The master never stops learning: NH furniture craftsman has earned national acclaimBy MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Sunday News February 10. 2017 7:38PM
Jeffrey Roberts doesn't own a lot of his own furniture. He may keep an odd chair or carving here and there, but otherwise, his hours spent crafting traditional wood furniture is all for the benefit of someone else. But that's OK with him.
"It's hard to afford it," he said with a chuckle. "I don't make a lot of money making furniture. But I do it because I like it. I don't do it because I'm going to get rich doing it. Maybe as I get older, if I don't have to do it to make money, I'll have more of it around."
This is especially rich considering on Feb. 3, Roberts, a 55-year-old Unity-based furniture maker, was honored with the 2017 Cartouche Award for lifetime achievement in period furniture, presented in Williamsburg, Va., by the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. Few have earned the coveted prize, according to officials with New Hampshire Furniture Masters, of which Roberts is a longstanding member, as it goes to only those who have demonstrated a lifetime of love for mastery of the skills and techniques, and demonstrated devotion to advancing the craft and a willingness to help others learn.
"Jeff Roberts creates the finest-quality custom studio furniture of our generation," the organization said in a statement. "He is a quiet artist who lets his work speak for itself. You might meet him at Evarts lumber yard buying specialty wood and never know his work has received national acclaim. Jeff doesn't seek the spotlight, but through his artistry it was destined to find him."
Roberts' interest in furniture started right after high school when he decided to take classes at the renowned North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End.
"I took a tour of the shop," he said. "I hated school and I wasn't the college type. I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. But I took that tour and I was just amazed by the work. That somebody could do that with their hands. That in a world of mostly low-quality furniture there were people who could make all of this beautiful stuff. And I just thought, 'Wow. This is amazing.'"
The more he trained at the school the more in love he fell with the process. Once completing formal training, he continued perfecting his skills with hands-on projects in a variety of furniture-making shops on Boston's South Shore, where he built hundreds of classic and custom pieces in period styles.
"That is where I got most of my experience," Roberts said. "I have had years of being in really good learning situations - my schooling, the shops I've worked at and the people I've worked with have gotten me to this point in my career."
He said the foundation in traditional skills he learned from these experiences not only helped him succeed but led to him creating his own designs. This quickly gained him a reputation as a master carver as well.
"I've always tried to have a carving project going, working nights at home after work, to hone my skills," he said.
Roberts eventually moved to Unity in 2007 and set up his own shop. Since then he's been juried into the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and the Furniture Masters.
"Jeff Roberts is a Master's Master," Furniture Masters Chairman Jeffrey Cooper said in a statement to contest organizers. "His work is exceptional, his manner humble."
Roberts also is part of the Furniture Masters' Prison Outreach Program, in which inmates at the State Prison in Concord are given the opportunity to learn woodworking.
Roberts also credits daily meditation with taking his carving and craft to new levels. "It centers me and stills my mind a bit," he said.
These daily meditations, he said, help him focus, concentrate and even visualize the joinery, curves, construction - the details of complex furniture. When he's not meditating, he expresses his vision for a project on paper before he gets started with wood. Usually he knows where he's going when he starts and will suss out the details of a carving in full scale on paper. But sometimes, he said, the carving actually evolves out of working on the piece.
Roberts said while he's often asked to exactly replicate traditional furniture, some of the most fun he has is working on pieces that are merely "in the style of" more traditional pieces. With these in particular, he said, he's able to stay true to tradition while adding some of his own creative flair.
As for what's next, surprisingly, this carving master said he still has a lot he wants to learn. "I'm still working on it," he said. "My work is still evolving."
Roberts' work is regularly featured at New Hampshire Furniture Masters events and exhibitions and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, including the annual craft fair held at Mount Sunapee in August.
To see more of Roberts' work visit http://www.jsrobertsfurniture.com/.