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Philadelphia Furniture Show, Part 2

In the first piece in his two-part series, Artblog contributor Ron Kanter wrote about the history of the Philadelphia Furniture Show and Philly's important place in the Studio Furniture Movement. You can read Part 1 at -- Artblog editor


Studio furniture makers are a rare breed in many ways, and three of the exhibitors at the Philadelphia Furniture Show are exceptional even among their peers. They have been exhibiting at the show continuously since its beginning in 1994.

Bill Russell, who makes decorative faux painted furniture, is one of those stalwarts. Craft shows were not a good outlet for him. “My work falls into the crack between fine art and craftsmanship,” he says. When Josh Markel and Bob Ingram proposed a show exclusively for handmade furniture, he was eager to sign up.. “That would be fantastic!” he told them. Twenty-two years later, he still thinks it is a great opportunity to show his colorful, one-of-a-kind furniture.

The rare breed of studio furniture makers

Peter Handler, Empire table, 15x30x54. Curly maple, anodized aluminum
Peter Handler, Empire table, 15″ by 30″ by 54″. Curly maple, anodized aluminum.

Peter Handler is another self-described “outlier.” At a show where most of the craftsmen work in wood, metal is Handler’s medium of choice. Peter took a circuitous path to furniture-making. Initially a photographer, he was later a jewelry-maker before turning to furniture. His use of metals clearly reflects that provenance.

Handler’s response when he first heard talk of creating a furniture show was simple and direct. “It needs to happen,” he said at the time. Twenty years later, he recalls, “My sense was that there was no other show like it in the country.”

Brad Smith, Highpost Bed , queen size, 84" high. Cherry headboard, textured and painted Cherry posts, cast steel bird finials , Ash rails. Image by Michael O'Neil
Brad Smith, Highpost Bed, queen size, 84″ high. Cherry headboard, textured and painted cherry posts, cast steel bird finials, ash rails. Image by Michael O’Neil.

Brad Smith, the third of the longtime exhibitors, has a more traditional evolution as a woodworker. “As a farm boy, I was always working to fix and build things around the farm. This led to my interest in woodworking that I developed in high school.”

After high school, he spent four years in local woodworking shops, and then went to Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen and graduated with a BFA in woodworking and furniture design. Combining his farming background with his design aesthetic, Brad developed a line of distinctive ax handle furniture. “The first piece in the series was the Ax Handle Stool,” he remembers. It continues to be his best seller.

The Philadelphia Furniture Show has had an important role in the Studio Furniture Movement because of its ability to combine tradition with innovation. While continuity is laudable in many ways, if all the furniture and all the exhibitors in the show were the same year after year, it would be boring. The show would have faded into a fond memory long ago.

New makers with new approaches to the craft are an important factor in the show’s ongoing appeal. The show draws a constantly evolving range of exhibitors, from Maine to Michigan to South Carolina and most states in between.

Michaela Stone, 2016 Emerging Artist Winner

One way that fresh ideas are introduced is the annual Emerging Artist Competition.

The 2016 Emerging Artist winner, Michaela Stone, is surprising in many ways, all of them positive. First, she is a young woman. That’s actually two surprises. There are relatively few furniture-makers under 30 years of age represented in the show; and second, she is part of an even rarer category: female.

Michaela Crie Stone, Gigi chair, maple and steel
Michaela Crie Stone, Gigi chair, maple and steel.

The most pleasing surprise is the quality of Stone’s work in both design and execution. Her background is sculpture. This perspective is clearly evident in the form and flow of her Gigi chair. Metal and wood circle each other in an elegant pas de deux. A broad semicircle of wood creates the seat platform, with cutouts creating negative space to lighten the widest section of the chair. The negative spaces also leave narrow strips of wood that echo the sweep of front leg/arm rest elements.

Stone has finished the maple wood parts in a pale, natural finish that dramatizes the simple, square, black steel tubing that supports the backrest. The ballet metaphor continues with the chair’s feet that are gently rounded to give them the appearance of standing en pointe.

It is graceful, original conception of “chair”. It is a perfect match for Michaela’s personal philosophy. “I hope to be part of a new wave of artist/craftsmen,” she says, “redefining and challenging the definition
of both of those terms.”

Time for a change

Emerging artists are not the only new blood at the show. Josh Markel and Bob Ingram had steered the show through the good times and the not-so-good times. Eight years ago, Ingram dropped out of the partnership to work full-time making sculpture.

Josh Markel, Philadelphia Furniture Show Booth
Josh Markel, Philadelphia Furniture Show booth

Josh was always a furniture-maker first and a businessman out of necessity. His belief in the importance of having a special venue for furniture makers was the reason for creating the show in the first place. After 20 years of producing the show, he was tired of that role and ready to focus on furniture.

Two years ago, he found a professional show producer to whom he felt comfortable turning over his baby. Green Tree Events, the new owner of the show, is a family-owned event management company.

Vitas Normantas, one of the owners, had been providing the electrical services for the Furniture Show through a subdivision of Green Tree. Stefa Normantas is, according the Green Tree web site, a seasoned event manager and co-owner of two trade shows, and two event planning and consulting companies. She is now the managing partner of the Philadelphia Furniture Show.

New producer reinvigorates the show

The way the Normantases ran the 2015 show made a positive impression on the show exhibitors and the small advisory group of craftsmen that helps give direction to the show. According to Bill Russell, who has exhibited in all 20 shows, “last year’s show was the most user-friendly” it has ever been.

Friendly is nice, but attendance and sales are the raison d’etre for the show. Normantas has partnered with wide range of local, regional, and national organizations to add interest and validation to the show.

The Nakashima Foundation for Peace is the beneficiary of the Friday evening preview party. Mira Nakashima will be there to discuss her work and the continuation of her father’s legacy. The April 8 event is co-hosted by the Center For Art in Wood and the Wayne Art Center.

Members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA) will be at the show on Saturday. As the website says, they are there “to help you make decisions and discover the perfect piece for your home or office.” Finding that perfect piece of furniture is good for the shopper and very good for the craftsperson who made it.

A show like no other

The Philadelphia Furniture Show is a unique event. There have been other attempts to offer similar shows, including a competing show in Philadelphia that died as quickly as it appeared.

Brad Smith, Pitchfork Bench , 42" long ,32" high ,23"deep. Cherry seat and back (textured and painted) charred Ash legs , steel pitchforks. Image by Michael O'Neil
Brad Smith, Pitchfork Bench, 42″ long ,32″ high ,23″deep. Cherry seat and back (textured and painted), charred ash legs, steel pitchforks. Image by Michael O’Neil.

The Providence, RI, Fine Furnishings show ran for 16 years at the Rhode Island Convention Center, and more recently in the Pawtucket Armory. Furniture is the major attraction, but as the word “furnishings” in the name implies, the show is a much more eclectic mix that includes multiple jewelry makers. This is the antithesis of what Bob Ingram and Josh Markel wanted when they first conceived of the Philadelphia Furniture Show.

For Josh, turning the show over to professionals who would honor his concept was a huge relief. “When I walked into the show as an exhibitor last year, I felt like my feet weren’t even touching the ground. A great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had nothing to do but talk to customers and chat with the other furniture-makers.”

The Philadelphia Furniture Show offers the public a chance to see beautiful, handmade furniture and chat with the craftspeople who made it. It is an opportunity to discover that special piece that will be a pleasure for you to look at and touch and for your family to cherish for many generations.

The Philadelphia Furniture Show at the Armory runs from Friday evening, April 8 through Sunday, April 10.