Artful furniture Art: Baltimore furniture designer William C. Rhodes started out doing traditional woodworking, but then he decided it was time for his work to have more soul. What resulted is very polished but filled with what he calls 'artistic frenzy.'

September 29, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Not everyone wants a conventional vanity, the kind you can buy at the furniture store as part of a bedroom suite.

If you buy a vanity crafted by Baltimore furniture designer William C. Rhodes, it might have four legs and two mirrors, one for make up; but it might also deal with the twin themes of creation and destruction. The exterior would look like water, down to the curvy legs and inset seashells, aqua paint and wavy bas-relief -- his symbols of creation. The interior would be painted with flames and other symbols of destruction.

Actually this particular vanity is still a work in progress. The round mirrors haven't been set in yet, the drawers aren't in place and the finishes aren't complete. But it's already been sold. Like all of Rhodes' furniture these days, the vanity is a commissioned piece. He has clients from Baltimore to Boston, who have in common a love of free-form, imagistic art furniture and an ability to pay from $900 to $2,000 for a chair or cabinet.

He's featured in the current issue of "American Visions," a magazine about African-American culture, as one of nine important young artists. Locally, his pieces will be part of an exhibit at the Baltimore Grand this December.

Rhodes, now 29, came to art furniture comparatively recently. When he was getting his master's of fine arts in furniture design from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the early '90s, he assumed he eventually would be a designer of mass-market furniture for a company like Knoll or Ikea. His teachers encouraged him to follow traditional woodworking methods.

His early pieces were clean-lined and totally functional -- but not selling.

"I was concentrating more on the beauty of the wood and the technique," he says, "because it was so new to me. I didn't get into personal expression."

But he was frustrated. It took so long to make even one piece, and he wanted his furniture to be more expressive. While he was still in school, Baltimore artist Joyce Scott told him, "It needs its own personal ethics, or it's not art."

He decided to find ways for his pieces to have more soul -- what he now calls "creating a work with artistic frenzy."

His early teachers might be surprised at the change. Stephen Kent, head of the visual arts department at the Baltimore School for the Arts (from which Rhodes graduated in 1986), remembers him as "conscientious, serious and meticulous in his work." Rhodes' interests at that point were sculpture and ceramics, not furniture design.

'In love with wood'

He was an undergraduate at the University of Arts in Philadelphia when, according to his father, "He just fell in love with wood. He called and said, 'Guess what, Dad. I'm changing my major.' "

Rhodes, who grew up in Baltimore, started his artistic career early -- at age 5 -- drawing and then decorating model cars. But it wasn't until the ninth grade, when he started at the School for the Arts, that he really blossomed, says his father, painter and collage artist William C. Rhodes Jr.

William C. Rhodes III's early attempts at furniture with soul weren't entirely successful. When the Baltimore School for the Arts had an alumni exhibit, Stephen Kent remembers that his furniture was imaginative but unpolished.

"But when I saw his work a year or so later in the Meredith Gallery," Kent says, "I was amazed at how finely crafted it was."

Rhodes was only one of several artists in the exhibit at the Meredith; but even after several years, the associate director of the gallery remembers his work well. (That's not surprising, considering that he bought several of Rhodes' boxes and a cabinet.)

"I liked his imagery," Terry Heffner says. "It was very fresh but touched on wonderful historical references."

Rhodes' tables and chairs and cabinets have strong religious and ethnic themes. Last winter, he traveled to Africa and Cape Verde, documenting the folklore with his drawings. Eventually, some of those stories will be incorporated into his furniture.

Broad heritage

Rhodes points out, however, that his ethnic heritage is Asian, Native American and European as well as African.

He's fascinated, for instance, by Egyptian artifacts. His "Nothing New Under the Sun" cabinet looks like the sarcophagus of a pharaoh. But its interior of hammered copper has adjustable shelves and painted glass. Little painted panels on the side tell the story of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld.

The current owner uses it as a stereo and CD cabinet.

Rhodes often puts insets of painted glass in his furniture -- a reference to stained glass that seems entirely appropriate given his interest in religious themes. (The panel might, for instance, portray an angel carrying a lamb.) But there is always the unexpected: A small glass panel might also be a realistic portrait of the owner-to-be's little girl, painted from a photograph.

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