As Darrell Peart describes it, being one of the first woodworking businesses to get a web site is largely responsible for the existence of his custom shop, a high-end company specializing in Greene and Greene style designs.
My web site, started in 1995, is what allowed me to quit my day job.” As one of the first woodworkers online, he got most of the links by default, and that continues to today. “If you Google Greene and Greene or Arts and Crafts furniture, I am always in the top ten.” (I tried it with “Greene and Greene furniture” and sure enough, Darrell’s web site, www.furnituremaker.com, came up first on the list.) By 1998, he had enough orders backed up that it made sense to make the move to his own shop full time.
But his woodworking career started long before that. His first job out of high school was making laminated beams at a factory in Sumner, Washington. Meanwhile, he was using his spare time to make plant holders and medicine cabinets and selling them at Pike Place Market in Seattle. That was the early 70’s, the same time the very first Starbucks opened at that very same market. The original Starbucks store is still there, open for business, but Darrell has moved south to Auburn.
At 53, Peart and his wife boast three children and three grandchildren. A Washington state native, he was born in Wenatchie, and has lived in the Puget Sound area since 1955. For you Right Coasters, that’s the area that encompasses Seattle and Tacoma.
During his career, he worked at a variety of cabinet and millwork shops, changing jobs in order to learn new tools or techniques. He spent almost thirty years in the woodworking trades before going out on his own. Along the way, he made upholstery frames, kitchen cabinets, conference tables, and custom office furniture, milled lumber, and even ran a CNC machine, but he always maintained a home business as well.
Why woodworking? “I enjoy it. Just the act of woodworking is creative, because it is problem solving. It makes life exciting, once the panic is gone. The catch is that custom woodworking often does not pay well, because the solution costs so much in time and research, but I love it.”
One of Darrell’s early influences was James Krenov, another local who went to West Seattle high school. He’s also a big fan of Chippendale, from whom he got much of his approach to proportioning. “If you strip away the Gothic ornamentation, his proportioning is excellent. That boldness and masculinity shows up in some of my designs, such as my Thorsen Table.”
His strongest influence, and the one he is most recognized for, came when he was at Abella Woodworking at Seattle. While working on a job that was adorned with glued-on tenons, he made the comment to a co-worker that this phony workmanship was what first spawned the arts and crafts movement. The man brought in a book about the Gamble House, and Peart’s fate was sealed. He fell in love with Greene and Greene.
“Greene and Greene is Gustav Stickley meets Japan,” Darrell explained. “The Greene brothers brought a Japanese influence to the popular Arts and Crafts movement, adding elements like cloud lifts, brackets, and the “tsuba” shape, both as an inlay and as the overall shape for table tops.” A tsuba is the ovoid guard between the blade and handle on a Japanese sword.
The Greene brothers, in turn, were strongly influenced by another pair of brothers, Peter and John Hall. “The Halls were incredibly talented Swedish woodworkers trained in the Sloyd method, whose philosophy is very close to the Arts and Crafts views.” Sloyd, which means dexterity or manual, artistic skill, developed in Sweden in the 19th century. It encourages making useful items, and starting each job with a mechanical drawing.
“Greene and Greene designs were nice, but in some of their earlier work, the execution was poor. The Hall bothers brought in a high level of traditional woodworking skills. That allowed Charles Greene’s imagination to run wild, since the Hall brothers could build anything, and build it well. If the Halls had not come along, Greene and Greene might have ended up far less important than they are.”
Their influence is strong in Peart’s shop, where he makes tables, chairs, desks, beds, and sideboards in his own interpretation of Greene and Greene styles. His custom work, done mostly in khaya (African Mahogany) and ebony, runs from about a thousand dollars for a simple chair to ten or fifteen thousand for a bed or sideboard. The pieces are dyed, then finished with oil based coatings. Currently, there is a one year backlog on woodworking jobs.
Though he sees himself as essentially a hardcore woodworker, Darrell does teach classes both at his Auburn shop, and at American Sycamore Woodworking Retreat in Indiana. “The classes are fun, and profitable, and teaching allows me the freedom to accept only the commissions I want to take.”
His hands-on weekend classes are limited for four people at a time. Students make a corner of a table and leg incorporating all the traditional Greene and Greene elements, including cloud lifts, buttons, exposed spline, brackets, and leg indent details. Those in longer classes use these skills to make complete pieces of furniture. His teaching style runs more to one-on-one interaction than flashy presentation. “The best thing is when I walk around and mingle with those doing the work.”
This woodworker, designer, and teacher is soon to be an author as well. He is currently working on a book about Greene and Greene furniture from the perspective of a woodworker. It will be divided into three parts. The first part is a rehash of history, with a bit more focus on the Halls. The middle section will show how to do Greene and Greene details. The object, he says, is not for readers to reproduce Greene and Greene furniture, but to allow them to take this knowledge and apply it to their designs. Not surprisingly, the third section will show how other contemporary woodworkers have used these influences, thus encouraging woodworkers to grow on their own.
Working on the book helped open doors, allowing him to actually put his hands on things that he’d never have been able to see and touch. He got in to the Thorsen House, the Robinson House, and Greene Gables, where the Robin Williams movie “Bicentennial Man” was filmed. Peart has also written for magazines, including two articles for Today’s Woodworker, back when it was a separate publication.
What’s ahead? “I’d like to get more into design. That’s what I really enjoy. Studying Greene and Greene in minute detail for the book has given me ideas for things I want to try. That’s made me appreciate the genius of Charles Greene, but also makes me wonder where all the ideas came from. It just about gives you an inferiority complex.”
An inferiority complex? I don’t think so; not with the caliber of work that Darrell Peart produces.