Kevin Mack recently won, for the second year in a row, the “Best in Show- Traditional Furniture” award at the Fine Furnishings Providence Show – with a booth full of furniture that demonstrated how he had changed up his style in the intervening year.
Last year, Kevin’s booth was full of Federal furniture. “It got a great response from the judges, but not from the public,” he said. “The commissions I’m getting are not reproductions, or even classic forms.”
Instead, his showcase piece this year was “Pandora’s Jukebox,” which looks, stylistically, like a 1950s style TV, but in function is a liquor cabinet and “jukebox.” “The door is where you put the booze, the drawers are for your mixers and shakers and stuff, and the lower drawer is a speaker,” Kevin said. “I needed something to catch people’s eye. I think the piece speaks a lot about my personality.”
It’s made from 17″ curly red oak – found at a lumberyard Kevin’s family has shopped at for 40 years – with quilted maple on the facade. An audio engineer who works in Kevin’s co-op helped him design the placement and wiring of the speaker, and his girlfriend’s daughter programmed the iPod.
“I don’t like working alone,” Kevin said. In his co-op, there are six others: most are cabinet makers, the audio engineer who does high-end speakers and veneering, and Kevin, the only furniture maker. In a co-op, Kevin said, “If somebody drops off, we’re not all going to drop off because the table saw or the joiner left. There’s enough of us to absorb the cost.” Plus, he said, “I learn things through osmosis” – as well as input and critique of furniture building methodologies from the cabinetmakers who do built-ins.
Kevin studied furniture making at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, but the things he learned there, he said, do not necessarily lend themselves to profitability. “They beat it into you at school: early American style, traditional joinery, hand tools, full-scale drawings for everything. In the real world, customers are not necessarily going to pay you to do those things.” For instance, Kevin cited a Federal desk he built – which took him 750 hours. He doubts he would build it to that extent again, instead opting to strip off embellishments like the stringlines, bellflowers and inlays.
“I do love Federal furniture, but no one’s going to pay me for it,” he said. Instead, having learned the traditional techniques, he said, he can pick and choose which he uses. For instance, he relies less on full-size drawings today – unless he’s morphing a drawing he’s already done into a segment (like a chair leg) that fits a current piece.
He does, however, keep a sketchpad next to his bed for drawing out inspiration, which comes from sources like family trips. One such trip and nighttime sketching led to a tabletop that resembles a Native American headdress, with each feather divided by a strip of ebony, that sits atop a cantilevered three-legged pedestal. “I wake up every morning with furniture on my mind,” Kevin said. “It’s a definite passion.”
It’s not a passion that led directly to a career as a furniture maker, though: instead, Kevin first spent 20 years in the construction business.”I love building houses, but I always tinkered as a hobby,” he said, doing things like making jewelry boxes on an enclosed back porch in Chicago. At age 36, he had what he called an early mid-life crisis, coinciding with a divorce, and moved back in with his parents to go to school full-time at North Bennet Street, while also working full-time to support his eight-year-old child.
“I worked as a handyman and ‘mack of all trades’ during school, cleaning gutters and pulling toilets…
That’s how I feed my kids. I feed my soul through furniture work.” Unlike many of his classmates, who viewed their woodworking as a serious hobby, Kevin said he always intended to make a business out of it – even though that wasn’t how woodworking had been done in his family.
“No one in my family did it for a living; they all did it as a hobby,” Kevin said. Still, with a mother who is a professionally trained artist, uncles on both sides and a cousin who are shop teachers, and an antique childhood home that was constantly being remodeled, he developed an appreciation for furniture and woodworking – despite the fact that he describes his younger self as a “terrible” woodworker in his high school shop class. “My uncle will tell you the borderline failed me, because I had the attention span of a gnat,” Kevin said.
These days, it’s stylistically, Kevin said, that “I’m sort of all over the place. You can’t get a bead on what I want do do as far as furniture – that’s on purpose.” Although most of his paid work right now is rebuilding, such as restoring a serpentine table or changing a bed from a European to American mattress size, Kevin said that, for every piece commissioned from him, he builds something for himself. Upcoming commissions include a sofa table, a room divider and a reproduction of a Williamsburg [Virginia] spinning wheel – while his current spec piece involves working with veneer in marquetry and parquetry. “It’s usually something I haven’t done before, to build another skill level,” Kevin said.
“I wish I could come in every morning, and there would be a line of people wanting to buy what I make for fun,” Kevin said. “I don’t think you’ll meet too many people as passionate as I am about woodworking and what I’m doing.”