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BY S u z a n n e g a n n o n

Masterfully Precise furniture designer Phillip Welch is a craftsman whose work is as whimsical as it is functional. When asked whether he calls the roughly 500-square-foot space in Lexington where he works a studio or a workshop, Phillip Welch replies, “It depends on how confident I’m feeling.” The remark is emblematic of the 52-year-old self-taught furniture artist’s entire take on everything he does, walking the fine line between functionality and aesthetic beauty and, in the process, inhabiting a pair of personas: one of sure-handed comfort in his craft, and the other a humility that is inevitable in the pursuit of perfection. “You never brag about anything,” he says. “It’s safer to be the other way. I’m proud of what I do, but I’ve learned that there are plenty of other people out there who do amazingly good work.” For the last 14 years, Welch has honed his craft as a woodworker, aiming to build things that will last for 200 years or more. He practices joinery techniques such as dovetails, tongue and groove, and mortise and tenon—eschewing screws entirely and using as few metal fasteners as possible because he believes that they devalue a piece. The results are one-of-a-kind tables, cabinets and figurative pieces like insects, birds and humans that feature velvety smooth surfaces and seamless joints. Welch spends his days sawing and chiseling in the aforementioned green-brick studio located on Lexington’s Diamond Hill, less than a mile from downtown. Handy with power tools, Welch converted the former Virginia Electric and Power Company substation into a full-fledged woodworking shop. At one end of the space is a loft of sorts where he stores his lumber, and stretched beneath the leaded windows is a long work table, above which hang his saws, chisels, planes and clamps, as well as cans of wax, glue and finishing products. Nothing

is computerized, and his machinery is minimal: a chop saw, a band saw, a jointer, a planer, a drill press and a table saw. There’s also a vintage General Electric desktop fan and a giant machine that sucks in sawdust. The only seating—an old desk chair on wheels and a paint-splattered metal stool—suggest that this is a man who doesn’t spend a lot of time sitting down, but instead moves agilely between planer and jointer, drill press and chop saw, sometimes without safety goggles or ear plugs. “I’ve cut myself a lot, but I’ve never lost anything,” he says. Although the Danville native began making furniture full time only a decade and a half ago, his fascination with woodworking began at the age of six, when for Christmas he asked for a set of tiny power tools

that he’d seen in the Sears catalog. His dad obliged, and Welch was hooked. The earliest memory he has of making something permanent and useful, however, is of the desk he made for his older sister when he was 16. He built it out of poplar, and it featured a folding top like a secretary. “It was a fairly terrible piece of woodworking, but it engaged me enough to see that I could make something I really cared about,” he says. Decades later, he would turn the hobby into a career, marketing his distinctive creations under the name Phillip Welch Designs and exhibiting his work at juried shows, includ-

Above: The Bee's Knees. Below, from left: Ortus Macula; Phillip Welch.

ing the Philadelphia Furniture & Furnishings Show, Richmond’s Arts in the Park, New York’s Artrider on Park Avenue and the Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach, among others. Welch works largely with woods indigenous to Virginia—dogwood, maple, walnut, hickory, cherry, ash and white oak—but also relies on exotic woods like leopard wood from Australia, mahogany, yellow heart from South America, and wenge and ebony from Africa. His clients run the gamut from those commissioning seemingly straightforward pieces like an oversized dining room table (featuring an interconnected configuration of panels that represents a family tree) to those who have more unconventional tastes such as the woman who asked for a giant blue bird that measured 10 feet in height and mounted on a wall. Two doors in its abdomen open to glass shelves and a mirrored back, which Welch says constitutes “an object of art being used for storing other objects of art.” “I’ve been pretty lucky with clients,” he says of the individuals who generally pay between $2,000 and $20,000 for his pieces, though he has occasionally taken on a project for upwards of $100,000. “The best client is the one who trusts you, gives you a sense of what they want and then also the freedom to make it.” Welch did not come to the craft by conventional means. After graduating from Washington and Lee University in 1983 and earning a masters degree in English from Hollins College in 1992, he spent several years as a poet, publishing his work in journals, writing two unpublished novels, and teaching poetry, literature and composition at a series of colleges, including James Madison University, Hol-

lins University and Lancaster Junior College. “I realized I could not make a living in academia without a doctorate,” he says. “So I fell back on my other original love, which was wood.” Welch learned his trade from other local woodworkers and carpenters including the master woodworker Jeff Shumate, and read about it in books. His most significant influence, after his own father, is James Krenov, the master furniture-maker who studied in Scandinavia and taught fine woodworking at the College of the Redwoods in California, and whose work Welch describes as “utterly simple and therefore beautiful.” Says Welch: “The simplest woodworking is the most difficult, but if it is done well it has profound beauty.” Simplicity may be the end result of Welch’s work, but the process requires intense concentration and persistence to produce the intricately constructed pieces for which he has become known, many of them infused with a cheeky whimsy and all of them representations of a masterful precision. “Once I cut the wood, that’s it,” he says, alluding to the slim margin of error in which he works. “I have to have a plan, but not without spontaneity.” Over the years, his process has yielded pieces as varied as a sculptural jewelry cabinet in the form of a woman wearing a bikini bottom, the belt of which features tiny drawers for brooches and bracelets and a belly that opens up to a cabinet for necklaces and rings, and a praying mantis whose posterior hides a drawer. “I have to maintain an arrogance in order to care about it. It’s just a job unless you feel like you’re creating art,” he says, adding, “I have the bizarre combination of a superiority complex and a crisis in confidence at the same time.” V i r g i n i a

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8/24/11 6:27 PM

Virginia Living - October 2011  

The October 2011 issue of Virginia Living is the tastiest yet, featuring our favorite pairings of cheese and wine, with every crumb and drop...