The Very Fine Craftsmanship of Chris Lehrecke

Custom furniture

Chris Lehrecke has been captivating design audiences since the early 1980s, when he began making custom furniture for a select group of architects in his Manhattan studio. Now, at his workshop in upstate New York, he is turning out one-of-a-kind and limited-production pieces that are drawing admirers as diverse as architect Charles Gwathmey and singer Marc Anthony. As Isamu Noguchi's sculptural coffee and chess tables for Herman Miller and rocking stool for Knoll International did in the 1940s and 1950s, Chris Lehrecke's clean-lined yet lyrical works in wood are becoming new American classics.

With superb craftsmanship and the straightforward artistry of design icons Charles and Ray Eames, Lehrecke creates what he calls "comfortable, beautiful things that people want to come home to." One sees in his pieces an affinity for the spare aesthetics of Japanese, African, and Shaker design, as well as for the 1950s Scandinavian Modern pieces he grew up surrounded by in his architect father's home (and now collects). Lehrecke's newest works--a series of lanterns wrapped in a whisper-thin sheath of wood veneer, which glow in tones of amber and apricot when lit--illustrate his artistic restraint. "The materials are often more important than the crafting," he says. "With wood in particular, you have to know when to walk away."

Lehrecke came to his vocation gradually after a childhood obsessed with sports. "Then I got badly injured and began to think about what I really wanted to do." A few art classes led to a studio art degree and a flirtation with architecture before an apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker set him on the right path. After presenting his first collection at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 1991, he went on to win an award at the 1995 fair, followed by the Brooklyn Museum's Modernism Young Designer Award (honoring those "whose work holds great promise for the next century") in 1996 and the George Nelson Award from Interiors magazine in 1999.

"When I was first introduced to Chris' work, I thought of him as a young Brancusi," says Ralph Pucci, whose light-filled New York City showroom exhibits Lehrecke's creations. "His early work was very sculptural, particularly his pedestals, which are reminiscent of African art." Fashioned from tree trunks, these pedestals, which are turned on an industrial lathe and either sandblasted for a primitive, weathered look or finely machine-sanded and hand-rubbed to a warm luster, have become Lehrecke's signature pieces. Like Baroque pearls, each is distinguished by its natural irregularities. "Cracking and movement are part of the wood," he says of the bold splits that occur as the pieces adjust to temperature changes--eccentricities most craftsmen go out of their way to avoid. "It's completely out of your control. That's part of what I like about the pedestals. They look just like marble when they come off the machine."

Lehrecke--who lives in Bangall, New York, with his wife, jewelry designer Gabriella Kiss, and their two children in a house converted from an old church--works mainly with trees indigenous to the area: ash, maple, walnut, cherry, white oak, hickory, and butternut. "For me the exoticness of a wood has to do with the particular cut of a tree or what disease it had when it came down." He points to a screen triptych, three massive panels of curly ash whose history is traced in the undulating patterns that darken the golden grain. "I bought that tree for a tabletop," he says, "but when I laid out the boards, I saw the triptych."

Environmentally alert, Lehrecke takes pleasure in using woods with "imperfections" and parts of trees, like the stump, that would normally be discarded. He adds, "I would like to say every tree I use came down in a storm, but it doesn't always work that way." Often he gets trees in perfectly good condition that have simply become a nuisance for their owners. "There might be a tree that is overhanging somebody's garden, and they're tired of getting hit on the head with walnuts. The tree surgeon will call me up and then drop it off in my field. But if he hadn't reached me, he would have been hoisting that thing over to some firewood company."

Ralph Pucci International, 44 West 18th Street, 12th floor, New York, NY 10011; 212-633-0452. Prices range from $700 for a lamp or lantern to $18,000 for a triptych.