These Rayas table and chairs are made of walnut and cherry. Artesanos… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
The chairs stopped Jean Blosser in her tracks every time she walked to dinner on North Charles Street.
Displayed hanging from the walls in storefront near her favorite restaurant, the chairs looked like they were floating, almost other-worldly.
Gleaming wood, meticulous inlays, graceful curves. The chairs she saw through the window were more art than seating.
"But I never found them open and pretty soon the store disappeared," she said.
She'd spent, she said, "I'm not kidding, eight years," looking for the perfect dining room table and chairs. Disappointed, she placed a half-hearted order for a dining set from a chain.
She was walking home from her purchase when she spotted the chairs again, this time through the street level windows of a shop in Federal Hill. She walked into Artesanos Don Bosco and purchased a hand-crafted dining table and chairs on the spot.
"I loved the table. It has a glass top, very open, very contemporary. Simple. Elegant. One of a kind. I liked the curves, the flow." said the vice president of Progressus Therapy in Baltimore.
She then commissioned Artesanos Don Bosco to build her a wall unit that arrived to fit an odd curve in her Pierside apartment as smoothly as the tongue and grooves that joined its wood sections.
"There is the craftsmanship and then there is the story," said Blosser. "The story just grabs me every time I hear it."
It is a story of an Italian priest, Father Hugo De Censi, who in 1979 goes to minister to Chacas, a Peruvian village more than 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. There he finds terrible poverty, and families abandoned by men who climb down the mountains and go into the cities to find work. And who do not return.
An artist himself, De Censi opens a school where only the poorest boys can live and study and be trained as craftsmen, and names it for an Italian saint, Father John Bosco, who worked with poor boys during his priesthood.
"There is a, how do you say, a little test," said Gianpaolo Ghezzi, who voluntarily manages the Baltimore store while living in the parish house of Our Lady of Pompei in Baltimore.
"How many cows does your family have? How many chickens? Where is your father?" he says, repeating the elements of the school's application.
Forty middle-school aged boys — there are now schools for girls, too, where they learn to make stained glass and textiles — are admitted to the school, where they are live, eat, study, pray and learn their craft for five years.
"They have to love to stay," said Ghezzi. "In the beginning, they are carpenters. Then you find inside the artist."
When their schooling is complete, the young people are given a box of tools and — this is the key — they continue to live and work in their villages, with their families.
They earn their living making beautiful commissions for the well-to-do in Baltimore and Europe, but they also donate their time to build houses and hospitals in their villages.
When De Censi began this work in the 1970s, the style of the furniture his charges made would best have been described as colonial or Early American.
But the Italian designers who would become patrons of the schools advised that such a style would not sell in Europe. So several of them volunteered to go to the school to teach a cleaner, more graceful, more classically contemporary style.
Those are the elements that captured Jean Blosser's imagination. "Every piece is one of a kind and you know that looking at it. You feel like it is being made just for you."
The money made from the sale of the furniture goes, in part, to the artisan who makes the piece, but some of it is shared by all the graduated artisans, who number 620 now.
Some of the money goes to support the next generation in the schools which are located in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. Some is used to build hospitals or other public works projects in the villages.
"We make a circle of people who want to help other people," said Ghezzi, who visited a cousin working in such a village in Ecuador, joined the mission and never looked back.
There are 10 schools for boys in South America and five for girls. "The goal is to give them work in their village so they don't leave their families," said Ghezzi. "Is (cq) very simple."
The artisans also make sacred works, and have created murals, altars, statuary, doors and furniture for churches all over Maryland, including most recently for St. Andrew by the Bay in Severna Park.
Those sacred pieces are part of a string of serendipitous connections that makes Baltimore the only showroom in the United States, along with 11 in Europe.
Each piece of furniture is produced by a single artisan. "We are not making a factory," said Ghezzi. And the wood and the workmanship is extraordinary.
The walnut, cedar, mahogany and cherry is harvested from the forests around the mountaintop villages. It is then carved, bent, and inlaid. There are few screws and no nails. The wood is joined by tongue and groove or wood pegs and often inlaid with carved stone.
Prices range from $4,950 for a queen sleigh bed to $1,780 for a rocking chair, to $2,550 for a dining table and $360 for each chair to $45 for a small walnut box. Also for sale at the shop in Federal Hill is the glasswork made by the young Peruvian girls.
"Not much more than what you might pay a cabinet maker to make something for you," said Blosser.
But for her, it was the story. Of the poor village in the Andes. Of Father Hugo. Of the children and the long apprenticeship that uncovers, as Ghezzi would say, the artist inside.
"The story," she said. "The story was the big factor."