He's Happier Shaping Wood Than Playing Violin Solos

December 02, 1990|By Dolly Merrott

When he was in seventh grade, John Calvin found himself in the middle of "adolescent rebellion."

As the son of a concert violinist who was on the faculty of Loma Linda University, Calvin played solo violin and bassoon during concert performances. Despite his talent, the young man's musical interest waned as his aptitude for throwing spitballs during class rose.

Some other skill, however, grabbed the attention of one of his teachers, who helped Calvin focus in a new direction. In the midst of a classroom strewn with pieces of wood and lots of sawdust, the teacher watched the young student become absorbed in his shop projects.

"My teacher recognized there was something going on in me -- that I had a level of talents while working with wood -- and he took me under his wing," said the now-40-year-old Columbia resident.

Before the young student had progressed to the 9th grade, he was taking college level classes in woodworking. At age 15, Calvin took over his father's garage and started a small business making furniture, such as stereo cabinets and credenzas.

When he shunned a career in music, he broke his father's heart, Calvin says.

Although he pursued musical studies at the University of Maryland 15 years ago, his love for making furniture soon became his ultimate career choice.

Today Calvin operates his own business in Columbia -- John Calvin Industries -- providing custom-designed work for commercial and private customers. And he believes his father's creative influence has spilled over into his woodworking projects, which include building a 17th-century harpsichord and creating a 7-foot model of a lighthouse.

As the bearded Calvin, dressed in jeans and sweater, shows a visitor around his studio, strains of Mozart playing on a sound system provide a lilting contrast to the stark 2,500 square feet of warehouse-type space.

An old piano, stripped of many layers of paint, a finished section of laminated wall-to-wall storage-type furniture, an antique sofa frame and an antique dining table are among the projects either recently finished or awaiting the next stage of workmanship.

A photograph album of the furniture designer's past endeavors, however, reveals the influence of his musical background.

Photos include a reproduction of a 17th-century Flemish harpsichord, which he built in the early 1970s for the director of music at Hood College. Calvin decorated the instrument in 24-karat gold leaf.

"I truly fantasized about building harpsichords for the rest of my life; I am going back to this," Calvin vowed.

In addition, using only hand tools, he built a new wooden keyboard for an antique organ, commissioned by the same client.

He once built a cello for a youngster who couldn't afford one, patterning it after his own cello and charging only the cost of the materials.

"But violin- and cello-making is not an art that you step into," he said. "Although I produced a beautiful instrument, I would love to hear how it sounds today."

For four years, during the early 1970s, Calvin repaired musical instruments and enjoyed wood sculpting. Those were the days he lived with 11 other people in a commune on a 250-acre farm in Maryland.

"It was just great. All of us had our own careers, money and lives. We did not pool our money together; we shared the costs of the rent, and food and shared the chores equally," he said.

Calvin met his wife, Tamara Lubliner, at a costume party on the farm.

Eventually, marriage and the birth of his two children -- Aaron Zvi, 12, and Avram, 8 -- led Calvin into a more financially secure position as director of design and facilities management for a management company in Rockville.

But the yearning for independent creativity caused Calvin to leave that job after two years and start his furniture making business in 1988.

It's apparent that Calvin enjoys a challenge: He fluctuates between designs for high-tech laminate furnishings for commercial offices and restoring antique heirlooms for individual clients.

Calvin's latest project -- a 7-foot scale model of the Thomas Point Lighthouse near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- took 800 hours to complete, and he is particularly proud of it.

His affinity for detail and doing the job right prompted a floor contractor who was working on a new seafood market in Severna Park to refer Calvin's name to the owner. The proprietor wanted a model of the lighthouse as a focal point for his business.

"I had not done anything to this level of detail," said Calvin, who routinely builds architectural models for clients to help them visualize designs.

Calvin and Ellicott City resident John Goodwin, a friend and amateur historian, spent many hours sifting through Coast Guard records for drawings and blueprints of the lighthouse while researching the design.

"Many of the details and dimensions were missing from the drawings, so I spent several hours with a magnifying glass searching for a number -- any number -- that might be a hint from which I could make calculations," Calvin said.

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