The feel of a freshly hewn plank beneath rough, work-worn hands. The earthy smell of sawdust. The Zen quality of running a hand plane over boards.
Yeah, that’s not really what does it for furniture maker Gary Spykman.
“That’s never been my motivation,” said Spykman, 54, of Keene. “My motivation was always to get the designs that I made to be a reality.… I know a lot of woodworkers that I’ve gotten to know throughout my life who do sculpture, something that has no function other than the aesthetics.… I’ve never been drawn that way. I’ve always wanted to make functional objects as artistically designed as possible.”
Though his motivation is bereft of the warm fuzzies espoused by so many other craftsmen, make no mistake, Spykman is no less an artist. One only has to look at his work. Whether it’s a perfectly smooth arch punctuated by masterfully crafted pegs or an end table that is smooth and functional but still maintains the knobs and knots of its parent tree, or a bed for his old truck, his work is that of a master artist and craftsman.
And it’s not surprising, since the art of furniture making —or cabinetmaking as it’s technically known regardless of whether you make cabinets or not— is deep in his blood.
Spykman was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., which he is quick to point out is known as “Furniture City.” Spykman’s maternal grandfather was a wood carver and furniture maker. His paternal grandfather — “Grandpa Spike” — worked for Baker Furniture in Holland, Mich., where his job was doing the detail work for sample pieces that would sit on the showroom floor. Meanwhile, his dad’s uncle also was a woodworker, known best for his wooden shoes.
Not that the younger Spykman worked with any of those relatives. In fact, his father was a theologian, not a woodworker, so the craft actually skipped a generation. But young Gary had picked up enough to know art was going to be part of his path.
“I always messed around in a little shop I set up in my parents’ basement, doing all sorts of things with whatever rudimentary tools and scrounged materials I could find,” he said. “And I was always someone who gravitated towards art classes in school.”
But it wasn’t until a chance encounter with a pair of folk-craft making hippies at 16 that he really was on his way. In addition to the wooden trinkets the couple made to sell at street fairs, they also crafted mountain dulcimers. Spykman asked if he could learn from them, and, being hippies, they obliged, meaning twice a week he’d stop by their studio.
“Which was the converted living room at their house. They literally lived in the middle of their workshop basically. And they taught me how to build dulcimers. And it was my first exposure to finer exotic woods and power woodworking equipment,” he said. “So that was really where I got my start. It really sparked something in me. I think it was the beginnings of taking my artistic tendencies and leaning them into making things out of wood.
“I think it was the idea that you could take a pile of rough pieces of wood and turn them into something that not only looked good, but had this other function: it played music.”
With four finished dulcimers under his belt (one of which he gave to his then sweetheart. That dulcimer now hangs on the wall of the home he shares with said sweetheart, now his wife.) he set off to find his fortune. That led him to odd jobs doing anything for a buck — carpentry in New Orleans and opening a bicycle shop in Biloxi, Miss., among other things.
He kept his woodworking skills going, making the wooden displays for the bike shop and side construction projects. After the bike shop failed in the wake of hurricane Elaina, he heard from a friend back in Grand Rapids who was putting together a crew going out to work on the interior of a mansion on Martha’s Vineyard.
“That job. You want to know developments of my woodworking skills , my career and my thinking? That job,” he said.
“We came in with a crew of seven people from western Michigan. And the word on the job site— and this was a large project, there were probably 50 people on the job site— was that they were bringing in this specialized crew all the way from Michigan to do the interiors, so these people must be some real hot shots,” he recalls.
“The truth of the matter was that we were all really bright young guys but a bit hubristic I’m afraid. But hey, you know we did our best, to keep the thing alive. And I don’t know how many people ultimately we snowed, but for me I learned so much during that period.”
His work was largely trial and error — not that anyone on the job knew that, since all of the embarrassment of trying, failing and trying again happened off-site. In a sense.
“I am a voracious reader. I studied. I spent most of my days and evenings I wasn’t on the job site poring through libraries and book shops, finding anything I could on woodworking, design, industrial design, things like that. I pored over the stuff. And I have a near photographic memory. …I can read stuff and remember everything that it says and the pictures and diagrams, everything.
“And because I have a very mechanically oriented mind, the trial and error actually happened more in my mind more than it actually happened in the woodworking. I would take the stuff in and roll it around in my head until I understood it really thoroughly, before I did anything. So I knew how to do it inside and out before I did it, because I had done it in my mind a thousand times.”
Over the nearly two years he was on the job, he and the other guys created raised wall paneling, doors, window embellishments and a wine cellar, among myriad detail pieces throughout the manse.
With that massive project finished, he was ready to go out on his own. And since then, he built a career adorning homes across the country with the fruits of his mental trial and error.His approach changed, however, once he introduced the wonders of 3D computer technology into his work. Suddenly he was spending hours standing inside virtual joints of chairs and table leaves. In this virtual world, like his brain, he could work a piece until it was perfect.
“Once I switched over to full 3D design on computer it actually changed my relationship with furniture making, because I didn’t have to actually make the piece to see what it would look like,” Spykman said.
“I could build it completely on the computer, and I get pretty detailed. I make every part of the piece … each element is there with its detail. …So I’ve actually built the piece on the computer. It’s there, I can twirl it around, I can walk around it, look at it from different angles. I’ve done it. In my mind, the piece exists. It actually took away some of the impetus to want to build the work.”Which is why in recent years, Spykman has transitioned from a one-off artist to a designer of production pieces. He’s in talks with furniture stores and manufacturers, but couldn’t divulge too much.
“I’ve always felt that I was very different from my furniture-making brethren and sisteren, if that’s a word, in that I never really romanticized the making of a piece,” he said.
“Designing the piece of furniture was really the great joy for me. The act of making it was, ‘Well, I want this piece of furniture to exist, but the only way that will happen is if I make it. If I don’t make it, it’s not going to exist.’
“The making of the furniture was always very rewarding because you can stand back and critique your work and make sure it’s right and when it’s all done you really get the big reward. You realize this thing that only existed in your mind before, now exists in reality.”