At Philadelphia show, new designs for living

Annual event features unique, handcrafted items for the home

Short Hop

April 11, 2004|By Candyce H. Stapen | Candyce H. Stapen,Special to the Sun

When my college-age daughter came home from school and saw the dining room table I commissioned by Robert Ortiz, an artist whose work I discovered at the Philadelphia Furniture & Furnishings Show, she said, "I want that when you're dead."

I told her it would have been enough just to say, "That's pretty." But finely wrought, hand-made pieces can make even nice people covetous.

This spring's 10th annual Philadelphia Furniture & Furnishings Show -- PFF to those in the know -- takes place next weekend at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The show, the largest of its kind in the United States, brings together more than 200 master crafters. Last year, about 10,000 people attended the show, and a similar turnout is expected this year.

"Nowhere else in the world can you see this volume and variety of handmade items for the home," says Bob Ingram, co-founder of the show.

The beds, benches, bureaus, rockers and chairs on display and for sale range from classic to cutting edge, blurring the distinction between utilitarian items and works of art.

That's what draws Cynthia Brown, an Arlington, Va., jewelry designer and yearly attendee since 1999. She first came to the show "for something unique, something more in line with my creative side for my townhouse. I was bored with all the overstuffed, plain items in the stores," says Brown. "The Philadelphia show was awesome. Everywhere I looked, there was something interesting. It was like being a kid in a candy store."

Although you may find a rocking chair for $8,000 or a bar stool for $7,000, many pieces cost about what you'd expect to pay.

"Most exhibitors are price-competitive with a medium- to high-end furniture store" says Ingram. "We jury the show to represent a variety of prices and styles. We do not just jury in the expensive items."

Get to know the artists

Even if you're not ready to buy, come to educate yourself. According to Ingram, the typical attendee usually just looks at what's available and collects business cards on a first visit. The next year he or she comes back to purchase a rug, lamp or bedside table and after that, it might be a bed or dining room table.

"It often takes people a couple of years to feel they are making the right choice, to acquire their own taste," Ingram explains.

Talking with an artist about his elegantly patterned $6,000 cherry dining table or her sensuously rounded $600 bowl helps browsers become buyers. In conversations with the artists, you discover their visions, learn about techniques and educate your eye.

I contacted Robert Ortiz, a Chestertown artist and PFF show exhibitor, months after the show when my husband and I received a small inheritance.

Ortiz, a 2002 winner of the PFF show's Best New Artist award, characterizes his work as combining Shaker and Japanese influences.

"I admire Shaker pieces because they are functional, plain and beautiful," Ortiz says. "Any ornamentation is essential to the structure. The Japanese influences appear in the flared legs, the interlocking joinery and the arches."

A self-taught artist, Ortiz began making furniture in 1984 after being inspired by George Nakashima's book The Soul of a Tree. The elegant, simple and somewhat Oriental lines of Ortiz's work impressed me. My dining table took shape after many phone conversations with him.

Such collaboration makes buying handcrafted pieces satisfying. A year after encountering the sculptural tables of Julie and Ken Girardini at the PFF show, Cynthia Brown called the husband and wife team from Sykesville.

"They came to our house, looked at our space and saw how we lived," says Brown. "Then they designed something just for us."

"Making furniture is an intimate interchange between the client and us," says Julie Girardini. She and her husband also create clocks, candlesticks, fruit baskets and vases using steel finishes.

Dream big, buy small

Even though handcrafted work is expensive, you can start by dreaming big and buying small. Consider well-made tabletop items, small pieces and works by newcomers at the show.

Exhibitor Yvonne Arritt, from McLean, Va., creates copper, bronze and sterling vases, bowls and serving items, fashioning what she calls "user-friendly and enjoyable pieces."

Southpaws like the way her left-handed serving "sporks" -- a combination spoon and fork that costs $350 -- slide into the curve of their palms. Want something for a lucky newborn who will have everything? Consider Arritt's proverbial silver spoon -- they start at $90.

This year's PFF show will be furniture maker Margaret Polcawich's first major show. A sculpture major who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999, Polcawich fashions bureaus as well as spice, wine, glass and CD cabinets.

"I like the contrast and interaction of different mediums as well as including sculptural elements," says Polcawich, who lives in Derwood, Md. Her three-drawer chest, which sells for $800, combines curly maple legs and a walnut body with pewter leaves that adorn a painted facade.

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