“I still remember the day my dad brought home a Shopsmith,” mused Mark Laub, a Minnesota woodworker who designs and builds decidedly striking high-end furniture. “I was about nine. We built all sorts of stuff that I thought was cool, and I was hooked. No matter what else I did, I always had a basement shop and always kept woodworking as a hobby.”
Between that first foray into woodworking and his current shop, he took a distinct detour. “I went to a small liberal arts college, got a psychology degree, then took a double major in graduate school to get a psychology degree and an MBA. After working in a variety of industry jobs, I would up being the Chairman of the Board of Blue Cross Blue Shield in Minnesota, then become the CEO of Enpower, an energy trading company.
“About 10 years ago, I bailed out of everything; I just got sick of it. Naturally, I became a woodworker. I had some land north of Minneapolis, so I built a shop and studio and called it The Board Room. I started my business by calling in favors from business colleagues, and offered to build furniture for them for the cost of materials. That started word of mouth and repeat business. To this day, I have not done a single bit of advertising.
“I cut my teeth on a Chippendale armchair, which I made just after leaving the business world. There is nothing original about that chair: it’s a direct knockoff of a Chippendale, but it is a challenge. The carving is true to the original and meticulously done.
“Once I had a business, I decided to make super high-end organic work. It’s pricey; in fact, I can’t afford the furniture I make, but the more you slip your standards, the more you get caught in the kitchen cabinet trap. You have to figure out what your niche is and stay true to it. The world does not need another middle-of-the-road kitchen cabinet maker. That just leads to heartache. You need to figure out how to find your niche, and you won’t do it by building furniture you can find in the store.
“My work has no straight lines, and has a strong Art Nouveau influence. I often copy directly from nature. Insects, flowers and other images routinely show up in my pieces. I do inlay, stained glass and metal work, and often incorporate those into my woodworking as well. People love it, but it does not end with the design itself. There are special and often hidden treats in the pieces too.
“A good example is After the Gold Rush, an inlaid chest of drawers with carved calla lily posts. Inside every drawer, there are unique divider designs and inlaid drawer bottoms, a different one for each drawer. There’s also a hidden lift-out jewelry box and clever hidden drawer stops. Every pull is a hand carved piece of ebony attached to the case with brass pins.
“That piece, like almost all of the ones I build, is a walkabout, meant to be viewed from all sides. Each vantage point offers the viewer a different experience. There are no straight lines on the piece; even the case work is curved, which is typical of what I do. On the back of this one is a curved piece of patinated copper that contrasts with the wood.
“I normally don’t tell my customers about all the hidden treasures, but let them find out on their own. They frequently call back in amazement as they discover them. That’s all part of the business aspect of this craft, and it’s also important. Even wealthy people with a lot of discretionary income like to get their money’s worth. These little surprises make it seem worthwhile to them. I produce value, but also create unexpected treats.
“There are other things I do for them as well. For instance, every Friday I send all my pending customers an email telling them what is going on with their piece. The biggest gimmick I do on major pieces is midway through the piece, when there is enough done to look cool but still incomplete. At that point, I invite the customer over to the studio, put a table cloth on the table saw, and host a light supper in the presence of their piece. When you commission furniture from The Board Room, I want to make sure it is an unexpected event that is worth talking about.
“One piece that is an exception to the rule, in that it is a built-in rather than a walk around, is Arnette’s Birds Eye View. At about nine feet high and 15 feet wide, it is made to span one wall of a house. It’s an entertainment center with center pocket doors, and side doors with segmented glass delineated with copper foil branches. The branches follow through and become inlays on the lower doors, which open to reveal drawers.
“My least expensive piece is Pura Vida, a carved leaf coffee table. The top is carved from a 12-quarter piece of redwood burl rootstock. Below is a curved stem of bent ash, laminated and dyed black, on a base that is another stylized leaf. The base is carved to allow it to be filled with whatever you want. In this case, it is filled with black rocks which add weight to counterbalance the top. I’m working on one now that is 12- quarter bubinga, and it will get a base made of 20 different bronze leaves scattered about.
“Right now, I am working with Tom Schrunk and Will Fifer on the 2009 Steinway art case piano. It’s a duplicate of the Europa piano done three years ago, and sports a field of Carpathian elm burl on the lid and case, surrounded by a strip of ebony, a wider strip of sapele, then ebony again, and walnut veneer on the border. The field of the top is laid up of wild elm burl in a sunburst of seven pieces that radiate outward from the keyboard. It’s very dramatic. When you lift the lid, the rays are duplicated on the underside, but instead radiate from the hinged edge.”
A healthy combination of design and execution is something Mark feels is necessary for balance. “There’s nothing wrong with being a good craftsman,” he explains, “but that, for me, is not the Full Monty. It’s the design and building of something new. Fortunately, there is inspiration everywhere. I did one jewelry box more inspired by what was going in it than anything else. I’m not sure if I am an artist or furniture maker, but I like to make pieces that make people smile. That gives me genuine feedback, and that tells me if it is good.”
Of course, there is one more perk to the field of woodworking that he is quick to point out, and it may be part of why he currently sits as the president of the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild.
“The nicest people I have ever met in my life,” Mark insists, “I have met through woodworking.”