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The Art of Fine Furniture: New Hampshire Furniture Masters at The Fells

Jun 16, 2024 08:43PM ● By Mary Gow

Portraits and sculptures often debut with unveiling ceremonies. Pieces by members of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters occasionally and appropriately make similar dramatic entrances. At an unveiling, a few words from the Furniture Master enlightens viewers about the inspiration and process that sparked the work. Then, a whisk of the sheet reveals the result of that creative vision and finely honed technique.

New Hampshire Furniture Masters, now 29 years old, is an organization of professional artisans producing top-quality custom fine furniture. Members’ work is mostly in private homes and collections, so it is a treat when public exhibitions offer opportunities to see a selection of pieces from many of the Masters.

This summer, The Fells, the historic John Hay Estate on Lake Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire, hosts a season-long exhibition of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters. Most member Masters are represented in the show, with pieces on view changing as the summer progresses. A House Party Reception in August features an unveiling of new work. The Fells, with its lush gardens and stately home, is a compelling setting for the exhibition. Bringing these exceptional pieces into this extraordinary home opens connections between them and their shared quality and historic ties.

Building Understanding and Appreciation

Founded in 1995, the New Hampshire Furniture Masters builds upon the state’s centuries-long tradition of custom furniture making. Today, their 29 members are renowned furniture makers, many nationally and even internationally known. Highly skilled and stunningly expert in techniques and craftsmanship, each has unique creative expression.

“We are striving to put forward the pinnacle of design and craft. What I find really interesting about the group is the extent to which it is not the slightest bit homogeneous in terms of style and the types of things that people are making,” says Owain Harris, chairman of the organization, noting that their work spans from traditional to sculptural and with influences of a spectacular range of styles—Federalist, Shaker, 20th century modern, and more.

From the beginning, it has been important to Furniture Masters to build understanding and appreciation of custom furniture. “One of the priorities of the Furniture Masters in organizing was to educate the public about what exceptional work looks like. It doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive, but it’s not cheap. You don’t throw it away and get something else later,” says David Lamb, a founding member of Furniture Masters whose studio is in Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Meet the Makers

To connect with people who might be interested in and potentially purchase pieces, the Masters started two activities that continue today—the Main Event and House Parties. The Main Event, their signature fundraiser, is a public ticketed gala evening with exhibition, opportunities to meet the makers, and food and drink. Fundraising supports projects including the groups’ Prison Outreach Programs in corrections facilities in New Hampshire and Maine.

House Parties typically are small gatherings hosted by owners of commissioned work. Recently, though, they are also larger public events, including the upcoming ones at The Fells. A House Party, for example, was the setting of the unveiling of a commissioned piece by Ted Blachly, whose studio is in Warner. Ted was commissioned to make a music stand for the host’s teenaged daughter, an accomplished viola player. The young musician shared a few thoughts with him about it, and then deferred to his design sense. At the House Party, Ted shared his sketch that propelled the project—just a rough drawing, but with the energy, grace, and musical sensibility he sought. From there, he had moved into layers of precise planning and execution. The music stand, with airy curves of bent laminated ash and cherry legs, was enthusiastically received.

Community Outreach

The number of Furniture Masters has grown through its decades, but with membership always a juried process. Members are not hobbyists; they are professionals at the top of their field, working daily on their craft and creating work of the highest quality. The path to membership typically requires six years of experience and then a yearlong process.

The Furniture Masters now have a gallery in Concord at 49 Main Street, alongside the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. They usually present four exhibitions each year, including one of work by incarcerated participants in the Prison Outreach Programs.

The Prison Outreach Programs, launched in 1999, are now offered in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men, Maine State Prison, and New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Concord. Incarcerated people who have met certain expectations in the system may apply to participate. In hands-on classes taught by Furniture Masters, they begin with fundamental skills. Many go on to learn advanced techniques. As in the greater population, the experience is positive on many levels, from the excitement of first successfully using tools and making real objects to honing skills and expressing creativity, and for some, building expertise that may transition to career opportunities in the outside world.

Community, on many levels, is central to the Furniture Masters. In the big picture, Owain notes, this includes the makers themselves; people who appreciate fine furniture, some of whom purchase and collect these custom pieces; and people who are drawn to the craft, professionally or personally. The Furniture Masters brings together people “who find meaning in these things and get excited about them. The objects that you choose to surround yourself with have such deep meaning. I think that anybody who thinks at all about the things that they put in their home would appreciate coming to our exhibits or events, not even necessarily to buy the furniture, but to come and look at it and get ideas and inspiration and talk to people who are excited about these things,” Owain says.

May 25–October 12

Summer at The Fells

John Hay Estate at The Fells

Newbury, NH

Exhibit reception: July 17, 4–6pm

House Party reception: August 8, 4–6pm

June 20–August 30

Prison Outreach Programs Exhibit

Furniture Masters Gallery

49 South Main Street

Concord, NH

Monday–Friday 8:30am–5pm

October 19

The Main Event: Exhibit and Fundraiser

New Hampshire Historical Society

30 Park Street

Concord, NH


November 29–December 31

Holiday Show and Sale

Portsmouth Historical Society

10 Middle Street

Portsmouth, NH

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