll slump it, then put it in our vacuum bag to hold it while it’s cooling.”

•  Copper cloth: “This screening is incredibly seductive, and we now have three projects that we’re using it in. It looks like a screen door, but it’s made out of copper and it’s actually considered to be copper cloth. It comes in a variety of thread counts and the stuff is amazing looking. We bought it a few years ago just because it seemed cool.”

Fox has always had a couple of people working in his shop. John May and Bill Smith basically do their own thing and work for Fox on a piecemeal basis. He calls them subcontractors; they work on their own projects and lend a hand when Fox needs their assistance. The arrangement is basically one of sharing shop space. There have been occasions when Fox has hired an employee or two, and the results have been mixed since working in a studio shop that produces mainly one-offs can be difficult.

“We’ve had people from a variety of schools and a variety of programs. Some have been better than others,” Fox says. “It would be one thing if we were doing repeat commercial work or we were doing kitchen cabinets or something that had some consistency from project to project. You could train someone to do certain operations that are done over and over again. But that’s not the case here. We need to teach people that come here and work the way that I do it, and it’s more a way of thinking.”

Attracting business
Although Fox Brothers will build an occasional spec piece, residential commissions are the main source of business. On the commercial side, a year’s work might simply consist of an occasional boardroom table, but the economy has put a damper on that type of work. Production is limited to chairs for customers who want six to eight to accompany a dining table. Commissions usually emanate from word of mouth or from interior designers.

Fox confesses he hasn’t updated his Web site in several years, but says it has worked well despite its shortcomings. It provides enough information and photos that people are able to understand the type of product he builds. A dining room table was recently built and shipped to Israel for someone who found him strictly through his Web site.

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Fox used to be a regular at some of the annual furniture shows, including the nearby Fine Furnishings Providence Show in Providence, R.I., but has stopped participating in most of them.

“We pretty regularly apply to the Smithsonian and seem to get in about every other year, and I will continue to do that show as long as it exists because it is great and the people are great ... But having done them for years, they’re a huge investment, even in a simple weekend show that is relatively close. It’s tiring. The preparation, making sure everything that you are taking is just the way you want it to be, schlepping it around: It’s a lot.”

Tools and materials
For a spacious shop that houses up to four woodworkers, Fox has a modest collection of machines and tools that meet all of his needs. It includes an Altendorf C-45 sliding table saw, Wadkins sliding table saw and jointer, Crescent 36" band saw (built in 1955), SCMI Sandya two-head 43" wide belt sander, SAC Sueri 20" wide belt sander and S53 20" planer, SICAR Rapid 16" jointer, Laguna 24" band saw, Powermatic drill press, and Vacuum Pressing Systems veneer press.

He hand-selects his domestic woods from Northland Forest Products in Kingston, N.H., and from Keiver-Willard Lumber in his hometown. He uses a few exotics such as wenge, bubinga, Swiss pear, and Bolivian rosewood, which he purchases from Highland Hardwoods in Brentwood, N.H. Fox says he doesn’t use as much mahogany as he used to, primarily because of a quality problem.

About half of the work produced is with veneer, which Fox says offers virtually unlimited design possibilities.

“It’s a great way to use wood and create a look that’s different than solid. The other thing that I really like about veneer is the actual working of it,” he says. “Veneer is intolerant of poor precision, and sometimes you’re in the mood to be super-precise.”

Fun and discovery
Newburyport is the quintessential New England coastal town that has avoided substantial growth and has maintained its charm. The town’s Federal architecture and proximity to the ocean provide inspiration for Fox and his furniture making.

Fox speaks with a deep passion about his furniture-making career. Every day is a new day, the opportunity for a new experience, and, on special days, the chance to work with a new material or new design. Despite the current economic climate, he has maintained a decent backlog of work, but admits getting paid is tougher than it used to be.

His two sons have inherited his three-dimensional aptitude, but he doesn’t believe they will follow in his footsteps. As he says, “time will tell.” As to what direction Fox is headed, it’s wherever his business takes him. He’s just along for the ride.

“A few years ago someone said, ‘How did you end up here, doing what you’re doing?’ I answered, ‘It’s kind of like there’s a little stream on the top of the mountain and that stream never ends up directly below its source. It goes along and goes along. And that’s exactly why we’re sitting here. Everything is driven by commission, so I really don’t know what is going to happen next week. I really don’t have a stable of things that are going to be made. Time will tell as to who will come in the door and where that steers the shop. I know we’ll have a great time.” n

Contact: Fox Brothers Furniture Studio, 39 Liberty St., Newburyport, MA 01950. Tel: 978-462-7726.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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