Art, attitude and the attic's rejects add up to fine furniture Claiborne Ferry Furniture specializes in rehabilitating pieces nobody loves

August 14, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Claiborne, Md. -- There's a fat white bunny sniffing out the carrots painted up the side rails of a bright blue step stool. There's a yellow, red and blue double "partners" desk for the grade school set, with a monkey and a lion peering through the "bars" of the side pieces, a circle-back chair with a crab instead of a shield in its center, pastel dining chairs decorated with fruit, a "Hoosier" cabinet with mirrored bird insets, and end tables with the feet and faces of sphinxes. And then there's a bye-bye blackbird chest of drawers that looks like Mayberry U.S.A. by way of Sunset Strip.

It's all furniture brought back from the oblivion of junk to cheerful, practical, exotic, original works of art. This is more than brightly refurbished cast-offs: This is whimsy with an attitude.

Claiborne Ferry Furniture is only a few months old, but the three Eastern Shore neighbors and artists who are its principals have already developed a distinctive, exuberant style that is being noticed in Maryland galleries from Baltimore to Berlin.

"We put our hearts into it. We want it to be us," says Robert Murphy, 43, one of the partners, an artist and carpenter whose earlier collaboration with the late artist Eric Dennard planted the seeds of the furniture venture in the minds of the three artists.

Dennard, a painter and sculptor who worked in Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, died last November of liver cancer at age 51. He had continued to produce his abstract sculptures during the year of his illness by drawing images that a graphic artist turned into blueprints and Mr. Murphy constructed in wood and returned for Dennard to paint. "It was great for me," Mr. Murphy says, "because it was the first time I'd been able to combine art and carpentry."

Artist Rennie Johnson, 46, another of the Claiborne Ferry three, takes up the story. "Robert saw an article in a magazine about a man making furniture . . . "

"Some guy from Texas," Mr. Murphy says.

"It seemed like a good idea," Mr. Johnson says, "that we could find junk furniture and then redesign it and paint it. Robert had the expertise to refurbish it, to make sure something had four legs and a back."

Mr. Murphy welcomed a chance to continue blending art and carpentry. Mr. Johnson and Claiborne Ferry Furniture's third partner, painter Jim Richardson, 47, had started a sign business to supplement their artistic work, but found that demand for signs dropped off considerably in the winter. They were looking for something else to occupy the colder months. So Claiborne Ferry Furniture was born in February. Mr. Murphy does the carpentry, and all three work on designing and painting the pieces.

Mr. Richardson says, "We borrow from each other. We've all painted for years and years -- it's something that's quite natural for us."

Finding raw material has also proved to be no problem. Some items come from people who are tossing out an old bit of furniture.

"Yard sales, and there's an auction in Crumpton, and we just go over there and fill the truck up with basically things that people don't want," Mr. Murphy says. Items are sold in lots, he explains, and some buyers will buy a lot to get one item they want. Then they discard the rest of the lot.

"It's free," Mr. Johnson says.

"We try to keep our overhead at zero," Mr. Murphy says. "If we had to build things from scratch, we couldn't sell them, because it would be too expensive.."

"The idea is to redesign them, not to make them back to what they were, but to make them look different, not only in size and shape, but in color," says Mr. Johnson.

"To make them fun," Mr. Richardson says.

How do they decide what each piece needs?

"It sits around for a while," Mr. Richardson says. "Till I get an idea -- and oftentimes it's not my idea, it's someone else's idea. It's a matter of looking at it long enough and talking about it and something starts."

Talking over ideas is easy for the three -- Mr. Murphy's wife, Susan, also does some of the painting of objects, and Mr. Richardson's wife, Martha Hamlyn, helps with public relations -- because they all live in the tiny community of Claiborne.

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