Over three decades ago, Alice Suszynski
was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. These
days, she's taking it in a different direction. Both stages, however,
have involved woodworking.
When she was starting out as an adult,
Alice hadn't gone to college, yet "I knew I wanted a career of
some kind. I spent a couple of years doing office work, and I
thought, 'I better figure this out.'" Thinking back to what she
liked to do in her childhood, Alice realized that, "What I liked
to do was make stuff. Neither of my parents was very handy, but I
remembered my friends and I would go to vacant lots and build forts,
and the bliss kids get."
At first, her idea of "making
stuff" prompted her to think "carpenter" as a career
option, "but my uncle was an architect, and he said, 'I think
what you're talking about is cabinetmaking."
That uncle, however, also knew about an
apprenticeship program available through the United Brotherhood of
Carpenters. Alice was accepted into the organization as an apprentice
in 1975, the first woman. "It was pretty revolutionary,"
She did her apprenticeship at a large
architectural casework shop near Chicago which did high-end
commercial jobs. "I remember they were doing a job for the shah
of Iran," she said. "It was the 1970s, so there was a lot
of German automated equipment coming in, and then you had guys on the
bench with chisels and planes, using Old World stuff, at the same
While she's appreciative of such
skills, as Alice developed her own woodworking career - later moving
to Oregon to open a shop with her then-husband -- she gravitated more
toward doing her woodworking with power tools. "I think I once
said something smart-alecky like, 'If it can't be done with a
machine, I don't want to do it.'" For instance, with hand-cut
dovetails, "I'm not that fast," she said. "It has to
be really important for me to do it."
She spent many years doing both
commercial and residential custom jobs, built-ins and furniture, with
one of her proudest moments coming from a wooden chandelier that won
Best in Show at the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association Design in Wood show in 2003. "I was playing around with cutouts, trying to
figure out how to use cutouts, and that just came to me," Alice
said. Built from quartersawn white oak and walnut, the chandelier
exemplifies a "really nice idea of cutting wood out and letting
light shine through," Alice said.
"I wish I could be doing more of
that," but lighting products have a great deal of regulation
surrounding them, due to fire risk, Alice said.
Instead, she has taken a different
approach to her latest journey in woodworking. "I'm in my later
years, and I'm tired of hauling big things around," she said.
"It's very stressful: damage can be done by the wrong move."
While she is still doing custom
cabinets and loves doing so, "I wanted to concentrate on smaller
things," Alice said. She and her husband, Ed, are currently
doing limited edition jewelry boxes -- Alice makes them and, soon,
she plans to launch an option to sell kits for others to build them
Alice's jewelry boxes are created in
the Arts and Crafts style, which has likely inspired her work for
longer than she realized. She didn't begin designing furniture, she
said, until the early 1990s, when she took a class from Wendy
Maruyama in the Woodworking and Furniture Design department at San Diego State University. "I was so excited just
to get to be around her," Alic said. "First of all, a woman
[woodworker]; second, she was part of this really important movement,
the studio art movement.
"Part of the course was to design
a piece of furniture and then explain it. I had built desks and
stuff, but I'd never really thought about design, what I wanted to
say. When I hit upon Arts and Crafts, I thought, 'that's my thing' --
probably because I grew up in Chicago, and my heart is Arts and
Crafts, Prairie." (For instance, Alice noted that she felt an
affinity with notable Prairie style architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a
Wisconsin native, after learning that he, too, had liked to play with
In many of her pieces, Alice said, "I
use a lot of the lines found in the Arts and Crafts style. The crown
on the top of a piece might extend past the next piece a little bit
-- very stepped. I like using shadows and light, and proportion: I
love big overhangs on stuff; I think it gives a more grounded feel
when the top overhangs."
Alice said, "My favorite piece of
anything I've ever made is my jewelry armoire. It's all Arts and
Crafts, Asian aesthetic. If I had to do it over, I would not change a