Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas met in art school in 1979. Somehow, as life and luck would have it, they reconnected not in England but in Vermont. The romance rekindled, they married and started a family. They have a son and daughter, and they have ShackletonThomas, a combined effort of master furniture maker and potter.
With a wonderfully deep catalog of superior, handcrafted and individually produced home goods, ShackletonThomas relies upon the couples’ personal convictions and capitalizing on their talents. “What makes us different is that my wife and I are obsessive about human being making things by hand,” Charlie explained. “Of course we prize good design. And skilled craftsmanship, and beautiful materials, but we have an added thing here which is the human sense, the feeling you get when you walk up to piece of furniture that somebody made. You can see that it’s handmade, and you can feel the difference.”
Human beings are essentially makers, yes? And ShackletonThomas customers are people looking for objects that they can connect with, that feel good. In an age where manufacturing churns out cheap, fast solutions to personal needs, Charlie and Miranda enforce stick-to-it-iveness, staying focused on their mission of excellence in craft. We ooo’d and ahhh’d through our tour of the showroom and workshops.
The Shackleton portfolio includes collections inspired by the landscapes of Charlie’s youth in formal and rural Ireland, and by his travels and remembrances. And they’re informed by his mastery of classical design and affinity for simplicity with delicate detail.
“We like our classic lines,” he told us, “but we also like to have a mug that feels like somebody made it. I see amazing designs all of the time, but they could be copied. Ours cannot. They’re made by supremely talented but fallible human beings.” Charlie directed us to the hand-planed surface of a dining table (gorgeous!) and the arching curves of a sleigh chair. Okay, we get it now…
So in the swirling sunlight and sawdust of a midday morning, we found a special piece upstairs. A rocking chair; Charlie’s first. And somehow despite the roughness of it, and the fallibility of a young craftsman, the chair had the same graceful, peaceful qualities upon which we’d remarked in the the showroom. Nice consistency from the craftsman.
You can visit ShackletonThomas online or take a ride out to Bridgewater. On Route 4 between Woodstock and Killington, you’ll find them in century-old post and beam woolen mill on the Ottauquechee. With Miranda’s pottery studio just next door.
The entry floor of the mill is a serene storefront where nature-inspired pottery pieces mix with beautifully sculpted furniture and a variety of appropriate and endearing small wares and accessories.
ShackletonThomas takes full advantage of their visibility and real estate to introduce consumers to the value and impact of hand crafted work; so supporting the general role of craftsmanship in community and commerce. And despite the vagaries of a changeable economy and a solid blow from 2011’s Hurricane Irene, these folks have persevered.
When we visited they were making a chuppah for a wedding in June; douglas fir with carefully sculpted rosette detail. Master carver and fellow Guild Member Chip Ogg has this market cornered as part of the ShackletonThomas team. Marty (the unofficial ‘chair professor)’ had a set of Sophia’s in process. And Jim, 21 years with the company, was at work on a custom headboard crafted from a client’s cherry wood, felled on their property and locally milled. When we asked Jim if there was a single distinguishing quality about the Shackleton style, he didn’t even pause. “Dovetails” was his response. Ultra-thin, beautifully cut, sliding dovetails. “Our pieces will last forever,” and he returned to his work.
“We employ an incredible team of craftspeople, trained from apprentice to master during their time with us,” Charlie explained. You’ll find displays of those benchmarks as you wind your way up from the showroom. At their three year anniversary, the craftsmen carve a wooden spoon. They are an apprentice.
At year seven, it’s a bowl. And they have become a master. “And each craftsperson’s personality gives each product a unique character. This is what breathes the life and soul into our pieces.”
If the furniture maker is not designing or working with clients, he’s gardening, hiking, or traveling. But chances are you’ll find him in the workshop. Charlie tells us that the work and products are an investment of sorts in a certain kind of lifestyle. “For me personally, I love working with customers to design a piece of furniture they love, learning about them, their lives, and then making a piece to their satisfaction.” A valuable, meaningful relationship is borne in the process.
And so in the face of mechanization, where speed is prized over quality, ShackletonThomas has remained true to its mission. “We are one of the few remaining companies of our size in the United States that still manufactures products one at a time using extensive handwork,” Charlie says. He quotes their tagline, fine art for living.
Charlie has a member profile on our site and you can explore his furniture there. Or you can visit the Mill at 102 Mill Road in Bridgewater. Open daily, except for major holidays.
Thanks for supporting the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers, our thirty members and a time honored tradition of handcrafted excellence.