Taciturn and droll, Jake Cress may be slow to open up, but once he does, the whimsy that infuses his work pervades his conversation as well. Most famous for his ball-and-claw footed “Oops” chair, with one claw desperately grasping after its lost ball, he frequently combines flippant humor with superb woodworking. It all fits together once you realize this is a man whose first career, as a disc jockey and actor, was in entertainment. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s still the case.
During a stint in the Navy, part of which was served in Vietnam, Jake attended the Columbia School of Broadcasting in New York. When he got out in 1968, he returned to his native Virginia and took a job as a disc jockey. That started his career in the performing arts. A few years and several radio stations later, he graduated to the stage, moving to New York to act in off-Broadway plays whenever good parts were offered, but it was serendipity that steered him into woodworking.
“I had built my brother some furniture as a wedding gift that apparently impressed him,” Jake recounted. “I had no money and was between shows. My brother said, ‘You took high school shop. Let’s open up a cabinet shop together.’ That was in January of 1974. I had an acting job lined up for the spring, but needed something to tide me over, so we started a cabinet shop in Abingdon, Virginia.
“My brother Joe was teaching school, so I did most of the work. The first piece I built was a rolltop desk. I had lots of bravado, but had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t find anyone to teach me, so I taught myself, unfortunately.” In spite of his protestations, it appears he had a rather good teacher after all, because his woodworking is outstanding. For the most part, they did freestanding furniture. He’s been doing it ever since.
Luckily, Abingdon is the home of the State Theater of Virginia, so Jake managed to keep his hand in acting. He did community theater along with forays into Williamsburg for things like ‘The Common Glory,’ an outdoor drama about the founding of our country. His one big claim to acting fame, like his entry into woodworking, came at the insistence of others.
“They were shooting the movie Sommersby nearby, and my friend and fellow actor David Johnson, the artistic director of Virginia Tech, suggested I go to the audition. I didn’t want to bother, but my mother, who lives around the corner, chimed in as well.” He continued to resist until his wife, Phebe, insisted he audition, and he landed the part of the marshall.
“David auditioned against me, but I got the part. After that, he didn’t speak to me for about a year. That foolish movie was the last. While it was tempting to go into it for the money, there are more important things in life, and one of them is furniture making. Everybody who is born has a particular God-given talent, and it is up to them to find it and use it. I think furniture making is mine.”
Lots of folks would agree, but Cress insists that he is actually more of a gentleman woodworker, and that Phebe was always the one with the real job. “I think I actually made a living in furniture for only about three or four years,” Jake mused. “Sometimes people walk in and order things, but most of the time I just build what I like.”
What he likes is anything that is challenging. “I started building traditional pieces, doing everything from country tables to clocks, desks and highboys.” Then came the miniatures. “I do the miniature furniture because it is a challenge. If it is easy, there’s no point to it; anybody can do it. I like to have a challenge.” His challenges result in the beautiful pieces gracing his web site, almost all of which are for sale, including one copy of the famous “Oops” chair.
Wanting to do something different that appeals to his warped imagination, he started building “funny” or animated furniture. The first was the “Crippled Table,” which was named by a friend. “A friend of mine named Toby had polio as a kid, and has a gimpy leg. I made a table with one leg cut off and a crutch replacing it. Toby saw it, laughed heartily, and said ‘That’s the crippled table.’ The name stuck.”
“After that, I built a slew of other funny furniture. There’s a table with its top peeled back to reveal a checkerboard. The peeled section is not veneer, but actually carved solid wood, as is the checkerboard section.” Another table, appropriately titled “How to Build Furniture” appears to have one short leg propped up by a convincing looking wooden book. “That’s what you get from following the instruction in one of those damn woodworking books,” Jake growled.
“I’ve always been fascinated with nursery rhymes, and Hickory Dickory Clock is my corrupted version of the nursery rhyme. The pendulum of the clock has swung out of its case to smack one mouse, while another, on the floor, is getting away. The face of the clock is an actual face, hand painted by a woman named Joan Davis. She lives in a castle that she built, on an island in the middle of West Virginia.”
The humor in some pieces is more subtle. “Aladdin’s Mouse” looks, at first glance, like a reproduction of an Adam style table, replete with the original carved oil lamp on its apron. “When I got done carving the lamp, I decided to add a mouse lifting the lid and peeking out.” “Self Portrait,” a chair with a stylized face in its back and its arms holding chisel and mallet, was inspired by the late Al Hirshfeld. “I had seen a cartoon of him drawing himself, so I did the same,” said Cress. “It does not look like me, though. It’s a handsome chair.”
His greatest honor was having his “Oops Chair” chosen to grace the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Jake made 10 copies of the chair. One is still available, but all the others have been sold, the last two for $50,000 each.
While that’s his most famous work, it is not necessarily his favorite. “My favorite,” Jake explains, “is whatever I am currently working on. Right now, that happens to be a pyramid made of four pieces of wood with a 16-inch base. Building it is way tougher than it seems. You take pi, divide it into 16, then multiply it by two, and that gives you the height of the pyramid at a 51 degree angle.”
Along the way, he accedes to the requisite teaching and promotional requests. “I did an interview about my work for a local TV station,” Cress mused. “I narrated it. I didn’t mean to, but that is the way it worked out. I’ve also lectured a couple times at the Smithsonian. Mostly I tell funny stories.”
Even Jake’s advice fits the pattern of his iconoclastic woodworking style, and, like everything he does, is firmly tongue-in-cheek. “No matter what you do in your life,” Jake advised me, “you’ve got learn the basics first. Otherwise, you don’t know what rules to break.”