Light. Detailed. Unflashy. Master furniture maker Josh Metcalf describes his work like this, plain and simple. Yet, there’s something larger than life about it, and him. And the little pocket of Pomfret where we trekked to visit his shop.
This is Metcalf’s sixth or seventh studio, constructed twelve years ago on the property next to his farmhouse, 75 feet door to door. A little blue stove hustled cheerfully while we talked, general topics at first, slow food and slow furniture, the neighborhood, then marketing and the (loathsome) subject of self-promotion. Josh is clearly a reluctant marketer who’s work has spoken for itself these thirty plus years…
His Story. Metcalf grew up nearby, in Woodstock, in a family of many artists. “I went off to boarding school at the age of 13, so home and domesticity was always something I longed for. I think that reinforced a sense in me that a good life was one that integrated home and work.” From his workshop, one can see his wife’s terraced gardens to the south, chickens west, farmhouse east, and a whole lot of meadow and wood. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in having a unity of place and purpose in livelihood and family life,” he told us. “I’ve always tried to make a life for myself in which what I did for pleasure was the same as what I did to make a living.”
The craftsman tells us he took up furniture making in ’73. Call it the road less traveled, or rebelliousness, he graduated from Penn with a science degree. “I studied biology in college, and loved it. I enjoyed the environment and its accoutrements; test tubes, Bunsen burners, dissection tools. But at the same time I am a really domestic person. Breaking Bad aside, it’s hard to imagine a chem lab at home.” Metcalf nodded as if to gesture toward the homestead spread, “I had a summer job working with leather, the first time in my life I’d ever worked with my hands, and I found it rather satisfying. I liked the precision and the aesthetic aspect, which was missing in science. “
Couple that with a self-described reverence for antiques; English greats like Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite. He told us he’d grown up in the presence of fine antiques in his family home. And that he’d been deeply impressed by a collection belonging to his first wife’s aunt and uncle who had lived in China between the two world wars. When the couple fled to the US to escape the communist revolution, they brought with them an extensive collection of Chinese and English period pieces; furniture Metcalf calls tranquil and timeless. “I aspire to make things that create for their owners that very same feeling: a sense of timeless calm, of individual expression, and artistic integrity that combines solid construction and graceful design.”
“Most of what I know is self-taught, or the result of observation. When I started, it was almost impossible to find work even for a contractor, so I just threw my hat over the fence to see where it took me. I bought a book and some equipment to build a table and chairs for a friend, and I’ve never had a job since!”
Most of Metcalf’s work is commissioned, with a heavy focus on handwork and detail. And like Tim Clark, he’s a collector. Many of his everyday hand tools are actually antique, some by a couple of centuries, all still going strong.
Metcalf’s clients are repeat customers, some to the tune of six or seven projects and each one, a meaningful discourse. One client, a fortune 500 CFO many times over, traveled once to Vermont to work with the craftsman in his shop. When asked about his most memorable work, Josh chose the one pictured below. A desk inside an eight foot tall cabinet. Doors paneled with matching redwood burls 2’ wide and 7’ tall. “The inside was walnut and self-cast bronze hardware, and the upper section inside surrounded a window so that when you opened it up your were looking outside.” Now you know what we mean…
“I certainly don’t tend to make reproductions, but like many furniture makers around I enjoy blending the old and the new.” We looked over his shoulder as he flipped through a portfolio, pointing out other exemplary pieces, showing us decorative elements to soften a piece, helping it blend with traditional styles that a client already owned. The experience of this particular shop (and this particular maker) gets back to that ‘larger than life’ thing. Perhaps it’s too perfect, too quintessential. It can’t possibly be real. But here we are. And here he is, in the flesh. In the wood. We think, absolutely, Peter Miller would love this guy.